‘Rings’ around a theater

Wanted: A big London theater. How big? Very. Large enough to house the whole of Middle-Earth.

Undeterred by “mixed” reviews for its Tolkien tuner, the British production team behind mammoth “The Lord of the Rings” was all set to take up residence in 2007 at London’s giant Dominion Theater when who should they run up against but Queen. No, not the Queen but the rock band, whose jukebox musical “We Will Rock You” had been scheduled to close in October. But an announcement to that effect produced a bookings surge for a show that celebrated its fifth anniversary on Thursday. It is now booking through April 2007, leaving “LOTR” homeless.

The latter’s producer, Kevin Wallace, explains the problem, having already cased London’s largest stages: “It won’t fit at the Palladium, the Apollo Victoria stage is not deep enough and, with ‘The Lion King’ at the Lyceum, that isn’t going to come free soon. That leaves Drury Lane.”

The last of those is the prime piece of real estate in Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s theater portfolio. And the landlord himself saw the show in Toronto at the beginning of May. The only trouble is, “The Producers” is playing the Drury Lane for the forseeable future. If Lloyd Webber replaces it with “LOTR,” where will “The Producers” go?

According to rumor, to the Piccadilly. That’s currently home to “Guys and Dolls,” whose producer Howard Panter (his Ambassador Theater Group owns the building) is having none of it. “The show recouped in a record-breaking 17 weeks. It still has a substantial advance, and it has made an operating profit in every week of its run. We plan to stay here as long as possible.”

“Guys and Dolls” also will tour the U.K. beginning in September. “We’re of the view that one production feeds the other: It is beneficial to both by maintaining momentum and profile.” He also firms up the rumor that the production is Broadway-bound.

“The appetite from New York theater owners is there, and we’re in discussion with two major stars, but it’s like a jigsaw: We’re all dependent on fitting in with director Michael Grandage‘s dates and he’s very busy.”

Meanwhile, back in London, Panter concedes that predicting bookings is an imprecise science. A revival like “Guys and Dolls” may prove vulnerable, with a blizzard of new-to-London blockbusters like “Wicked,” “Monty Python’s Spamalot” and “Dirty Dancing” in the wings.

That will be music to the ears of Wallace, who is busy shaving the running time of his unwieldy Tolkien show. Overtime initially was beefing up its running costs, which are now around C$950,000 ($864,000) per week.

“We’ve saved $43,500 by trimming it down to three hours, 20 minutes in Toronto,” says Wallace. “We’ve removed a very large piece of physical production that necessitated a second interval of 13 minutes — that’s now an interlude of three minutes — so act two now ends on an emotional high that has a completely different effect: It’s actor-dependent.”

London will be even shorter. “It’s clear we can trim out some of the subplot without affecting the primary story,” he explains. “In fact, you heighten its intensity.”

If a house can be found, the streamlined production is scheduled for a June 2007 opening.

This week also saw the first casualty of the London musicals bonanza: the premature demise of “Movin’ Out,” which will have played just eight weeks of its planned 16-week engagement at the vast — and vastly unatmospheric — Apollo Victoria, a converted cinema, seating around 2,300. That’s 1,000 more seats than the Richard Rodgers Theater where “Movin’ Out” played on Broadway.

Other possible reasons the Broadway smash never caught fire here include the oddly low profile of its composer, Billy Joel, who is not only less of an icon in the U.K. but also may have cannibalized business by announcing concert gigs himself here later this year.

Then there was the absence of reviews by theater critics. Most London papers took one look at Twyla Tharp‘s name and sent dance critics instead, who are more used to analyzing footwork than commercial musicals. Their tour of duty did not extend, a week later, to the similarly terpischorean but vastly inferior “Footloose.” Had they been privy to that, words might have been eaten.

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