Can, my dear, Gone With The Wind survive?
25/4/2008 - London Evening Standard - Nick Curtis

Not since the early-Nineties days of mega-flops like King, Moby Dick and Which Witch has the West End seen reviews as savage as those that greeted Trevor Nunn's £4.75 million, four- hour musical adaptation of Gone With the Wind earlier this week.

"Connoisseurs of big, bad musicals must rush to catch Gone With the Wind in case it's quickly blown away on gales of ridicule," said Evening Standard critic Nicholas de Jongh.

"It feels interminable, but moment by moment it also seems ridiculously rushed," said Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph, adding that the music and lyrics are so lacklustre that "I felt like screaming every time a new song started".

Listening to unknown American actress Jill Paice and Pop Idol loser Darius Danesh as Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler, Benedict Nightingale in The Times was left "hankering for Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh who breezed and dazzled their way through the film" and "wishing the musical just wasn't a musical".

The Guardian's Michael Billington found the whole exercise "extravagantly pointless".

As if this weren't enough, Gone With the Wind was dealt another blow when Paice dropped out of Wednesday's matinée and two evening performances with a "bad throat infection" and was replaced by an understudy. A second tranche of critics who were due to see the show, the first theatrical effort by novice writer and composer Margaret Martin, were sent home. A blessing of sorts, perhaps.

The show's producers have been incommunicado as they deal with the latest setback. This misguided, expensive adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's muchloved historical romance, presented without star names in the unforgivingly modern New London theatre, and vying with fond memories of Victor Fleming's iconic film, is beginning to smell like a flop.

Most musicals need to run for at least a year to break even. Any less and the backers will lose all or most of their £4.75 million investment. "We haven't had a proper, massive theatrical disaster for ages," commented one West End insider. "Maybe it's time we had one."

Of course, it's too early to tell whether Gone With the Wind has really, truly failed - the ticket-buying audience is the ultimate arbiter of that - but the signs were there from the start that it would be far from a great success. So how was it allowed to happen?

Margaret Mitchell's novel won the Pulitzer Prize and became an instant bestseller when it was published in 1936, and Victor Fleming's 1939 screen adaptation is widely considered the most successful film ever. The book still makes around £500,000 a year in sales for Mitchell's estate. But Nunn and co must have known that subsequent attempts to capitalise on the tale of Rhett and Scarlett have foundered.

Two literary sequels, Scarlett and Rhett Butler's People, were laughed away by critics. A musical stage adaptation at Drury Lane in 1972, featuring a young Bonnie Langford and a horse that defecated on stage during press night, prompted Noël Coward to opine: "They should cut the second act - and the child's throat." It closed quickly.

The dazzling, expansive visual imagery of Fleming's film, and the iconic performances of Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, are ingrained on the collective imagination. Any attempt to recreate them on stage was always likely to come a poor second.

None of this deterred Margaret Martin. A doctor of public health, charity founder and single mother of three from California, she decided at the age of 45 to adapt Gone With the Wind as a musical simply because, she claims, she thought it would be a money-spinner. Later, she said that as a former "battered teenage mother", she came to identify with the endless crises Scarlett has to face. Martin's qualifications for writing a musical were a degree in music theory and an apparently unquenchable reservoir of self-belief.

When she first bid for the stage rights to Mitchell's book from the William Morris agency - by putting on a solo "dog and pony show" of her songs and script for them - she was rejected and told her work was "sincere but inexperienced".

Unabashed, after two more years' work she sent a CD to Trevor Nunn, having read an interview with him and learned he was a leading director. Against the odds, Nunn apparently couldn't get the tunes out of his head.

One of the UK's leading classical directors who had run both the RSC and the National Theatre, Nunn has also made a fortune from musicals such as Cats and Les Misérables, and helmed flops such as Chess and Acorn Antiques.

"Nobody knows what will work and what won't in musical theatre," he told me in 2006, after he had staged Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Woman in White.

