The Woman in White Vanishes on Broadway
Updated: Nov 5
Even the great Andrew Lloyd Webber has had his short-lived musicals, and we explore one of his lesser known Sho nuff!ws. Here is the transcript of that episode and sources used...
When Bad Cinderella closed in June of this year, it signified the first time in 43 years that Broadway was without an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and it became the second shortest run ever for one of his musicals on Broadway. Bad Cinderella also represented the second collaboration between Lloyd Webber and lyricist David Zippel. Their first show together was The Woman in White, which as Lloyd Webber explains began in London in 2004 and then opened at the Marquis Theatre the following year.
The original story was written by Wilkie Collins, a notable and successful novelist and playwright from the 19th century. And it was another British playwright, Charlotte Jones, who was brought in to adapt Collins’ novel and write the musical’s book—which tells the story of Walter Hartright, a young drawing teacher who encounters a mysterious woman in white, whom he later learns is the victim of a fraudulent scheme. Walter, along with his love interest Laura Fairlie and her half-sister Marian, embark on a dangerous journey to unravel the truth behind the woman's identity as well as the plot against Laura's inheritance.
The London production starred Michael Crawford in his first role on the West End since Phantom. In comparing that role to The Woman in White, Crawford said: “I mean I like acting. I love acting. Phantom, you know, you disappear beneath the makeup. But it was just such a joyous role to to have offered you. And when I read the book, it just has layer after layer. So the rest of the company--young company and led by Maria Friedman--they're such great singers.”
Maria Friedman is an award-winning actress who would also go on to join the Broadway production. But both Crawford and Friedman would end up leaving the show at various points due to health issues. In fact, casting changes were just as frequent as the changes made to the script and score. At one point the entire London cast finished the show on a Sunday night, and just two days later an almost completely new cast began version 2.0 of The Woman in White. And months later, it was a second variation of 2.0 that eventually made its way to Broadway.
By the time Woman in White came to New York, it had been 10 years since Sunset Boulevard and it would be another 10 till School of Rock. During this interim, between 1997 and 2015, Lloyd Webber didn’t have an original musical or revival last more than 9 months on Broadway (including the Evita revival I previously did an episode on), so I guess you could say he was in a bit of a dry spell. Nonetheless, The Woman in White could’ve and probably should’ve done better, and in this episode we’ll explore some of the reasons it didn’t—and how a white rat ended up stealing the show.
Closing Night is a theater history podcast about famous and forgotten Broadway shows that closed too soon, hosted and produced by New York actor Patrick Oliver Jones. This first season highlights some of the shows that have come and gone from one of Broadway’s youngest venues: the Marquis Theatre. And this week's episode transcript has only been slightly edited for this format. You can listen to the full episode here or on your favorite podcast app:
The genesis of The Woman In White musical can be traced back to a candid TV interview Lloyd Webber gave in 2002. During this interview, the renowned composer made an unexpected revelation: he was not currently engaged in any new creative projects and actively sought fresh ideas from the viewers.
This disclosure triggered a deluge of suggestions and concepts from eager fans, but among the numerous proposals, one particular idea captured Lloyd Webber's attention: an adaptation of a novel from 1860 called The Woman in White. This suggestion sparked his interest and creative enthusiasm so much so that he reached out to a lyricist he had known for years but never gotten to work with yet: David Zippel, who wrote lyrics for City of Angels and The Goodbye Girl as well.
“There was a general manager who managed, Andrew shows in New York before even before we were friends, he had seen a a reading of my work and was very enthusiastic about it. And I think it was in the Early eighties, he had told Andrew that he should meet with me. We met probably 9 years after that, but he was already engaged with another lyricist on another project. And over the years, he would call me and, we would say, we must Work on something together, but it never happened. And then in, I think, 2002, he called me about The Woman in White, which is a 700 page Wilkie Collins Victorian novel, and I'm thinking, oh my god. This scares the hell out of me to write a through composed musical with that much plot. But I figured since it scared me, I definitely had to do it. And, we enjoyed writing it. It was a good experience.” - David Zippel
Now much like me and probably you, Zippel wasn’t that familiar with Wilkie Collins, who was a prominent British novelist and playwright in the 19th century. However, most of us including Zippel are very familiar with Collins’ close friend and collaborator, Charles Dickens, who frequently published Collins’ works in his magazines. Throughout his career, Collins used his novels to address social issues of his time, like gender roles and the legal system. One of his most notable successes and contributions to the literary world is The Woman in White, which was first published in serial form from 1859 to 1860, appearing in Charles Dickens' magazine All the Year Round in the UK and in Harper's Weekly in the US. It was eventually published in book form in 1860.
