Friday Briefing: Transformation of the Sondheim Theatre and intercontinental cast mates
A new life for the Queen's Theatre, now the Sondheim Theatre
Ahead of last night's re-opening of Les Miserables at the newly-redubbed Sondheim Theatre (formerly the Queen's), theatre owner and producer Cameron Mackintosh took members of the press on a quick hurtle around the theatre, from the upper circle to the stalls, accompanied by his long-serving archivist Rosie Runciman who had a collection of "before" photos to hand to remind us what it used to look like.
He last did this when Hamilton re-opened the Victoria Palace in 2017, and it was wonderful to see his palpable enthusiasm for the building and bringing it back to its former glory, completing a project which has now seen every single one of the theatres in his portfolio undergo extensive restorations. From the moment he took on the ownership of the Prince Edward Theatre, which he refurbished lavishly in 1992, he has made it his personal mission to make his theatres the most sought-after and glamorous theatrical addresses in the West End.
It comes, of course, at a cost: it was reported that last year's profits for Delfont Mackintosh Ltd, the operating company of his theatre empire, were down by 57%, falling from £12m to £5m on the previous year across the group, despite turnover increasing 14% to £50m. This was attributed to "the cost of extensive restoration work at the Victoria Palace", on which more than £60m was spent, instead of the originally projected £35m.
But then, as he once told me in an interview, the money that was invested in the Prince Edward has "come back time and time again and paid itself back, so I hope that in my lifetime this money will come back, too... I know that whatever happens, I will leave for my foundation and indeed the enjoyment of future theatregoers, buildings that are in a much better state than when I got them."
True enough. It may turn out to be his most lasting legacy; but it is also a source of great personal pride and enjoyment for him, too. As he also told me, "I get an enormous amount of pleasure out of doing the theatres up, helping to design the carpet and choose the wallpaper. I love old buildings – my office and my homes are all classic buildings, so to have these beautiful buildings you could never afford to build now is lovely. But they’re also a big responsibility – they’re all a hundred years old, and you know that if you left your own home for a hundred years, you'd soon be cold, miserable and wet, so why should it be any different for them?"
Indeed. His amazing example has also led other theatre owners to follow his example, even if they have less personal wealth than he has, from Nimax (whose co-owner Nica Burns once told me of personally applying a new lick of paint to the foyers in the Duchess Theatre) to Andrew Lloyd Webber, who is currently spending some £45m to refurbish the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, before it reopens late this summer with the British premiere of the stage version of Disney's Frozen. As Lloyd Webber commented, "The auditorium will be completely reconfigured into a comfortable and more intimate space. Producers will have the choice of a traditional proscenium arch or in-the-round configuration. We’re reducing the audience capacity by 200 to create wider seats, more legroom and better sight lines. The auditorium will also be reshaped to create a tighter curve, bringing the performer and audience closer together."
There will also be 20 new ladies toilet cubicles added to make a new total of 55. A similar emphasis on increasing ladies loos has occurred at the Sondheim - though it's been matched by a significant reduction in provisions for men, who in the large stalls area have just one toilet now on auditorium left with only a handful of urinals and cubicles.
But it is also the enormous attention to detail that he proudly brings to the work, undertaken - as have all his theatre refurbishments - with the help of veteran interior decorator Clare Ferraby, who is now in her 80s and despite suffering two strokes, now counts the restoration of the Sondheim as the 103rd building she has worked on. As Mackintosh told The Stage, who named her their Unsung Hero in their annual theatre awards in 2018, of her work on the Victoria Palace, "Indomitably, cane in hand, she managed to create an extraordinary colourful and exhilarating temple of theatrical magic and light that will certainly last for another hundred years. The Victoria Palace is arguably her finest achievement and we should all sing from the rafters a hymn of praise and thanks for what she’s done for the British theatre."
He was singing them again yesterday as he showed off her latest work, particularly in the theatre bars on each level of the theatre (in the dress circle bar there's a tribute to the studio theatre that was originally intended to be made out of the Ambassadors Theatre when it was scheduled to be re-named the Sondheim). She is that rare person who is apparently able to stand up to him: as she told The Stage, "When I feel strongly about something I will say so, and I don’t take no for an answer, even from Cameron." She proves it with his anecdote about the Victoria Palace: "He wanted velvet for the curtains in the new boxes at the rear of the Victoria Palace stalls. I said I wanted to use organza because it gives off a shimmer and hangs better. So we’ve got organza. It’s the Yorkshire in me."
Unfortunately, Stephen Sondheim was not able to be present for a lunchtime event that had been scheduled to mark the renaming of the theatre on Tuesday. In a statement, Mackintosh commented, "Stephen Sondheim suffered a fall a few days ago at his Connecticut home where he tore a ligament which has seriously compromised his immediate mobility... It is likely to be a few months before Stephen will be fit enough to travel to England again to celebrate the new theatre bearing his name." And Sondheim, in turn, said, "I would do nearly anything for Cameron. But to stand side by side with him on a West End stage holding onto a stroller is not something I will let him enjoy teasing me about. From the early reports of friends and the mouth-watering photos I have seen, Les Miz will have to run another 35 years for him to break even on what he has spent creating such an extravagantly beautiful new theatre out of an old building. As I recover from my tumble, I'm impatient to throw away my cane, grab my hat and head across the Pond as soon as I can to see on which cherub Cameron has tattooed my initials. I am, to put it mildly, chuffed to have my name on a theatre in the West End I have loved visiting ever since my first trip to London almost seventy years ago."
You can read my review of the re-opening of Les Miserables at the Sondheim Theatre, but in the building, a beautiful painted portrait of Sondheim in the stalls bar will have to suffice. Sondheim's own connection to this theatre is that it is where Passion received its London premiere in 1996, with a cast led by Michael Ball and Maria Friedman.
As for Mackintosh himself, it was also a theatre where one of his earliest original musicals The Card played briefly in 1973, choreographed by the late Gillian Lynne (who just eighteen months ago had her own West End theatre named after her, the former New London Theatre. A week before she died, aged 92; she became the first non-royal woman to have a theatre named after her in the West End).
A fourth leading lady for Waitress
Last weekend there was an extraordinary run of bad luck at the Adelphi Theatre, where according to a press release issued on Monday, "All 3 of the Waitress company who play the role of Jenna (Lucie Jones and understudies Olivia Moore and Sarah O’Connor) were struck down ill. It was too late to do anything about the matinee and sadly the producers had to take the difficult decision to cancel the show altogether. It was decided that the evening show would not be possible either... The company worked hard in the afternoon to put together a presentation of songs from the show that the remaining company members could perform to audiences members who turned up... The company performed, I Didn’t Plan It, When He Sees Me, Never Getting Rid and the finale version of Opening Up. It was an incredibly warm reaction from those people who stayed, and David Hunter introduced it all very humorously and warmly."
And to enable the show to go on, as scheduled, from Monday, the producers made fast plans to fly in Desi Oakley, who has played the role of Jenna in the US tour of the show, to take over. She duly did; and a friend of mine who read my tweet of this account took himself to the Adelphi to make sure he caught her.
He reported back, "And thank goodness I’ve seen this. She is phenomenal. I’ve seen five Jennas now (in 6 performances) and she’s my favourite. It’s not just the voice. Desi is a terrific actress. So thank goodness you keep me in the loop."