The Guardian view on the West End: a perilous business | Editorial

Cinderella will not, after all, be going to the ball. The big new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, with its book by Emerald Fennell, has been cancelled, less than a year into its run. The cast and crew were told the news in person over the weekend, but a similar courtesy was not accorded to all the actors due to take over roles, some of whom found out that they faced sudden unemployment by social media, or via text messages from concerned friends, while notes to their agents sat unread over the bank holiday weekend. It was shabby, and it should have been done better. It is a cruel irony that they were treated thus after the pandemic cast such clear light on the fragility of the livelihoods of self-employed creative workers.

Cinderella is a clear reminder of the perils of mounting a West End show. The risks would be unacceptably high to businesses operating in most other fields; investors are wise to be lovers of the art form rather than hard-nosed lovers of the bottom line. There is a long and inglorious history of West End flops that looked viable enough on paper: Lord of the Rings, in 2007, cost £ 25m and closed after a year; the Spice Girls jukebox musical, Viva Forever, which had a script by Jennifer Saunders and was produced by Mamma Mia! ‘s Judie Craymer, lasted only six months.

The costs of putting on a show are enormous, and the returns slow and uncertain. Recouping the investment is predicated on box-office sales – themselves dependent on the fickle, intangible and largely unpredictable magic of artistic alchemy, and whether a show just happens to catch the public mood.

Lord Lloyd-Webber led the charge to refill West End theaters last summer. Owning such venues, as he does through his company LW Theatres, makes sense if you are able to fill them, especially with your own work (finding slots in big West End houses is one of the perennial challenges for producers mounting these big, expensive shows ). But, empty during the pandemic, his seven stages were costing £ 1m a week, he told the Guardian last year. Despite his gung-ho attitude to getting shows back on – perhaps unwise given the projected length and depth of the pandemic – the premiere of Cinderella was delayed, derailed by last summer’s “pingdemic”. After it finally opened to excellent reviews in late August, Britain was already slipping towards another sharp rise in cases and then the emergence of the Omicron variant, which closed theaters down again. It has been a rough ride.

The closure of Cinderella – it may fare better on Broadway, where it is headed – is also a reminder of the long tail of Covid, which may have created the most difficult and uncertain period for the performing arts since the 1665 plague shut London’s playhouses. Some hoped that the economic disruption would precipitate more fairness and equality in the way cultural workers are employed. Like many hopes of change to come out of the pandemic, that seems overly optimistic. But the least producers could do is treat their employees with courtesy.

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