“It was done in installments each week, and the final episode caused the House of Commons to have to be closed, that's our parliament, because the whole of parliament wanted to read the final episode.” - Andrew Lloyd Webber
It is widely regarded as one of the earliest examples of detective fiction and mystery novels, and it features innovative storytelling techniques such as multiple narrators and suspenseful cliffhangers, which greatly influenced the development of modern detective fiction. This mysterious tale of “damsels in distress, a wicked aristocrat, lunatic asylums, family fortunes, and a sinister Secret Society,” is also notable for its strong and unconventional female characters like Marian Halcombe, a complex and multi-dimensional character who challenges the traditional gender roles of her era. She showcases the strength, intelligence, and resilience of women in a society that often underestimated their abilities.
Ultimately, The Woman in White was a commercial success and helped establish Wilkie Collins as one of the most popular and influential authors of the Victorian era. There have actually been many adaptations of The Woman in White, from American and European films to BBC television series. And the novel was on The Guardian’s list of 100 greatest novels of all time. And so Zippel had a big task ahead of him to bring these characters to life, but he certainly wasn’t alone in adapting this huge story to the stage.
“So I did immerse myself in his story and and also in the book, but we had a terrific British playwright, Charlotte Jones, and she worked very hard with us and and we adapted the story, so it's it's freely based upon the original novel because some of the twists and turns don't really work in a contemporary world, so we reinvented the ending and part of the story, but and Trevor Nunn was our director, so All of us work very closely together.” - David Zippel
Jones is an award-winning British playwright as well as an actress and screenwriter. And Trevor Nunn? Well, he is the infamous director of stage and screen, who The Telegraph named among the most influential people in British culture. He is legendary for his Shakepeare productions, and has also been the force behind such iconic shows as Les Misérables and Chess, not to mention his numerous collaborations with Lloyd Webber like Cats, Starlight Express, Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard. So he was very familiar with Lloyd Webber’s music and the lush storytelling that flows through much of his work.
This is Leah Horowitz, who was a cast member in the Broadway production:
“It's melodramatic, severely melodramatic, but that's really the source material is very melodramatic, and it's very moody. It's a it's a really wonderful twisty story. Granted, they did they did change it a lot from the original book. The original book is wonderful. Everybody should read it. They had to change it. You know? Obviously, there's so much in the book that they had to simplify it and Change a few things. But really, like, listening to it, it was like it has some beautiful melodies. The story really, like, moves along, has a big twist at the end.”
And according the Daily Mail, by February 2003 the creative team of Woman in White had finished the first act. And a few months laster in July, they presented a “freely adapted” workshop version of the first act and a couple of songs from the second act at the Sydmonton Festival—which is a summer arts festival that takes place in a small chapel that is part of Lloyd Webber’s country estate. Its purpose is to introduce new works to a private audience of those connected with theatre, television, and film. The cast included actors from theater and film, including Laura Michelle Kelly who played Marian Halcombe, the half-sister to Laura Fairlie who was played by a young Anne Hathaway.
Hathaway was still riding high off her success in The Princess Diaries and her much-praised New York stage debut in the City Center Encores! concert production of Carnival! in 2002. Yet Hathaway nor any of the other actors from that workshop would stay on with the production, and so by year’s end Lloyd Webber reached out to another actor, asking him to read the Collins novel over Christmas.
This actor had famously brought another one of Lloyd Webber’s characters to life: the Phantom of the Opera. But Michael Crawford hadn’t actually been on the West End since that award-winning performance, and maybe he needed some convincing.
“I had to be talked into reading a book by my ex wife. You you often don't listen to the advice of your ex wife, do you? Anyway, she insisted that I read this book and sent it out with the point where I came on, like a child. And so I read from there on, and I was just drawn into this amazing story.” - Michael Crawford
Crawford called up Lloyd Webber the first week in January 2004 and said, “Have you cast it? I’d love to do this,” to which he replied, “For God’s sake, if you’re really interested …” And of course Crawford was—very much so in the role of Count Fosco, a villainous character who becomes attracted to Marian and plots to steal the estate from her half-sister. Crawford saw a lot of humor in Fosco’s treachery and began researching to find a look for this larger-than-life character.
“There are whole pages and pages of characters that were Italians of this period. I spotted this fellow. He just shot out the page to me, and he had a It had curly hair that went out here and then came into his head just above his ears, and I'd never seen anything like this haircut. But as it was a real person, I leaped at it and said, that's who I wanted to be. And then she goes she's supposed to go over to the other side.” - Michael Crawford
In addition to his curly, black, triangle-shaped wig, Crawford also chose to wear a fat suit to portray the rotund Fosco—we’ll talk more about that in a minute. Because there was another more specific reason why Lloyd Webber thought his Phantom would be perfect for this “big cameo role” as he called it. You see in the novel, Count Fosco keeps birds and white mice as pets and pampers them as if they were his children, and Lloyd Webber told Daily Variety that he remembered Crawford’s starring role in Flowers for Algernon on the West End back in 1979, and him working with mice in that production. But in the musicalized version of Woman in White, Fosco also sings a song to a free-roaming white rat that crawls up his leg and onto his arms, traipsing from one hand, across his shoulders, to the other hand—or at least that is how it was staged once rehearsals began in July of 2004.
