'Whistle' Runs Out Of Steam On the Road

New York Times

“Whistle Down the Wind,” the new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in tryouts at the National Theater in Washington, will not open on Broadway this year. The musical, which was scheduled to begin performances at the Martin Beck Theater on June 3 and open on June 15, needs more work, the composer said yesterday.

“I believe 'Whistle Down the Wind' to be one of the strongest scores I have composed in many years,” Lord Lloyd Webber said. “But I believe, possibly because it was originally conceived for the cinema, 'Whistle' has not found its stage voice yet. I agree with those who feel that it needs time for its creative team to stand back from it. It's far, far too good a musical to open on Broadway until it's truly ready.”

Scene From Whistle Down the Wind

Rumors had been swirling for months that “Whistle” was in trouble. It opened in Washington to poor reviews including a near-evisceration by The Washington Post. As has often been the case with Lord Lloyd Webber's musicals, however, bad reviews could not kill the public's appetite. The show broke box-office records in Washington before closing on Sunday after 6 previews and 70 regular performances.

Originally, “Whistle” was scheduled to open on Broadway on April 17, but in early January, it was announced that it would not open until mid-June, after the deadline for Tony Award nominations. The delay was an ominous sign, since Tony nominations and awards play a major role in promoting a show. The announcement that “Whistle” would not make it to New York this year therefore did not come as a shock.

“We have accepted the fact that a creative respite is the best way forward,” said Edgar Dobie, president of the Really Useful Company, Lord Lloyd Webber's American production company. “We serve no one's needs by forcing our production to move forward when it is not ready to do so.”

Harold Prince, the director of the musical, said: “I have to agree that more time is required than we currently have available to us to complete the work that we all know must be done.”

The change in plans for “Whistle” comes as a blow to Rocco Landesman, who moved heaven and earth to book the musical for the Martin Beck Theater, part of the Jujamcyn Theater chain, of which he is president.

“I'm very disappointed,” said Mr. Landesman, who said that as late as Friday afternoon he had expected “Whistle” to come in. “We're losing a major show. It's a bummer.”

Worse, Mr. Landesman had chosen to take “Whistle” instead of “Chicago,” which has been playing to sold-out houses and now has a $9.2 million advance. “The question my colleagues and business partners now have to consider is whether they really want to continue doing business with someone this stupid, meaning me,” he said ruefully.

Neither the members of the creative team nor Mr. Dobie would comment on plans for the musical. “It's anybody's guess what will happen,” Mr. Landesman said.

The retreat of “Whistle” underscores the creative difficulties that Lord Lloyd Webber has had in recent years. In the 1970's and 80's, he could do no wrong, turning out phenomenal hits like “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Evita,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Cats.” For a time, the Lloyd Webber brand name seemed as powerful in its domain as Disney's in family-oriented film. But “Starlight Express,” a hit in London, did not take hold here, and “Aspects of Love” also failed on Broadway.

Last week it was announced that “Sunset Boulevard” would close in London and New York. Neither production recouped its investment. “By Jeeves,” a reworked early musical by Lord Lloyd Webber and Alan Ayckbourn, opens at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles on March 4 after a run at the Goodspeed Opera House's second stage in Chester, Conn., but its future after Los Angeles is uncertain.

“Whistle Down the Wind” is a musical version of the 1961 British film of the same name about three children in the north of England who harbor a fugitive convict in a barn, convinced that he is Jesus. The film starred Hayley Mills and Alan Bates. Lord Lloyd Webber acquired the rights to the film several years ago and, shifting the action to rural Louisiana in the 1950's, created a work that was at first intended to be a film musical. His lyricist on the project was Jim Steinman, best known for the lyrics to the Meat Loaf album “Bat Out of Hell.”

After the musical was presented in a concert version at the Sydmonton Festival at the estate of the composer in the summer, Lord Lloyd Webber decided to mount it on the stage and enlisted as his director Mr. Prince, the director of “Phantom” and “Evita.” The cast of 36 included Davis Gaines, a veteran in the title role of “Phantom,” as the convict, and Irene Molloy as the young girl who protects him.

The departure of “Whistle” has led to a quick shuffling of the Broadway deck. The 20th-anniversary production of “Annie,” which was scheduled to begin performances March 14 at the Eugene O'Neill Theater, will play at the Martin Beck. “Grease,” which had been scheduled to leave the Eugene O'Neill Theater on Feb. 23, now has the option to stay put.

The change in theaters is a windfall for “Annie,” which gains 300 seats by moving from the O'Neill to the Martin Beck. “I'm elated,” said Timothy Childs, one of the show's producers. “We have a show that sells very heavily on weekends. To get 300 seats will make a big difference to us.”

Barry Weissler, a producer of “Grease,” said that he has not decided on its future. His star, Jasmine Guy, is joining the show's Chicago production, and there may not be time before Feb. 23 to line up a new star and get the show's advertising campaign fully cranked up. “My guess is we'll close down temporarily, rev up the sales and then come back in early April and enjoy a good, healthy six-month run,” Mr. Weissler said.