He signed on to Gone With the Wind as director and adaptor - the second job title seemed designed to imply that the experienced Nunn would smooth over any infelicities committed by the novice writer.

In 2003, Nunn and his main backer, Aldo Scrofani of Columbia Artists Theatricals, decided that the first production should be in London rather than New York, apparently on the curious reasoning that British audiences would be less slavishly fond of Victor Fleming's film.

It may be, too, that the (predominantly American) producers overestimated Londoners' tolerance of Southern melodrama twinned with middle-of-the-road music. Ironically, given the current financial situation, exchange rates for sterling were also more favourable when London was chosen for the opening.

When the production was officially announced back in 2006, all sorts of alarm bells began to ring for seasoned observers. Even with Nunn at the helm, it seemed unwise to lavish such a large budget on, and trust an epic and beloved story to, an unknown writer.

The choice of the Seventies, concrete New London Theatre as a venue was a strange one. The site of Nunn's greatest commercial triumph, Cats, which ran for 21 years there, it has an open horseshoe-shaped auditorium and a bare apron stage ill-suited to grand panoramas such as the burning of Atlanta, or the vista of endless wounded Confederate soldiers, in Gone With the Wind. With 960 seats, it also has half the capacity, and hence half the bums-on-seats earning power, of big musical houses like the Palladium and Drury Lane.

Then there was the casting. Those who remembered Jill Paice recalled her as a colourless presence with a decent voice in The Woman in White, although the producers could legitimately counter that Vivien Leigh was unknown when she became Scarlett.

But the announcement of Danesh's casting came just as audiences seemed to be getting heartily sick of leading men and women plucked from reality shows. Rehearsals were dogged by a whispering campaign that the show was too bland, too long. Finally, it opened in the middle of the credit crunch.

But, as Howard Panter, director of the Ambassador Theatre Group, says, theatre is historically resilient in a recession-"People decide not to buy a house or a car but treat themselves to a West End show instead." He also denies that the New London itself could be to blame, saying "there are no bad theatres, only bad shows", while stressing that he has not seen Nunn's production and "I only wish them well".

In the end, in theatre, it's the story and the direction and the acting that matter, not the venue or the economy. The critics saw the prolixity and the skimpiness of the script, the way supernumerary characters narrated the action, and the naturalistic scenes - in which a baby is born, and Scarlett and Rhett "pretend" to have a horse - as admissions that the play could not equal the book or film.

The songs and the acting are undistinguished and unmoving - and if Gone With the Wind is anything, it should be moving. One veteran theatreland figure, who asked not to be named, sums it up: "I watched half of it. It's poor material, simple as that. The songs are dreadful, and it's amazing that Trevor, having done marvellous things with so many scores, didn't see that was the case."

For now, Gone With the Wind is soldiering on, like Scarlett O'Hara grubbing for roots in the unforgiving red mud of her Tara homestead. No figures are available for advance sales but the show is booking until September, although a box office assistant said that plenty of seats are available for most performances "because it's a new show". There has not been a rush of returns in the wake of the reviews - perhaps because See Tickets, which operates GWTW's main booking line, does not offer refunds. A digital advertisement, unprecedented and expensive, has been taken out amid the lights at Piccadilly Circus.

If Gone With the Wind can pull in enough punters to justify a Broadway transfer, where some of the problems could be fixed, then the producers may yet claw back their investment. The Lord of the Rings, another flawed musical based on a popular book and film, did not break even on its £12.5million budget in Toronto or London, and hopes to finally go into profit in its forthcoming third incarnation in Germany. So ultimately, it's the fickle public who decide.

As Trevor Nunn has been compelled repeatedly to point out, Les Misérables got terrible reviews when it first opened and it is still doing all right. Taking inspiration from her heroine Scarlett O'Hara, Margaret Martin must be knotting her fists after the buffets of the week and reminding herself that, yes, tomorrow is another day.

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