“And then when she doesn't [cross my arms], the audience starts to laugh. I'm singing 'You Can Get Away with Anything' and I'm supposed to be doing a cadenza that Andrew wrote. He hasn't recognized what he wrote since his first visit to the theater.” - Michael Crawford
Taking on the role of Marian Halcombe would be Maria Friedman, who is a three-time Olivier Award winning actress in shows like Ragtime and Passion. Yet in an interview on Celebrity Radio, Friedman admits to still being in awe of working with a living legend like Michael Crawford:
“He's huge, isn't he? He's, Well, he's huge because he's wearing a fat suit, but, I mean, his personality is enormous. And his craft is extraordinary. His technique is I mean, he's he is like clockwork. He never misses. He never misses a joke. He never misses the moment. He's really wonderful. He's very funny and very naughty off stage, so it keeps us going as well.”
Friedman had known Lloyd Webber, having recorded some demos here and there for him and was a part of the film version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with Donny Osmond, but she had not done a stage show with Lloyd Webber until The Woman in White.
“He offered me this role, and then he came to New York to see me in a cabaret that I was doing out there. And when he saw the cabaret, he said, I'm rewriting the role. I'm gonna make it just do everything, because I want to get all Those bits of you that I saw in the cabaret in the and I thought, yeah. Sure. He did. So I'm never off the stage. And it's great because I got comedy and drama and tragedy and passion, and it's just it's an amazing roller coaster for an actor. “
Rounding out the leading cast for the London production was Australian Martin Crewes and Americans Angela Christian and Jill Paice, who comprised a cast of 28 performers. But the biggest member of the company was the huge projection screen at the back of the stage, which would use pictures and scrolling images to set the scene or convey motion. And the choice was made to let the projections and the actors do most of the work when it came to staging.
“It relies heavily on the visual, but also it's one of the the most, demanding shows on the actors that I've been in because because actually there aren't sofas and chairs you know, the the the world is created by what we see behind us. So it's up to you to fill the space. So really we could do it without anything at all because ... it's us who are telling the story.” Maria Friedman
It was production designer William Dudley who was responsible for the 3D animations as well as the sets and costumes. Dudley and director Trevor Nunn had previously collaborated on Tom Stoppard's expansive nine-hour trilogy The Coast of Utopia at London's National Theatre in 2002, which Lloyd Webber had seen, and they all decided to employ similar innovative projection methods to The Woman in White. A significant portion of the stage design involved projecting imagery onto gracefully curved screens. And it was London-based video production company Mesmer that spearheaded the realization of projection techniques on a set that was circular, with a curved wall that sat just off of the stage turntable.
Sonia Friedman: “When Andrew described what he wanted to do with the music, which is he wanted to move from, a hilltop Pop into a house, open a house into a London bar. Trevor's response to that was ‘how do we do that?’”
Trevor Nunn: “We had to do something that wasn't to do with, physical scenery. It wasn't to do with flying cloths in or trucking trucks in. And was very fascinated with the possibilities of video, so we developed this system together.”
Andrew Lloyd Webber: “I hadn't actually thought this would be the way we'd necessarily do it. I mean, one of the great things about when you work with a with a great director, they always have ideas.”
So while Dudley may have taken on the role of designer and 3D modeler, there was a vast team of creators and technicians behind him. Now, bear with me, cause in addition to Dudley there were two assistant modelers, an animator, compositor, and editor, not to mention the CAD draftsman, who meticulously created set plans and integrated them with optical plots devised by Mesmer in collaboration with two additional companies, providing software code development, physical equipment, technical support, and troubleshooting. That’s quite a team, huh?
Now, I say all that to emphasize the fact that they were engineering a specific software and playback system tailored for The Woman In White. Their monumental challenge was to figure out the precise placement of the eight video projectors and the artful manipulation of images that would seamlessly follow with the set's movements. It took 18 computers and 12 media servers to handle such complex designs that were being projected on a wall surface that measured 98.5' wide (or 30m) and stood 16.5' high (or 5m). Dick Straker of the Mesmer company said, “Some of the software was created as we went along, with some customized solutions never used before. The hard part was knowing that it would all work as expected. And it did.”
