UPDATED, Wed 28 Mar 2007 @ 12.00pm: Further details about the Shaftesbury Theatre and a comment from its executive producer have now been added to this story.

As previously tipped (See The Goss, 9 Mar 2007), the UK arm of Dutch company Stage Entertainment has negotiated a long-term lease on the West End’s frequently dark Shaftesbury Theatre, providing a ready-made, 1400-seat home for some of its planned productions, including big musicals such as – most likely – the on-again, off-again Broadway transfer of Hairspray.

The lease, initially for a period of two years, begins on 4 May 2007, with the opening of Stage Entertainment’s production of Fame starring Ian ‘H’ Watkins and Natalie Casey (See Photos, 22 Mar 2007). That revival’s limited London return season concludes on 31 August, after which ”the UK premiere of a major new musical” will open in the autumn. Speaking to Whatsonstage.com today, a Stage Entertainment spokesman was unable to confirm that that would be Hairspray, the 2002 Tony Award-winning Broadway musical based on John Waters' cult 1988 film, but an official announcement is expected within the next fortnight.

Set in 1960s Baltimore, Hairspray tells the story of geeky teen Tracy Turnblad, a big girl with big hair, a big heart and a big stage mother who finds celebrity on a TV dance programme. The musical was originally tipped for a spring 2003 transfer to the Victoria Palace and, subsequently, was expected to open at the Cambridge Theatre in autumn 2005. Casting calls went out two years ago, but the 2005 opening was scrapped after problems transporting the set from North America.

The spokesman said that the lease on the Shaftesbury – which falls within the “central St Giles” area between Covent Garden, Oxford Street and the British Museum about to undergo a local redevelopment scheme - is part of Stage Entertainment’s plans to substantially expand its portfolio in the UK. As a signal of its intentions, last year the company appointed former Really Useful Group boss Bill Taylor as chief executive (See News, 6 Feb 2006), and have since added other industry big-hitters - including West End producer Adam Spiegel (the force behind Fame) and former National Theatre marketing director Chris Harper – to the London-based team.

At the time of Taylor’s appointment, Stage Entertainment said it planned to produce more in the UK, as well as acquire related and complementary entertainment businesses and properties and bringing Stage Entertainment’s existing European business operations and productions into UK and US markets.

Formed in 1998, Stage Entertainment employs 4,700 people in eight countries, focusing on three core activities: ticketing and marketing, venue ownership and production of musicals, plays, concerts and other events. The company’s current West End production, Blue Man Group, today posted June closing notices at the New London Theatre (See Today’s Other News).

The last new theatre built on Shaftesbury Avenue, the Princes Theatre (as it was originally called) was designed by leading Victorian architect Bertie Crewe and opened on Boxing Day 1911. EMI bought the theatre in 1963 and changed its named to the Shaftesbury, which was purchased in 1984 by the Theatre of Comedy, a company founded by Ray Cooney and supported by 30 leading actors, writers and directors.

Productions over the years – amongst them, many award winners – have included Run for Your Wife, See How They Run, Passion Play, When We Are Married, How to Success in Business Without Really Trying, Hair (opened in September 1968, the day after censorship ended), West Side Story, Out of Order, Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Carousel, Rent and Tommy. In more recent times, however, the theatre has been dogged by architectural faults and frequent periods of darkness after premature closures of musicals such as Lautrec, Napoleon, Peggy Sue Got Married, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Bat Boy, The Far Pavilions and most recent resident Daddy Cool.

Commenting on the future of the Shaftesbury, James Williams, executive producer for the Theatre of Comedy, said: “Working together with the creative energy of Stage Entertainment, we now have security for the Shaftesbury Theatre that will see positive growth. We admire greatly the achievements of Stage Entertainment throughout Europe and look forward to working with them at this exciting time.”

- by Terri Paddock