As previously tipped (See News, 13 Jun 2005), Really Useful Theatres (RUT) - which is 50% owned by Andrew Lloyd Webber (pictured) - has sold four of his West End playhouses. The Apollo (with 776 seats), Duchess (475 seats), Lyric (960 seats) and Garrick (655 seats) have been bought by Broadway producer Max Weitzenhoffer and Nica Burns, currently production director of RUT.

Although no official figure is being released today, previous estimates have put the four playhouses’ purchase value at £12 million and Lloyd Webber has confirmed that the sale will enable him to invest a minimum of £10 million in his remaining theatres, including leading musical houses the Palace, the London Palladium and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

RUT, a joint venture company set up in 2000 and equally owned by Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group and private equity firm Bridgepoint Capital, is now considering offers for its other theatres which also include the Cambridge, Her Majesty’s and the New London. (Its current portfolio is completed by the Adelphi, co-owned with Nederlander International, and the Gielgud, which soon reverts to Cameron Mackintosh.)

In addition, Lloyd Webber is reportedly considering selling off his other Really Useful Group business interests, including the publishing rights to his hit musicals including Cats and The Phantom of the Opera as well as various theatre, film, merchandising and record divisions. One potential bid for the RUG empire, which could fetch as much as £500 million, is reportedly being led by BBC chairman Michael Grade.

Max Weitzenhoffer, who already owns the West End’s Vaudeville Theatre, has been a major player on Broadway since the 1970s, producing hits including Dracula, Pump Boys and Dinettes, Song and Dance, Burn This and The Will Rogers Follies. In the West End in recent years, he has worked with Nica Burns co-producing Alistair Beaton’s Feelgood; the Fiona Shaw-led Medea, directed by Deborah Warner; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, starring Award winner Christian Slater; and Some Girls, currently starring David Schwimmer at the Gielgud.

In addition to her independent producing, Burns has acted as RUT’s production director, responsible for programming and managing all the shows presented in a dozen West End theatres, since 1993. Prior to RUT, she ran the Donmar Warehouse from 1983 to 1989. She has been a major force at the Edinburgh Festival for the past 25 years and, since 1984, has been director and producer of the Perrier Award for Comedy.

Burns and Weitzenhoffer will be joint owners of the newly formed Nimax Theatres and will take over ownership and management of the Apollo, Duchess, Lyric and Garrick from 1 October 2005. The London-based Burns will act as chief executive, running the company on a day-to-day basis. Nimax will also now manage the Vaudeville, though it will remain owned solely by Weitzenhoffer.

In a press release issued this morning, the various players in today’s deal said the following:

Andrew Lloyd Webber: “The sale to Nica Burns and Max Weitzenhoffer is a terrific result for theatre. I am thrilled to be able to say that these theatres are not being sold to the highest bidder, but to theatre professionals who will continue to administer them in the way that is in the best interests of the theatres themselves and the West End in general. Max is a wonderful philanthropist and long term business associate and I have the highest regard for Nica’s work. Both have been supporters of London theatre for many years.

“I am also delighted that this sale will mean that, because the company’s borrowings will be reduced, we will be able to spend a minimum of £10 million over the next five years in improving and refurbishing the remaining eight theatres in our portfolio, including some of the world’s most famous music houses, including the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the Palace and the London Palladium. These wonderful, treasured buildings have always been my first love, and I am so pleased that we can ensure without doubt that they will be preserved and modernised for the benefit of today’s theatregoers and for future generations.”

André Ptaszynski, chief executive of RUT: “This sale represents a significant opportunity for Really Useful Theatres in that we will now be able to concentrate wholly on musical theatre, which forms the core of our business. Furthermore, I am delighted that these four theatres will pass into the hands of a specialist playhouse operator. At a time when it is particularly difficult to make plays work within commercial theatre, it is good news for the health of the industry that there is now an additional distinct playhouse theatre owner operating within the West End.”

Nica Burns and Max Weitzenhoffer: “We have both been working in the theatre all our lives and producing quality drama together for many years. The idea of producing and presenting great theatre in these historic playhouses, as owners, is thrilling. We have a large welcome mat outside our front door for all producers and creators of theatre.”

- by Terri Paddock