Well, I’ve been in theater long enough to know that when it comes to mechanisms and technology, something will eventually happen. Now, that projection team had begun work back in May of 2003, and kept on working till opening night in London on September 15, 2004. Maria Friedman and Jill Paice offer contrasting experiences of the show and its use of what was new technology at the time.
“We actually haven't done a show where the video pecks up. Thank God. Because we've got back up to go to the back up to go to the back up. But we did have a rehearsal; we've got contingency A, B, and C so that we actually can keep going.” - Maria Friedman
“It was dark, and we were using this--at the time--very experimental scenery, which now everybody uses. It was all projection, so they would break all the time, and you just have, like, Windows XP up on the screen behind you in this Edwardian tale. We were cursed. Such a roller coaster.” - Jill Paice
And when it came to reviews, they were a bit of rollercoaster as well. I’ve talked about shows having mixed reviews before, but with The Woman in White the critics really were all over the place and divided on what to make of the show. The Independent didn’t mince words in saying, "too many of the songs emit the generic pop-opera sound of Lloyd Webber-land." While the Daily Mail actually thought Lloyd Webber's music was hypnotic and classical, saying it slowly unveils its melodies. The Evening Standard was rather bored with most of the music, but remarked that there was one catchy song, "I Believe My Heart."
The Daily Express called the show “a soaring, lyrical, romantic drama whose every scene lends itself as if by magic to precisely the kind of music that Lloyd Webber writes best." Critics also praised the innovative set design and projections by William Dudley, with one reviewer saying it was magnificent and that the opening projection of a foggy station gave him goosebumps. Still, others questioned if this production had gone too far in replacing traditional scenic elements with digital imagery.
But then there was the musical’s book, which was consistently advertised as being “freely adapted” from the original Wilkie Collins novel. The Mail on Sunday thought, “Charlotte Jones has done a neat job condensing this tale of two sisters” and “has also transformed the novel's notorious baddie, Count Fosco, into the type of lovable rogue more familiar in operetta.” However, The Evening Standard had a bone to pick with Jones' adaptation, calling it "preposterous." The Telegraph felt that the good music, designs, and performances in the show were all being let down by Jones’ revision of the story. The Guardian felt the same, because even though they liked David Zippel's lyrics, they had issues with Jones' book and how it tried to give the story a modern twist and messed with Marian's character.
However, Maria Friedman did win rave reviews for her portrayal of Marian as did Michael Crawford for his bafoonish Fosco—both actors would end up receiving Olivier Award nominations in February 2005 for their performances as would Dudley for his set designs and the show itself for Best Musical. But by this point Crawford was no longer in the show.
Let me explain…remember it was Crawford’s idea to use a fat suit as part of his transformation into Fosco:
“I refused to put the fat suit on during rehearsals because I thought the company, we're sort of a pretty close knit bunch, and I'd be heckled a great deal. So I thought it would distract, and I didn't put the fat suit on until we actually got into the theater. And so the character developed once that was on, and I could look in the mirror and then be able to see how I'd walk. So it's quite complex. The suit weighs 3 pounds more every time I come off the stage--we weighed it, and that's in the winter. In the summer, when we opened at the end of September, I was losing more than that.”
Interestingly enough, Crawford gave that interview just a few weeks before he would start missing shows due to flu-like symptoms that began in late December 2004 (just 4 months after opening) and his understudy, Steve Vernon, would take his place. By January 2005, though, it became obvious that Crawford wasn’t coming back anytime soon, and Michael Ball was brought in on short notice to fill in. Ball was no stranger to Lloyd Webber and his musicals, having performed in Phantom and Aspects of Love, and he went on the British talk show Richard & Judy just a couple weeks after his first performance in The Woman in White.
“Well, I got the call on this Sunday saying, is this something that I thought that I could be able to do and fit into the schedule? Because the schedule was kind of mad anyway. And I'd instantly said, yeah. I'll have a go. And I was in rehearsal on the Wednesday morning, and I was on stage 10 days later. I'd seen the show not with Michael Crawford. I'd seen it just after Christmas because I know Maria Friedman, and really enjoyed the show. And all the way through the rehearsal process, I didn't go the show again. I didn't want to be influenced by anything. It's that kind of Those showbiz stories that you know, you're flung on at the deep end.” - Michael Ball
And as you’d expect Ball brought his own interpretation and ideas to Count Fosco. Yet he sought inspiration from a very unlikely place: the world of pornography. Since the character is lustful and nefarious, the look Ball went for was patterned after porn star Ron Jeremy: there was a fat suit to accentuate Fosco’s affability, long black, greasy hair that goes straight back and forms a widow’s peak in the front, with a mustache that can seem at once debonair and menacing.
