The Dreyfuss affair

Showbiz - A star exiting stage left is nothing new for the West End, writes David Benedict, but losi

Hands up who saw Roger Moore's musical theatre debut in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Aspects of Love? What? You didn't know that the un- disputed king of the arched-eyebrow school of acting was a song'n'dance man? Well, you would be right. Moore's scheduled appearance in 1989 didn't go according to plan. Citing his difficulties with "the technical side of singing", he withdrew during rehearsals. In other words, the recent departure of Richard Dreyfuss from the British premiere of Mel Brooks's Broadway smash The Producers is not exactly unprecedented.

Lloyd Webber has suffered more than most in this regard. Despite creating the role of the tyrannical star Norma Desmond in the original London pro-duction of his Sunset Boulevard, Patti LuPone won a million-dollar settlement when her contract was terminated, which meant that she didn't repeat the part for Broadway.

And there was more where that came from. Glenn Close turned out to be Broadway's Norma, a role she had played to huge acclaim in the LA production. So who would replace her as she headed for the opposite coast? Step forward, Faye Dunaway. She, alas, turned out to be suffering from Roger Moore syndrome. Lloyd Webber and his Really Useful Group decided that, despite singing lessons during rehearsals, Dunaway didn't cut the mustard musically. A week before opening, she and the show were axed. Dunaway responded with a 37-page lawsuit that resulted in a hefty out-of-court settlement.

Less litigiously, Lloyd Webber's leading lady luck faltered as far back as 1981, when Judi Dench tore her Achilles tendon during rehearsals for the premiere of Cats. She returned to rehearsals on crutches, with her leg in plaster, but fell again and was forced to withdraw. Her replacement was the little-known Elaine Paige, who sang "Memory" at the climax of the show and became a star.

Commercial theatre, like cinema, has always traded on "marquee names": actors with careers big and bold enough to shift serious numbers of tickets. But Cats was a mould-breaker. Its ethos was reflected in its poster design, which eschewed star billing, opting instead for the now world-famous logo of a silhouetted dancer in a gleaming pair of cat's eyes against a black background. The image announced in no uncertain terms that the show itself was the star.

These days, however, producers are generally too nervous to play that game. Musical theatre is expensive. Ignoring pre-production costs of sets, costumes and rehearsals, not to mention marketing, theatre rental, general running costs, royalties and VAT, the weekly wage bill alone is enough to induce nightmares: all those leading players, plus chorus, plus musicians. And then there's the whole business of show: musicals demand a grandeur, and spectacular ones often have as many (if not more) people backstage than on-stage. Disney's Beauty and the Beast needed eight wig dressers at every performance.

Therefore, despite winning a record-breaking 12 Tonys on their musical's deliriously successful Broadway run (it opened on 19 April 2001 and is still going strong), the producers of The Producers felt they needed a name to open in London to protect their serious investment. It's a case of stardom as insurance policy. So instead of hiring a tried and trusted musicals man, they drafted in Dreyfuss, even though his track record in the West End is far from impressive. In 1999, he terminated his sole British stage engagement barely two months into a less than warm-ly received revival of Neil Simon's The Prisoner of Second Avenue, citing earlier film commitments.

The depressing side to all this is the tendency of producers to look for talent in all the wrong places. Soap stars may be terrific on TV, but eight physically demanding performances a week can play havoc with an actor's health. The prosecution cites Martine McCutcheon's patchy appearance record in My Fair Lady.

The good news, however, is that Dreyfuss has been replaced by Nathan Lane, to whom many British theatregoers may respond "Who?". To New Yorkers, however, he was a bona fide stage star even before he created the leading role of finagling Max Bialystock in The Producers on Broadway. His whirlwind performance in the show cemented his reputation. The trouble is, he's going back to the States in January to film the role. Who will the producers turn to next?