Michael Coveney: Ring in the new: Howard Panter expands, Michael Grade looks back
There's a sense of upheaval in the air in Theatreland, says our chief critic Michael Coveney
What's going on? Shaftesbury Avenue was closed off for a second time in a week on Boxing Day, exactly seven days after the ceiling collapsed in the Apollo Theatre, when a man was shot dead in the Avalon nightclub right next door to Les Miserables in the Queen's Theatre. As the incident occurred at 3am in the morning, there was no further scare, thank heavens, for theatregoers. A bit of a shock, though, for Cameron Mackintosh, who owns the prime strip of real estate that includes the Queen's, the nightclub and the Globe; the Apollo is just across the road on the next block.
Much happier news is that Nick Allott, Cameron's right-hand man, was given an OBE in the New Year's honours list. Other producer news highlighted in The Stage's annual list of top movers and shakers is that the Ambassador Theatre Group of Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire is now owned (for a reported price of £350m) by Providence Equity, which places the group miles ahead of any rivals in terms of financial clout.
Perhaps that will allow them to revise their rip-off booking fee charges and restoration levy - or at least use the levy to smarten up some of the West End theatres they own, notably the Duke of York's and the Harold Pinter, to recover something of their former architectural glory. Who knows, there may be some money in the Providence pot to help out Nimax with its own restoration, starting with the stricken Apollo, where Nica Burns is rumoured to have cancelled plans to revive John Osborne's Watch It Come Down (only kidding).
The other interesting, or slightly scary, news about ATG is that they have expanded even further into the lucrative ticket market business with the acquisition of the Ticket Machine Group. We are informed, or warned, by The Stage to expect further growth this year, even internationally, where ATG plans to roll out its "vertically integrated model" in which it produces shows, runs the venues and sells all the tickets.
This world domination master plan sounds ideal for the selling of processed meat, say, or package holidays, but is surely anathema to the quirky, surprising, awkward, bumpy and improvisational nature of producing inspirational theatre with a specific audience involvement. There's a more practical-sounding exploitation impetus behind the other revelation at the end of last year, that Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful set-up is now split between the theatre-owning side and the company's (ie Andrew's) copyrights, music, licensing and artist management business. RUG have brought in a former EMI and Universal Music senior executive, Barney Wragg, to run its "music operations" (Wragg's former record business clients include Robbie Williams and Kate Bush).
There really does seem to be a sense of upheaval in the air, and not just among the corporations. The Michael Grandage Company is taking a West End break to make a film - no details so far forthcoming - while at some stage the two Nicks (Hytner and Starr) will be intimating their plans for the West End when they ease away from the South Bank in a year's time. And what next for Jamie Lloyd? The Commitments battles on at the Palace, but it wasn't really a great follow-up to his three fine productions at the Trafalgar Studios earlier last year (Macbeth, The Hot House and The Pride).
At the end of a fascinating BBC4 programme about musical theatre, Michael Grade said that the genre was playing it safe and there was a marked lack of innovation - I assume he had missed both London Road and American Psycho - when I think he really meant that exciting new musical theatre work wasn't catching the public imagination and growing into commercial success.
This is certainly true. And this is partly down to the fact that "musical theatre" music is not what people listen to on their radios and iPhones any more. Grade's other simple submission was that the musical, once about the above-the-title stars, was nowadays itself the star, citing the ground-breaking examples of Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady (though ceding that that show would never have taken off without the star power of Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews), Evita (the show made Elaine Paige a star, not the other way round), Sweeney Todd and Les Miserables.
Grade proved a terrific interviewer (such a cheer-up after the dismal, sycophantic plodding of Alan Yentob on his BBC Imagine programmes) and got some surprising, sparkling testimonies from Liz Robertson, Dominic West, Elena Roger, Trevor Nunn, Hal Prince (who said that Angela Lansbury - whom he directed in Sweeney Todd - was the greatest star he had ever worked with, some accolade that - and Jonathan Pryce; Pryce in particular could talk perceptively and engagingly from first-hand experience about three of Grade's exemplary shows, My Fair Lady, Oliver! and Evita.
Then, on Friday, Grade popped up again interviewing lyricist Don Black in the course of a concert at the Royal Festival Hall featuring Black's lyrics, from his Bond movies through to "Sunset Boulevard" and "Aspects of Love". Again, this was a relaxed and fascinating programme, and it was great to see Don's wife, Shirley, sitting proudly in the audience and Lloyd Webber himself sitting with his longstanding and delightful secretary, Jan Ede.
Maria Friedman, not really suited in her lower register to the operatic swoopings of the Sunset score, nonetheless managed to knock seven bells out of "With One Look," and I particularly enjoyed Gary Wilmot - so good in the Birmingham Hippodrome pantomime this season - giving a definitive cheeky chappy rendition of "Some of Us Belong to the Stars" from Billy.
And what else did I do in the holidays? Much the same sort of thing as you, I imagine, with the following random highlights: a Christmas Eve performance of The Snowman at the Peacock, a walk by the river at Hampton Court, a visit to the brilliant and revelatory Honore Daumier exhibition at the Royal Academy and two amazing new Hollywood movies – Gravity and American Hustle. Happy New Year!