As much fun as Ball was having in the show, there was still hope that Crawford would recover enough to return in May 2005, but that didn’t happen and Anthony Andrews was brought in as a permanent replacement to play Fosco. It was later revealed, however, that Crawford's illness was actually related to over-sweating while wearing the fat suit. As Crawford explained in 2011 to the Daily Mail, teams of doctors were called in to try to find out why he was so completely exhausted, depleted, and unable to return to work. He had brain and body scans, and virtually every test known to man before eventually discovering that he was suffering from a post-viral condition called myalgic encephalopathy (which is better known as chronic fatigue syndrome). But Crawford wasn’t the only cast member replaced in this production.
The original timeline for The Woman in White to reach Broadway was November 2005, but in February of that year it was announced that the show would instead play a pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago from November to January, leading up to a New York opening in the spring of 2006. This new schedule gave the creatives plenty of time to incorporate a series of changes into the London production.
You see, by mid-2005 The Woman in White seemed to be facing an uphill battle. The mixed reviews certainly hadn’t helped, and the show was struggling to find a firm footing at the box office (with one London investor indicating it was far from recouping its investment). So in light of these challenges, rehearsals began for a new cast to take over the West End production. Lloyd Webber and Nunn initiated creative changes during these rehearsals as well. With the help of Zippel and Jones, the creative team streamlined the complex plot and sought to clarify the ambiguous ending. They also dialed back the show's innovative video projections, which, with their fast-paced movements, had left some audience members feeling queasy. Another cut to the show, or rather reduction, was Fosco’s fat suit and prosthetics, which were replaced with a “slightly exaggerated nose and a little padding.”
And so on July 9, 2005, the original London Cast (with the exception of Crawford) appeared on stage for the last time in the final performance of the "first" version of the show. The "second" version opened just two days later on July 11th with an almost completely new cast, except for some of the ensemble. With all these changes made to the show, it was believed they had successfully addressed the show's issues, and so the producers invited the London critics back for a second look at the musical. Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph wrote:
“At a time when musical comedy is making such a welcome comeback, this emotionally incontinent . . . and often drearily lugubrious musical seems desperately old-fashioned. I tremble for its changes in New York. No matter how many ‘creative modifications’ Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest musical undergoes, one year after opening, it remains a troubled show.”
Overall, critics weren’t impressed. Many maintained their initial critiques or praises, while others felt the show had grown a little stronger, but none had any new revelations or glowing remarks about this new version. And according to the New York Post, the creators and producers of the show felt disheartened, Sonia Friedman in particular, who was the producer of the London production as well as the sister of original lead actress Maria Friedman. She was dismayed by the second round of London reviews and concerned about their potential impact on the show's chances in New York.
Because it had been decided that The Woman in White would not be making its way to Chicago after all. They chose instead to reverse course and open on Broadway as originally planned in November 2005. So advance ticket sales began and end up reaching just over $5 million, a respectable figure but nowhere near the heights Lloyd Webber had achieved during his heyday with The Phantom of the Opera and Sunset Boulevard, which opened with advances of $20 million or more.
To bolster sales producers were pinning their hopes on a clever radio ad featuring music from the show, linking it to the iconic Phantom and emphasizing Lloyd Webber's return to the lush, gothic romance that had been his hallmark. But while the producers were selling the show, the Broadway cast began rehearsing the show in Fall 2005.
The musical was now a slightly shortened and modified version of London’s 2.0, with a budget of $8.5 million and weekly running costs of more than $500,000, with the three female stars from that production (Friedman, Paice, and Christian) being brought in to reprise their roles as was Michael Ball. But Friedman was definitely the big star in the producers’ minds as her compensation was north of $10,000 per week plus perks like a three-bedroom apartment, car, driver, and a nanny of her two children. The rest of the cast would be joining the musical for the first time, including Leah Horowitz, a swing in the show and understudy for Maria Friedman.
“And the first rehearsal, he just sat us all in chairs in a circle, and he basically gave us a history lesson, which was fascinating. He's wonderful to listen to. Like, you could listen to him talk for hours about theater. He talked about the book and historical context and just all sorts of wonderful things to kind of get us into it. And rehearsing with him was wonderful. Watching him work with Maria especially, because they had a great relationship—such a kind, smart, intuitive, insightful man. And Simon Lee, who was the music supervisor and he taught us all the music, was just one of my favorite people ever. I remember we all had to work on—the ensemble—we had to have, like, a Yorkshire accent, I think. It was like a northern dialect, so we we did a lot of work on that. But, yeah, rehearsals were great.” - Leah Horowitz
Now, rehearsals in a studio are helpful in learning the basics of the show: the music and blocking and choreography. But just as in London, The Woman in White had a rather large component of the show that could only be learned and explored once the cast got onstage: those innovative videos and projections, which had undergone some modifications for the Broadway stage.
