British theater gives way to 'Lion King'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Britain's theater world is bracing itself for an American invasion of money, dramatic talent - and Broadway hits.

Theater experts are also forecasting that London will soon become the launching pad for a drive into continental Europe by a giant United States sports and leisure conglomerate. There are concerns, however, that the lavish productions from across the Atlantic will put more emphasis on the bottom line than on artistic expression.

A large chunk of the money arrived last week when SFX Entertainment, the biggest live-events operator in the US, spent $253 million to buy 23 of Britain's finest theaters from the Apollo Group. The Apollo network includes major theaters in London, Edinburgh, York, and other cities.

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Paul Gregg, Apollo's founder, told the press: "SFX won't be content with taking over theaters in Britain. They are looking at London as a base for a drive into Europe." Mr. Gregg is expected to head SFX's European operations.

SFX is expected to bring a fresh approach to a European theater scene that has often lacked enterprise and has long regarded the making of profits with suspicion.

The American group, says London theater analyst Charles Pretzlik, "brings together three essential elements of showbiz: production, promotion, and exhibiting events." SFX has 82 venues in the US which staged more than 13,000 events last year.

The upheaval in Britain's theater world reflects the financial problems impresarios face in mounting productions that grow more and more costly. Rupert Rhymes, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre, an organization representing theater owners and managers, observed in the Financial Times: "Because productions are more expensive, they have to be more widely exploited. Otherwise you can't get a return."

Theater analyst Mr. Pretzlik notes that show business is already increasingly international, with plenty of two-way traffic across the Atlantic. London productions of "Cabaret" and Ibsen's "A Doll's House" have recently moved to Broadway. An ex-Broadway production of "Chicago" is attracting full houses in London, and Disney's "The Lion King" is arriving soon. All signs point to SFX intending to seize a large chunk of this trans-Atlantic traffic. Once consolidated in Britain, inroads into Germany and the Netherlands seem probable, with a heavy emphasis on musicals.

That thought sends shivers down the spine of smaller theater operators. Commenting on SFX's takeover of the Apollo Group, Nicola Thorold, director of Britain's Independent Theatre Council, told the London Times, "It is always worrying when a venture that has primarily been looking after artistic products changes to one that has much broader interests."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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