Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

London — Andrew Lloyd Webber, the composer behind hit musicals including  The Phantom of the Opera and Evita, says the UK government needs to open up London theatres to prevent the industry from collapsing.

Work for actors and musicians along with investment in future productions is at risk because ministers have kept quiet on how and when they might reopen public spaces after the pandemic, Lloyd Webber said. His seven venues in the West End are costing £1m a month even while shut.

“No business can sustain that sort of level of outgoing,” he said in an interview. “Having been a cheerleader, saying that we must get back, we will get back, I’m worried now. My team has pretty much led the industry here, and I know they’re getting to the point where they don’t know what more we can do.”

His remarks reflect growing alarm about the damage restrictions to contain the pandemic are doing to the arts including theatre, museums and concerts. While restaurants and bars have put much of their staff into the government furlough programme that pays up to 80% of wages for those who can’t work, many actors and stage hands are freelance and have slipped through the cracks in government support.

The arts and culture industry overall contributes £1`0.8bn a year to the UK economy and 363,700 jobs, according to analysis by the Centre for Economics and Business Research for Arts Council England.

Lloyd Webber says chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak and most of his predecessors haven’t absorbed how much more income a successful musical can generate for the economy than a film, noting that people travel from abroad, stay in hotels and eat at restaurants to take in a West End show. Sunak is preparing a budget for March 3 that may extend support to those that have been left behind so far.

“I’ve never come across anybody in my 50-plus years working professionally in the theatre who realises exactly what a big hit musical or a big hit play brings back,” Lloyd Webber said. “It is prodigious what it returns. We are an enormous earner for the country.”

While Prime Minister Boris Johnson says an aggressive vaccination campaign will allow many restrictions eventually to loosen, he’s warned that the current rules will remain in place for weeks or months. As long as the ministers require people to maintain social distancing, many venues will not be able to open.

Lloyd Webber’s ambition is to restart work on his new musical Cinderella in March in hopes of opening in May — something he acknowledges remains unlikely. For now, theatres across the country are sitting dark with no sign of when they might reopen. They all have mounting fixed costs including rent and electricity that must be paid whether or not they’re able to sell tickets.

Even with some state support flowing to the industry, Lloyd Webber said he had to mortgage a home to help cover costs at theatres he owns. Risks like that are frightening off the investors that would back the next productions, threatening to leave London without the number of shows it usually stages when the virus eventually ebbs.

West End musicals must fill about 80% of their seats to be financially viable, according to Lloyd Webber. He worries that investors will shift their focus away from London and towards productions in the US unless authorities test technology such as ventilation or sanitiser systems that could make bigger gatherings safer.

“Theatre is a global business, and why would you open it in London if you feel that the government is not really behind it?” said Lloyd Webber, who previously was a member of the UK House of Lords.

“Musicals have got to really be repaying an investment. If we are stuck at 50% social distancing or something, we can’t operate. There’s no point.”

Bloomberg

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