“So the set was basically almost like a doughnut. And for most of the show the the 2 front walls that face the audience could open up. So for most of the show, it really looked like a semicircle that had a couple of doors built into it and within the middle of the doughnut was a turntable. And then the set, I should I shouldn't say the set. I guess the backgrounds were projected onto it, in an innovative way. The projector was not out in the house. The projector was up above, and it would project kind of at a sharp angle down onto the wall. So you could get pretty close to the wall before your body interfered with the projector stream. But, you know, we were we were taught how close we could get. We had to keep a certain distance, from the projector." - Leah Horowitz
But regardless of the dizzying technology behind the cast, the main star and focus of this Broadway production was Maria Friedman. But she wasn’t just a leading actress, she was leading offstage as well and enjoyed a deep camaraderie with the cast.
“She was just also just an open book and just got to know all of us and really was just she was a wonderful leader of—you know, the feeling of a show is often so dictated by the principals and how they act.” - Leah Horowitz
Though she had already done the role before, Friedman was leading by example and fervently preparing for her Broadway debut – “even embarking on a diet just to fit into a tight corset for the show.” But on Halloween, October 31st 2005, just three days after preview performances had begun, she noticed something strange about her body when she looking in the mirror and discovered a lump. Hours later she underwent a mammogram and was diagnosed with stage one breast cancer. Producers Bob Boyett and Sonia Friedman (Maria’s sister), considered “delaying or even canceling performances to allow their leading lady to recuperate.”
But for Maria Friedman, calling off her Broadway debut “was never an option” because she didn’t feel ill. She continued to perform in previews, and three days after her diagnosis had an operation, which left her with dark, painful bruises on her chest and extremely tender ribs. She said, “it was like a large elephant sat on me.” During her absence, the understudy Lisa Brescia took over the role, and a week after that, a bruised and bandaged Friedman was back singing and dancing for almost three hours in a preview performance.
There was doctor in the wings on standby, the radiologist who first discovered the cancer, and he monitored her condition throughout the show. He said, “I'm not an avid attendee of the theater; I usually fall asleep. But I didn't fall asleep in this one." (I would certainly hope not.) Michael Ball also told the NY Times that he was just “proud to be on the stage with her.”
The decision to go public with her disease was hers alone, because she felt that just letting it leak out would be a negative for the show as it approached opening night and those all-important reviews. Friedman also knew that the jobs of the front of house staff and backstage technicians at the Marquis Theatre, as well as the cast of course, were all riding on the success of the show, and this 45-year-old mother of two was not going to let breast cancer cancel the production. Even when she started radiation, Friedman would do six shows a week, while the understudy Brescia would do the Wednesday and Saturday matinees. But as I mentioned, Leah was also an understudy for Friedman.
“Each character had 2 understudies, And they very clearly were the A understudies and the B understudies. The A understudies always went on. The B understudies tended to go on—I mean, I was the B understudy for Marion, and I never went on.” - Leah Horowitz
As someone who was an understudy on the Evita National Tour for Juan Perón, I know what it’s like to rehearse every week and prepare for a leading role but never go on. You understand it’s rarely personal, as there is so much that goes into making those decisions, but still it is disappointing. Nonetheless, we understudies are professional, taking our job seriously and constantly stay ready for the possibility of going on.
“I mean, I watched her a lot because I was her understudy, and I was a swing so I could watch her from the house. And I never got tired of watching her because she was so present and so alive, and she never was quite the same twice, but not in a bad way. I mean, she hit her marks. She she wasn't you know, she wouldn't mess with anybody to, like, change her blocking or anything, but she was just so in the moment. It was It was just amazing to watch her every night. Her dramatic turns and just everything was always so fresh.” - Leah Horowitz
There were other, smaller characters onstage that often get the biggest response from the audience, and that would Beatrice and her understudy Charlotte, who play the rat that Count Fosco sings to during his comedic song, “You Can Get Away With Anything.” Beatrice is a more common white rat, whereas Charlotte is completely hairless, making her veins pop out beneath her skin. Ball found Charlotte to be utterly disgusting and not a great performer, and she would illicit quite the violent reaction from the audience as well. He also dealt with mice in another scene, which grossed him out due to their incontinence. On opening night, such a mishap occurred during a key scene, prompting Ball to strategically place wet wipes around the set, and he admitted to pulling a prank on his co-star Ron Bohmer, wiping mouse-related mess on Bohmer's costume for a good laugh.
And while the cast was certainly enjoying their opening night on November 17, 2005, Maria Friedman had even more to grateful for.
