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‘Blonde’ ambition

LONDON — “Dirty Blonde,” actress-writer Claudia Shear‘s paean to Mae West and the effect on ordinary people of such legends, is angling for an early June opening on the West End, more than four years after director James Lapine‘s staging hit Broadway, where its entire cast was Tony-nommed. In July 2002, Shear brought the play to the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, but the imminent West End stand — at a theater still to be decided — would mark her London stage debut.

The £300,000 ($545,000) production is arriving courtesy of James Hammerstein Prods., a legit entity now run by the late director/producer’s widow, Dena, in association with Darren Bagert and Nick Salmon‘s Act Prods. The London engagement would follow the play’s current gig at California’s Pasadena Playhouse, which ends next month in order to allow Shear to get married in Musselburgh, Scotland, on May 1. (That Shear’s husband is British surely adds to the appeal of a summer in Blighty.)

Dena Hammerstein was on the Tony nominating committee when she first saw “Blonde,” though the producer has had nothing to do with it professionally until now. “It’s a wonderful play about relationships and about what an icon can do in your life: the effect of an icon liberating someone to be freer than they were before.”

But what about the long gap between Broadway and London? “I still feel there’s nothing in the play that could possibly ever date,” Hammerstein told Variety March 18.

Shear’s play joins upcoming West End revivals of “Oleanna” and “The Shape of Things” and the local bow of David Lindsay-Abaire‘s “Fuddy Meers” in an unusually busy time in London for contempo American drama.

FIGURE IT OUT

The numbers game

Revenue was up but attendance was down for the London theater in 2003, according to figures from trade org the Society of London Theater. While 2002 clocked a record year for theater attendance of more than 12 million visitors, the numbers slipped back by nearly 1.5% during 2003 to 11,887,835. (For SOLT’s purposes, statistics are culled from both the commercial theaters as well as such major grant-aided venues as the National Theater, Sadler’s Wells and the Royal Opera House.)

At the same time, the actual number of unsold seats rose by more than 500,000 to 6,468,959 — a figure nearly 800,000 shy of the 7 million-plus seats that went begging in 1999, according to SOLT.

Reason to despair? Hardly, which is why SOLT commercial manager Paul James can talk of “reasonably good figures” despite “the very tough times some of our members have had.” Total revenue was up 0.8% to a record total of £330,678,759, or nearly $600 million.

In addition, 2003 was something of an anomaly in not hosting a breakout musical smash, whereas fall 2004 boasts three such candidates almost back-to-back in “The Woman in White,” “The Producers” and “Mary Poppins.” That Disney-Mackintosh tuner in particular is somewhat coyly said to be doing “better than expected” at the box office, with nine months to go until opening.

MOVING ON

Hedley takes his leave

Having entered record books as the longest serving artistic director of any London theater, Philip Hedley, of the Theater Royal, Stratford East, is stepping down. Hedley, 66, has been at the helm for 25 years and says it’s time to move on. “I have been enormously happy in my job,” says Hedley, “but the last seven years have been really tough.” The theater’s Lottery-funded rebuild, skedded to take 15 months, took four years, and attendance faltered badly when the 464-seat playhouse reopened. “For some shows, we got only 50% of the audience we would have got before the closure.”

Still, Hedley can claim credit for, among many other shows, “Five Guys Named Moe,” the musical revue that ended up making £1 million for the East End venue, as well as the Mike Leigh play “A Great Big Shame,” which enjoyed an almost unique four-month rehearsal. Last year’s hip-hop foray into Shakespeare, “Da Boyz,” garnered international press, while “Funny Black Women on the Edge” prompted interest from HBO.

What next? Hedley talks of yearning to direct, perhaps Shaw. “After 25 years of being responsible for a building and shaping new work, the thought of going to someone else’s building to do a play where you’re not responsible for the structure is,” he laughs, “bliss.”

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