The story about a potential dismantlement of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful theatre empire has taken a bizarre turn with the emergence of American hip-hop mogul Sean Combs (pictured), otherwise known as “Puff Daddy” and now “P. Diddy”, as a surprise bidder for West End venues such as the Duchess, Apollo, Garrick and Lyric.

After last week’s initial leak that Really Useful was in negotiations with a “mystery buyer” to offload the four playhouses (See The Goss, 17 Jan 2005), there was further speculation that Lloyd Webber would divest himself of all his business interests in order to concentrate on composing. That could mean the sell-off of the producing arm of his Really Useful Group, not least rights to hits like Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, as well as the remainder of his West End properties.

The seven other Really Useful theatres that could go under the hammer are the Adelphi, Cambridge, Her Majesty’s, New London, Palace, Palladium and Theatre Royal Drury Lane. Amongst other parties mooted as possible purchases are fellow West End theatre owners Cameron Mackintosh, the Ambassador Theatre Group and Max Weitzenhoffer (who owns the Vaudeville). Another strong possibility is Clear Channel Entertainment, whose UK chief executive David Ian has recently stated his aim to have six musicals running simultaneously in the West End by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, according to The Times P. Diddy Combs has recently visited the initial venues and his company, Bad Boy Worldwide Entertainment, is now reviewing the figures. If Combs were to purchase one or more of the playhouses, it’s thought that he would convert it into a nightclub.

Combs has become most famous for his formidable reputation, as a hard man rapper and trendsetter in the ostentatious ‘bling’ fashion moment, who has previously dated Jennifer Lopez and was cleared for illegal gun possession in 2001. As a singer, he famously had a No 1 hit with “I’ll Be Missing You”, a tribute to fellow rapper Notorious B.I.G, who was murdered in a shoot-out. As an actor, Combs has appeared in the film Monster’s Ball and made his Broadway debut last year in a revival of A Raisin in the Sun.

Despite his notoriety, Combs has achieved his greatest successes in the realm of business. His Bad Boy Worldwide empire – which comprises a rap music record label as well as clothing, music publishing and product marketing brands – is worth an estimated $250 million.

Most of Lloyd Webber’s West End venues were formerly part of the Stoll Moss group, which the British impresario bought out in 2000, in what was at that time, the biggest shake-up in theatreland in 80 years (See News, 10 Jan 2000). That deal had a reported price tag of £90 million, which Lloyd Webber raised by teaming up with City-based venture capitalists Bridgepoint, who retain a 50 percent stake in RUT. Patrick McKenna at Ingenious Media has reportedly been assigned to negotiate the sale of the business.

- by Terri Paddock