“I wasn't really able to, be too sad because there was this outpouring of concern and Practical care from people I didn't know. Obviously, all the people I did know, but from hundreds of people. I have I have a mailbag, which is I'll I'll be writing back for months, you know. And, it's nice for me to be able to say thank you to absolutely everybody. I'll be saying it for a long, long time. And I feel well. I feel one of the blessed ones. I wasn't seriously ill, and, and I think cancer's really kind of confirmed to me that it's kind of okay to be fallible and human. It’s okay.” - Maria Friedman
“Being on stage with her when I would be on, like, she was doing this incredibly dramatic role that had, you know, crying and you know? But she was able to just, like, goof around on stage. Like, she would, Like, turn her back to the audience and pull a face at you and make you laugh, and then turn around, and she'd be back in character. She was amazing like that, and we just adored her.” - Leah Horowitz
And when it came to her performance, the reviewers were enamored with her portrayal of Marion. The New York Daily News said, “What gives Woman in White its dramatic power is Maria Friedman's shattering performance.” Others said she “sings with effortless expressiveness” and provides “most of the heat” in the show. Newsday was particularly effusive in their review, saying, “The gifted and gutsy Maria Friedman, whose recent breast-cancer surgery has had her all over the news, performs with nuance and without apparent as Marian.” William Dudley with his set designs and projections also received raves from the critics.
However, when it came to the music, lyrics, and book, the New York reviewers were just as divided as the London critics had been: calling the music “his best score since Aspects of Love” as well as generic and syrupy, the lyrics were workmanlike as well as bland, while Jones’ freely adapted book was mostly panned as diluted and convoluted.
Regardless, those reviews didn’t stop audiences from checking out the newest Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. On average, week after week, The Woman in White box office sales was on par with other big shows like Hairspray and Beauty and the Beast. It was even besting the other big musical to open that fall, Jersey Boys. But as performances went on, much like it did in London, the captivating set design and walls didn’t always want to cooperate with the actors.
“There were times when things would not work and there was this one scene when when I was on for Lisa. Lisa had this track of, a prostitute who would she would walk with, I think Marion and Walter in front of those closed walls, and there was a door that she would take out a key and pretend to open the door and, like, walk them through the door. But sometimes, if something went wrong with the set, the door would automatically lock. It was like a safety feature where if something wasn't working right, it would lock to, like, protect the actors. You'd get to the door and pretend to try to open it, and it's not opening. So then you would kinda shrug and just walk off into the wings, you know, and then some I think a couple times they might have had to stop the show because they couldn't get the front of the doughnut to open.” - Leah Horowitz
So while actors were contending with occasional challenges onstage, medical issues were affecting two of the leads offstage. Friedman continued her ongoing cancer treatment, which led to her missing performances throughout December 2005. And then, later that month the cast was on a short two-day Christmas break, but as the cast returned to the show, Michael Ball was not among them. The producers nor anyone else were quiet about where he was or when he’d be back. So his “A” understudy was put on in his place, until such time as producers would’ve had to contractually pay him more, then at that point the “B” understudy was put in.
Well, Ball may have been absent and Friedman was missing shows, but it certainly didn’t affect ticket sales, though, as The Woman in White had its highest weekly gross of the run between Christmas and New Year’s Day, reaching almost $1 million. In fact, all of Broadway was having a banner season, grossing a then record-breaking $825 million in New York for the 2005 calendar year.
As 2006 began, a report came out from Playbill: “Michael Ball, the London stage star who created the role of Count Fosco for the Broadway production of The Woman in White, has permanently left the production. A spokesperson for the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical told Playbill.com that Ball, who was last in the show Jan. 20, has a ‘viral infection in [his] throat’ and will not play the show's final performances.”
However, I’ve confirmed with members of the cast that Ball was not in show on January 20th, and in fact he hadn’t returned to the show since Christmas. Whether that was a typo in Playbill or just a bad press release, I’m not sure.
But what did happen on January 20th, though, was an announcement that Friedman would be out again on medical leave for six weeks starting February 12th, and that Judy Kuhn would take over in her absence. However, that never happened, because just a couple of weeks after that it was announced that The Woman in White would close on February 19th. Friedman decided to postpone her medical leave and finish out the remaining shows. As it turned out, the London production closed a week after that, having lasted a total of 19 months on the West End, whereas the Broadway production only ran for 3 months.
In total The Woman in White played 109 performances in New York, yet only 31 of those featured a complete cast onstage. Lloyd Webber compared it to his big hit show by saying: “There have been performances when two or more leads have been absent due to illness. I'm not sure even The Phantom of the Opera could have survived the illnesses which have beset this wonderful company." But according to Bob Boyett, the lead producer, the decision to end the show boiled down to one thing: the numbers.
