Mad May in London

Troubled month marred by theater accidents

LONDON — It’s been a strange month indeed for London legit. The planets must be aligning in a very particular fashion to have allowed the following to happen all within the space of a few weeks:

  • The collapse of a plaster rosette from the ceiling of the Theater Royal, Haymarket, 10 minutes before the end of a Saturday night perf of “When Harry Met Sally”;

  • A fire in the electrical grid of the National’s Lyttelton auditorium, delaying the opening-night perf of Alan Bennett’s “The History Boys” by more than an hour;

  • The appearance that same week of Olivier Award-winning actress Nichola McAuliffe as the interim theater critic of the Daily Mail. What did she think of “The History Boys”? She loved it, naturally — wouldn’t you if you were a performer who wants work at Nicholas Hytner’s National?

  • The announcement of a 30% drop in pre-tax profits at Cameron Mackintosh Ltd., from £9.1 million in 2001-02 to £6.4 million in 2002-03. Falloff was the result, per Mackintosh No. 2 Nick Allott, of “a process of consolidation as the big musicals in both London and New York have gradually closed.”

No sooner had at least one of these events happened before the plummeting plaster was being dismissed as “old news” by Nigel Everett, general manager at the Haymarket. “We really don’t want to revive the story anymore,” said Everett, who was disinclined even to correct the misinformation around the incident — namely, that a ceiling chandelier had fallen away. (Had that been the case, the casualties, which were minor, could have been severe.)

In fact, the decorative plasterwork around the chandelier is what came loose, raining plaster and dust on the public. Those in London who crave a falling chandelier should cross the road from the Haymarket to Her Majesty’s, where “The Phantom of the Opera” is still holding, uh, sway.

“When Harry Met Sally,” meanwhile, has extended its run until Sept. 4, with Molly Ringwald now in rehearsal to replace Alyson Hannigan as the distaff lead (Michael Landes will take over from Luke Perry). “We think it could just go on and on,” said Everett, who is at least in the enviable position of running a theater where people are showing up.

Elsewhere, the West End looks to be heading toward a difficult summer, with more shows than usual in quick succession getting slammed by critics.

Few were expecting much from “The Beautiful and the Damned,” the £3.7 million ($6.69 million) musical about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald that opened May 10 to general opprobrium: “At least half the title was right,” wrote Warwick Thompson in freebie paper Metro, awarding the show one star out of five.

But its backers sound determined to stay the course at the Lyric Theater — and why not, since the show comes financially tethered to a family, the Dobsons of Bristol, who recently sold a sign supply business for $180 million.

“There is no question of putting up a closing notice, no question,” said producer Laurence Myers, who said he knew along the musical would have to build an audience from nothing. As yet, “Beautiful” has yet to meet its break-even — around $190,000 — but Myers said he and the Dobsons are in it for the long (well, at least for the moment) haul.

“It’s not easy turning a show around or building a show, but it has done before,” said Myers, “and I really believe we are going to do it again.”

The same can’t be said of “Rattle of a Simple Man.” The revival of Charles Dyer’s 1962 play will close June 5 after barely a month at the Comedy Theater: Sources are pegging the bath taken by that one near the $700,000 mark.

Even some higher-profile shows are these days just hanging on: “Thoroughly Modern Millie” has been the tabloid darling of late, following speculation surrounding the pay cuts that have been sought from all three leads in order to prolong a show that has pretty much fallen off the radar since it opened at the Shaftesbury Theater last fall. With the cuts said not to be happening, the musical’s West End future is uncertain, though a tour is planned.

Speaking of uncertain, this has also been the month in which Barbara Cook — for the first time ever in her illustrious career — not only missed her own opening night but nearly half the skedded three-week run at the Gielgud of her New York smash, “Barbara Cook’s Broadway!” The culprit: a virulent vocal infection that sent her to the same throat specialist who treated Martine McCutcheon when the young British singer was having her much remarked-upon problems during the recent run of “My Fair Lady.”

“I’m surprised we have anybody out there,” a bemused Cook was remarking May 25, speaking the afternoon after an ecstatic (if by no means full) house had risen to its feet to applaud a show that, if anything, seems even more infinitely wise in London than it did in April at Lincoln Center. (It helps that British audiences don’t applaud until a number has finished, rather than intruding on the final notes with applause that, for someone of Cook’s artistry, seems disrespectful to her precise phrasing.)

“It’s like I’ve been living in limbo or purgatory of some kind,” Cook said of the enforced vocal rest that put paid to eight of her 19 shows. “One day, we did a soundcheck, and I thought, I don’t know why: I can’t make a sound.”

Well, by May 24, she certainly could. And when her full voice unexpectedly poured forth during “Wonderful Guy,” taking both her and pianist Wally Harper by pleasant surprise, Cook gave a smile as if to say, I’m back. And suddenly, a cloud-filled London theater landscape seemed flooded with sun.