All White on the Night? Andrew Lloyd Webber's Ambitious New Musical, the Woman in White, Based on Wilkie Collins's Sprawling Victorian Ghost Story, Has a Lot Riding on It. Nick Curtis Meets the Team Behind This Make-or-Break Production

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Byline: NICK CURTIS

come Wed 15 Sep, Andrew Lloyd Webber will be hoping that The Woman In White is as good to him as she was to her author, Wilkie Collins. First serialised in Charles Dickens's magazine, All The Year Round, Collins's Victorian Gothic tale became a blockbusting, bestselling novel in 1860, spawning a lucrative line of merchandising.

Now 140 years on, Lloyd Webber will open his musical adaptation of Collins's thriller at the refurbished Palace Theatre. It's probably fair to say that his lordship's fingers will be crossed.

As well as being a fan of the Victorian era, a collector of its art and 13 of its London theatres, Lloyd Webber is a composer in need of a hit. His recent shows, Whistle Down The Wind and The Beautiful Game, flopped. Bombay Dreams, the Bollywood musical he produced, just about broke even before transferring to Broadway. The recent revival of his one-woman musical Tell Me On A Sunday, starring Denise Van Outen, did neither. It is years since Lloyd Webber had a success on the scale of his early works such as Cats, Starlight Express, or the mighty The Phantom Of The Opera, which remains the highest-grossing theatre entertainment ever, 19 years after its opening. And it's not just his personal reputation that's at stake. The success of his new venture will be seen as an indicator of the health of the West End. There is a lot riding on The Woman In White.

To his credit, Lloyd Webber has not played safe assembling his creative team in the painstaking, two-year gestation process of the new show. True, he has lured his original Phantom, Michael Crawford, back from Broadway (and humiliation of a flop, Dance Of The Vampires) to play 'the Napoleon of crime', Count Fosco - a move sure to draw audiences.

Collins's feisty but lovelorn heroine Marian is played by West End diva Maria Friedman (The Witches Of Eastwick). And the director is Trevor Nunn, a veteran of classical theatre and four previous Lloyd Webber musicals.

Other collaborators, though, are new to Lloyd Webber's table. Lyricist David Zippel had never worked on a through-composed (ie continuous) score. The writer of the book, Charlotte Jones, won plaudits for her play Humble Boy, but admits she 'had never done a musical before, had never heard many Lloyd Webber shows and had no idea what a book-writer did.' The composer is also working, for the first time since with Cameron Mackintosh, with an independent producer - the dynamic, thirtysomething Sonia Friedman (yes, she's Maria's sister). Friedman is a canny operator, the woman who secured Madonna's West End acting debut in Up For Grabs, but her only previous experience of a large-scale musical was the short-lived US import, Ragtime.

Friedman even admits that the whole project came about by accident. 'Two years ago, Andrew was on The Frank Skinner Show and admitted that he didn't have any ideas for a show,' she says. 'Someone wrote in and said, "Why don't you have a go at The Woman In White?"' She and Lloyd Webber had lunch two days later, both having thumbed the novel, and decided to work together on it. She suggested that it would be 'good and exciting and creative for Andrew to work with new, perhaps younger, people'. The adapters, however, quickly realised they faced an uphill struggle. The tale takes in love stories and a sinister criminal plot, but it is also episodic, overpopulated, and told from several, often contradictory, points of view. …