He revealed that ticket sales took a nosedive in February, resulting in a whopping $150,000 loss. And the bleeding wasn’t going to stop there. More losses were on the horizon, and to keep the show running until the Tony Awards in June, Boyett and his investors would have had to cough up an extra $2 million. While he was willing to chip in his share, the uncertainty of whether that investment would pay off made the gamble too steep for other investors.
Despite Andrew Lloyd Webber’s name attached to the show, The Woman in White failed to resonate with the New York crowds. After that box office high during the winter holidays, ticket sales fell and never recovered. Even the media attention surrounding Friedman's cancer battle didn't translate in an uptick at the box office. I mean Friedman was a star in London, but just couldn't pull the same draw in the Big Apple. Even during her various absences for treatment, the show didn't see a flood of refund requests – less than a dozen over three months.
Same goes for her co-star, Michael Ball, another London sensation who didn't quite strike a chord with New Yorkers. Rumors swirled that Ball left the show due to feeling overshadowed, but Boyett dispelled these assumptions, saying that “Ball is not a person you can neglect” and cited a genuine sinus problem as the reason why he left the show. Although, Boyett jokingly added, “The only thing he ever said to me is, 'If Maria is out two more days, I want her dressing room.” I guess we are to assume that was said in jest.
Nonetheless, despite their hopes it would catch on, Lloyd Webber and Boyett acknowledge that it was an unexpected flop and that they’ll be “deconstructing this show forever." In fact, as Lloyd Webber was working with Zippel on Bad Cinderella, he offered his thoughts on The Woman in White, and did so from that same chapel on his country estate where the musical began back in 2003:
“Well, anyway, it worked incredibly well here in the little church. In fact, I don't think it ever really worked anywhere better. It went to Broadway, went to London. Did okay in London. Not so well, I'm afraid, didn't work on Broadway. It's extraordinary thing that sometimes shows work really well in small spaces. And when they kinda blow up, they don't work anything like so well, I think, not just in this confined spaces.”
But that doesn’t mean Lloyd Webber was completely done with the musical. Sometimes putting a little distance between ourselves and setbacks can bring perspective, especially when someone else help provides us with a bit of incentive. In this case, it was the lyricist David Zippel who had an idea:
“I always thought that it was a chamber musical and that...almost all the singing is done by 6 people. And so, I had pitched that to Andrew, and he was working on a bunch of different projects, and when he finally came up for air, he looked at what I was suggesting. And Charlotte and he and I got back together and reimagined it a little bit, tightened the story a bit. And we did a a pilot version of it in London a year ago this fall this past fall, and that's the version now that goes out to other theaters. It'll have a life.”
In musical theatre, as Lloyd Webber has said before, there are so many things that can go wrong, it is almost impossible to get them all to go right together. So while The Woman in White’s original demise on Broadway may have been a disappointment, maybe with enough time and reimagining, they finally got all the pieces in the right order. I mean as the Brits say, you simply “keep calm and carry on.”
Listen to more of my conversation with Leah Horowitz in the bonus episode next week...
Closing Night is a production of WINMI Media with Patrick Oliver Jones as host and executive producer. Dan Delgado is the editor and co-producer, not only for this podcast but also for his own movie podcast as well called The Industry, which I highly recommend. Maria Clara Ribeiro is co-producer. Thank you to those who contributed to this episode: Hal Luftig, Christina DeCicco, Sammi Cannold, and the various theater news outlets. Join us next time as another production makes its way to closing night.
Sources and materials used to create this episode...
100 Greatest Novels - https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/oct/12/features.fiction
Zippel Interview - https://youtu.be/cne6Kq6MBpg?si=MHmm2CV_YuBxVnXa&t=1158 (19:20)
LONDON PRODUCTION (Sept 15, 2004 - Jan 20, 2006)
Workshop with Anne Hathaway (ALW)
Michael Crawford (2004):
https://youtu.be/XWZafaJ_zrM - what drew him to the role and how he happened upon the look of Fosco
https://youtu.be/diPOK6rBCpY - putting on the suit and makeup
Michael Ball takes over - https://youtu.be/SmaE3PrR_J4
Maria Friedman - https://youtu.be/KJ1wHRKCRqI
Charing Cross 2017 Revival - https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2017/dec/05/the-woman-in-white-review-charing-cross-theatre-andrew-lloyd-webber
BROADWAY PRODUCTION (Nov 17, 2005 - Feb 19, 2006)
Show Clips - https://youtu.be/xwaCyqXZebw?si=pJGnxNvjca5DALWy&t=354 (trio) & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4AT-B0A9oU0&t=130s (better audio)
Opening Night interviews - https://youtu.be/6UH5oYiZNdo?si=p_yuR1-FFezeSk2i
Future of the show:
Evermore Without You - https://youtu.be/RluegPPux4I?si=oHMStamqg3bvHUnR
I Believe My Heart (30-sec instrumental intro)