$58 mil to West end mend

New playhouse will be named for Sondheim

This article was corrected on June 27, 2003.

LONDON — The West End is poised for a major physical makeover, following Wednesday’s announcement that Cameron Mackintosh will invest £35 million ($58.2 million) to refurbish seven existing theaters and build an eighth.

The redevelopment will affect roughly 25% of London’s commercial theater landscape.

The new playhouse will be named for Stephen Sondheim, now 73, whose work Mackintosh has produced on both sides of the Atlantic — including “Follies” in London and “Putting It Together” on Broadway.

A flexible 500-seater, the Sondheim Theater will sit on top of the Queen’s Theater and be cantilevered across to the neighboring Gielgud Theater. Extensive work to the Queen’s auditorium below is part of a $32 million overhaul of a crucial section of Shaftesbury Avenue, central London’s main theatrical artery.

That project is expected to begin early in 2006, with the Sondheim open for business by the end of 2007.

Why Sondheim? Because, said Mackintosh, “Most of Steve’s work has thrived in the sort of space we’re trying to build” — a black box that can take commercial transfers from such not-for-profit venues as the Donmar Warehouse, the Almeida and the National Theater’s comparable, if smaller, Cottesloe auditorium.

Making Sondheim the venue’s namesake “gives out a very particular signal,” Mackintosh added. In London, “A lot of Sondheim hasn’t worked in proscenium theaters but has been brilliantly acclaimed in places like the Donmar and the Cottesloe.”

Indeed, the Donmar opens “Pacific Overtures,” the 251-seater’s fifth Sondheim production, on Monday.

Long a leading impresario, Mackintosh began making his influence felt as theater landlord and developer some time ago. In 1992 came the $5 million refurbishment of the Prince Edward Theater, currently home to “Mamma Mia!” and earmarked for an eventual stand of Baz Luhrmann’s “La Boheme.”

Wales redo this summer

Work is due to begin this summer on an $11.6 million revamp of another Mackintosh-owned musical house, the Prince of Wales, where Wednesday’s lunchtime launch was held. That theater, most recently home to local flop “Cliff, the Musical,” is expected to reopen in May with the transfer from the Prince Edward of “Mamma Mia!”

“What we can’t do is change the economics of the theater,” said Mackintosh, who has smaller-scale plans for the Strand, Albery and Wyndham’s, three other theaters in his property portfolio.

But what the producer can do, he said, “is reinvent (these theaters) for the 21st century, (to) give them another lease of life.”

Architects are the RHWL partnership, a Covent Garden-based firm that has worked on more than 150 auditoria in 80 projects worldwide.

Mackintosh’s scheme is being privately funded from the hundreds of million of pounds the producer has made over the decades from the so-called musical Big Four — the global hits “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon.”

Mackintosh has recently joined forces with Disney to bring the Oscar-winning film “Mary Poppins” to the West End, opening next year.

Cost effective?

The producer won praise within the industry for undertaking a large-scale vision for London theater that one colleague noted, requesting anonymity, “can’t be justified commercially.”

On the other hand, the outlay is a fraction of the coin that has been spent in London’s subsidized sector on, say, the Royal Opera House. The Royal Court Theater in Chelsea by itself cost more than $40 million to rebuild, though that project demanded excavation work that the Mackintosh scheme does not.

Explaining the cost effectiveness of the venture, Nick Allott, Mackintosh’s managing director, told Daily Variety that his boss “lives and breathes the whole building process. Cameron has done a lot on his own personally” to his homes in Scotland and Malta.

So by now, said Allott, “we should all know how much the boxes of screws cost.”

Society of London Theater prexy Stephen Waley-Cohen said: “We’re all trying to bring the theater into the 21st century. Unfortunately, we don’t all have Cameron’s resources, so I admire very much what he is doing.”

Sacha Brooks, co-producer of the hit play “The Graduate” that ran at the Gielgud Theater for a week shy of two years, called Mackintosh’s scheme “a turning point.”

“If the West End both as a business and an area can be saved,” Brooks said, “the fight back starts today.”

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