Sondheim Forms Part of New £20m Avenue ComplexDate: 25 June 2003
At a press conference held this morning at London's Prince of Wales Theatre (See also Today's Other News, impresario Cameron Mackintosh fully unveiled his £35 million plans to refurbish his seven West End theatres and to build a new one, the Sondheim (See News, 22 Apr & 10 Jan 2003, Features, 27 Jan 2003).
The most ambitious element of the five-year West End refurbishment programme - which Mackintosh himself described as the "most exciting" - the Sondheim Theatre will sit in the centre of a new Shaftesbury Avenue theatre complex. The block bookended by the existing Gielgud and Queen's Theatres will be completely redeveloped, with the three theatres sharing a communal foyer as well as bars and other facilities on all levels.
Carved out of space currently occupied by offices above the Queen's Theatre, the Sondheim (model from today's event pictured) will be a flexible 500-seat studio geared to accommodate extended runs of musical and plays transferring from the likes of the Almeida, Donmar and NT Cottesloe. It will be the first new theatre built on Shaftesbury Avenue and will be named after American composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, many of whose shows have thrived in similar small-scale venues.
Work on the Shaftesbury Avenue complex - alone estimated to cost some £20 million - will begin in 2006. As part of the renovations, capacity in the Queen's will increase from 990 seats over three levels to 1,213 over two levels, making it a prime venue for larger musicals.
At the Prince of Wales, seats have already been ripped out in preparation for its £7 million refurbishment, which begins in September. Mackintosh confirmed that the theatre would reopen in spring/summer 2004 with the transfer from his Prince Edward (already renovated to the tune of £4 million) of Abba musical blockbuster Mamma Mia! (See News, 16 Jun 2003), the success of which, he said, enabled him to afford his present undertakings.
A £1.7 million refurbishment of the Strand Theatre and then more minor upgrades to the Wyndhams and Albery playhouses, currently managed by the Ambassador Theatre Group, will then follow before the Shaftesbury Avenue project gets underway.
In a statement commenting on the last, Stephen Sondheim said: "The news that the West End is at last getting a theatre that can take transfers of productions from Britain's subsidised studio playhouses for extended runs is thrilling indeed for British writers and audiences. The fact that Cameron has seen fit to attach my name to it is thrilling for me. We have a lot of such theatres in New York and the plays they house are the lifeblood of new American playwriting. Let's hope that this playhouse is the first of many such venues in London."
Nick Thompson from RHWL architects, who are undertaking the work, also hailed the Sondheim and the Shaftesbury Avenue complex, a whole "block that is just theatre" and in the "heart of theatreland", saying: "I think that is going to be Cameron's great inheritance."
Mackintosh himself said he hoped the Sondheim would become "a very useful and completely different addition to the fabric of London theatre". Explaining why he felt compelled to spend so much on his theatres, many of them listed buildings built at the turn of the 20th century, he said: "I want to see them last for another 100 years. That's my dream, that what we will do to reinvent them for the 21st century will give them a lease of life for another 100 years."
- by Terri Paddock
SEE ALSO: "Mackintosh Vows to Lower Costs, Clean Up Streets" (News, 25 Jun 2003)