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Really Useful Group maps out split

Webber company planning restructure

London — In the midst of ongoing industry whispers about the future of Andrew Lloyd Webber and his 35-year-old Really Useful Group, the org is laying the groundwork for a 2013 split that will divide the company and its 70-strong staff into two divisions, both entirely owned by Lloyd Webber.

Really Useful chair Mark Wordsworth tells Variety that one company will manage and program the seven West End theaters owned or co-owned by Lloyd Webber, while the second will oversee “brand Lloyd Webber,” producing the composer’s musicals and controlling the rights to his popular body of work. Restructuring won’t take place until 2013 due to employment and tax issues.

The company unveils the plan just as questions about the future of Really Useful have gained traction in the wake of last week’s news of the early shuttering of the West End production of “Love Never Dies,” Lloyd Webber’s much-vaunted sequel to the seemingly unstoppable “The Phantom of the Opera.” Word of the August closing leaked out unsupported by any press statement from the company.

That only added to a list of woes. Last year’s deal to sell four of Really Useful’s West End theaters to Michael Grade and Michael Linnit collapsed, and soon thereafter came the announcement that Andre Ptaszynski would be stepping down as the company’s chief exec at the end of June. Further, although London box office figures are never published, insiders indicate that Lloyd Webber’s current production of “The Wizard of Oz,” cast via a primetime-TV reality show, is underperforming at the 2,255-seat London Palladium.

(RUG counters this with its own internal figures that claim the show is taking in at least £550,000, or $880,000, per week and is on track to recoup by Christmas. That box office figure is, however, notably less than the SRO box-office for the identical post-opening period of Lloyd Webber’s similarly TV-cast production of “The Sound of Music” at the same address in 2006-7.)

Small wonder, then, that questions are being asked. Yet Wordsworth roundly refutes the analysis that the company’s future is fueled by a past now low on gas.

He concedes that no Really Useful production is slated for London until the “Cats” revival with Cameron Mackintosh in 2013. “But five top-grade productions in one city in a five-year period — ‘Evita,’ ‘The Sound of Music,’ ‘Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,’ ‘Love Never Dies’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ three of which were cast via TV shows — is a heavy creative output for any company,” he says.

Counterbalancing the all-quiet on the West End front, he points to future worldwide productions.

“The Australian ‘Love Never Dies’ is very successful, so we’re deciding where that might go and how we develop it. Michael Grandage’s production of ‘Evita’ is on Broadway in 2012, and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ will go at some point.”

He and Lloyd Webber are also enthusiastic about Des McAnuff’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Stratford Festival in Ontario: “We’re looking for Broadway slots and also talking about an arena tour,” Wordsworth says.

And there’s a Mandarin production of “Cats” opening next year in a prestigious new opera house in Guangzhou, China.

The structural change is an attempt to better manage such upcoming activity.

“RUG exists to support Andrew in all his creative activities: not just his new productions and the seven theaters but to manage his copyrights, royalties, stock and amateur rights,” Wordsworth says, adding that over the past five years, rights management has taken a back seat to the London productions.

Once the group dissolves into two companies, one will concern itself with theater ownership and programming. That indicates a change of heart regarding the earlier attempt to sell off the venues.

According to Wordsworth, when last year’s deal fell through, the company was approached by “everyone else on the planet” to buy the theaters.

But having recovered from prostate cancer, Lloyd Webber is now intent upon developing the properties himself, not least because three of them — Her Majesty’s, New London and Cambridge — have their futures settled with, respectively, long-running hits “Phantom,” “War Horse” and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s incoming critical and audience smash “Matilda.” No longer liabilities, they’re now looking like prime assets.

The company’s rights arm will be akin to the Gotham-based Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization (sold in 2009 to Imagem Music Group), which controls the rights to the legendary canon of the duo (“The Sound of Music,” “South Pacific”).

“It will take forward Andrew’s new ideas, anything from shows being cast by TV in the U.S. through stadium tours, online video and games with Andrew’s content. It will also beef up the stock and amateur side and be more proactive.”

Even Ptasynski’s departure is explained by the fact that the group will no longer exist as such. Besides working as an independent producer, he remains with Really Useful to manage and program the theaters.

As a composer, Lloyd Webber’s last major profit-maker was “Phantom” a quarter of a century ago. His subsequent offerings “Sunset Boulevard,” “Whistle Down the Wind,” “The Beautiful Game,” “The Woman in White” and (so far) “Love Never Dies” have failed to make it into the black.

But if his recent writing has disappointed financially, the business — what Wordsworth terms “brand Lloyd Webber” — may be strong enough to silence the naysayers.

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