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Whither the Musical?

In years to come, the end of the 20th century may be seen as a turning point for the West End musical. London's worst-kept secret is that most of the dinosaur shows, those running for five, 10, 15 years and more, are facing extinction. Now that Sir Cameron Mackintosh has bowed to the inevitable and announced the Oct. 30 closure of Miss Saigon after 10 years at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, it is thought that other producers will follow his lead and take off age-old musicals no longer pulling in the crowds.

Grease, now in its seventh year in the West End, will close Sept. 4. The show opened at the Dominion, then moved to the Cambridge in 1996 to make way for Beauty and the Beast, which is itself closing at the end of the year after playing in recent months to half-empty houses and worse. The Disney spectacle was expected to enjoy a much longer run. Similarly, Doctor Dolittle closed at the Apollo, Hammersmith, earlier than anticipated. Few theatre pundits would now put money on the future of The Lion King, which debuts Oct. 19, at the Lyceum. A new musical version of the movie The Witches of Eastwick, which opens next March at Drury Lane, is also an unknown quantity.

Meanwhile, "tribute" shows appear to be losing none of their appeal. Although the format is not infallible, most of these low-budget concerts, packed with hummable old hits much loved by middle-aged audiences who can't cope with the shock of the new, recoup their production costs. The model is Buddy, now at the Strand, which has the oldest swingers in town dancing in the aisles after a 10-year run. Upcoming are Four Steps to Heaven, spotlighting Eddie Cochran's music, which opens July 27, at the Piccadilly; Oh! What a Night, a disco compilation starring Kid Creole, which moves to the Apollo, Hammersmith, Aug. 5, after seasons in Blackpool and Manchester; and Great Balls of Fire, the Jerry Lee Lewis story, which follows Grease into the Cambridge, Oct. 6. Producers who overhear "They don't write 'em like that any more" in theatre lobbies know they're on to a winner.

Royal Opera House out of Debt

Things have been very quiet recently at the Royal Opera House, which only last year seemed to be poised on the brink of financial ruin. The reason, according to Michael Kaiser, the trouble-shooter brought over from the U.S. nine months ago to clean up the House's catastrophic management crisis, is that there are no more newsworthy disasters to report. Kaiser, who has fired more than 300 staff and sold off virtually everything not nailed down, announced June 23 that the House will reopen as planned in December with a clean balance sheet. Moreover, fund-raising is estimated to have provided £25 million for productions in the reconstructed building. "We will not be going back for more money to the Arts Council," Kaiser promised the Daily Telegraph. This news must have been received with some relief by Peter Hewitt, chief executive of the Arts Council of England, which contributed more than £78 million towards the rebuilding of the venerable Opera House. "I think the Royal Opera House will be a triumph," the charitable Hewitt told the honorary chaplains who are members of the Actors' Church Union at the Royal Festival Hall. "All those people who have been critical will be claiming credit."

Struggling Writers

Many of the U.K.'s up-and-coming young playwrights seem to be finding it difficult to maintain their early promise. Take for example Jonathan Harvey, whose first major play, Beautiful Thing, transferred from the Fringe to the West End, was filmed, and was later seen in New York. What happened to him? He's now writing "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme," a TV sitcom. His latest play, Hushabye Mountain, toured for a long time before creeping into the Hampstead theatre in north London. This time there were no offers from West End or movie producers. Mark Ravenhill, whose Shopping and Fucking took the West End by storm only two years ago, appears to be in even direr straits. His next play, Handbag, reached only the outskirts of London, and now his latest work, Some Explicit Polaroids, has been withdrawn from this year's Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The reasons are unclear, although it is rumored that the script was not ready for production. Many people had high hopes for the second play from Anglo-Pakistani actor Ayub Khan-Din. His first, East Is East, was a huge success, also filmed, also seen in New York. But hopes were dashed when Last Dance at Dum Dum opened at the Ambassador's, July 14. The dreary story of Indians and expatriate Brits eking out their twilight years in the strife-torn India of the 1980s had precious little to say about the situation and also seemed fearfully under rehearsed. The play's chief point of interest is that it features what must be the oldest cast seen in London since 70, Girls, 70.

On a brighter note, High Life, by Canadian writer Lee MacDougall, which played to packed houses at the Bush in West London during June and July, is the best play I have seen this year. Although it really needed an American cast to do full justice to MacDougall's bleakly funny tale of four morphine addicts who plan a harebrained bank robbery, the British cast, particularly former stand-up comic Nigel Planer, worked very hard to develop MacDougall's already rich characters, and, by all accounts, this was a more successful production than Primary Stages' Off-Broadway earlier this year. The audience loved it. The play cries out for a transfer to a small West End theatre, but I wonder whether anyone will take the risk. I found it astonishing that also in the cast was Paul Barber, who was one of the stars of The Full Monty, the most successful British film of all time. Since that international hit, he's done very little. He worked at the Bush for £200 a week. Only in Britain.

Over Here

A new British musical, Between Love and Passion, is the latest to attempt to boost its box office appeal by advertising that it's en route for Off-Broadway. But according to an insider at the New End theatre in Hampstead, north London, where the show plays until Aug. 15, no such trip is confirmed.... Stephen Message's play Scraps, seen recently at the Etcetera theatre in Camden Town, north London, moves to the Santa Monica Playhouse, Los Angeles, in September...Gerard Alessandrini's Forbidden Broadway, first seen at the little Jermyn Street theatre earlier this year, has transferred to the West End. It opened at the Albery, July 29.... The Bridewell theatre's latest musical rediscovery is the Gershwins' Of Thee I Sing. The show, first seen on Broadway in 1931, began its London premiere, Aug. 4.... Chita Rivera takes over the role of Roxie Hart in Chicago at the Adelphi, Aug. 16.... Fosse will open at the Prince of Wales next February.

Finally

What a difference a day makes. On May 28, the London newspaper the Evening Standard reported on an apparently substandard preview of Martin Sherman's play Rose, at the Royal National Theatre. Star of the one-woman piece, Olympia Dukakis, took a succession of prompts, the unnamed scribe maintained, then announced, "I'm just going to check something," and left the stage for a quarter of an hour, after which a stage manager told the audience, "Olympia just needed a moment to get back into character." The implication of the story was that the paying public deserves better than this. But on June 25, the paper's theatre critic gave Dukakis' two-and-a-half-hour monologue a glowing review, calling it "one of the greatest feats of theatrical stamina and memory in modern times." That's what previews are for....q

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