Time to Remember: Spotlighting Richard Pilbrow’s life in musicals

Prompted by the publication of a new book, ANTHONY FIELD writes about the career of the man who single-handedly invented the language of modern stage lighting, RICHARD PILBROW. Richard and Anthony had been dear friends and producing partners for decades, and Anthony’s exit from the Arts Council after 27 years could only have been to work with someone as multi-talented as Richard, whose own company – Theatre Projects – gained Anthony as their Finance Director. Theatre Projects is a world-renowned company which has created some of the most significant and successful performing arts venues around the world over the last five decades. Now 87, Richard is President Emeritus of the Company. Enjoy reading about his fascinating journey through the theatre of the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. This article is from 2011.

Richard Pilbrow (left), Anthony Field (right)

Recently published is a long-awaited book A THEATRE PROJECT, an autobiographical memoir by Richard Pilbrow, the pioneer of contemporary stage lighting who developed his career as a theatre consultant and producer. Over the last five decades he has been involved in the production of many successful musicals.

In 1962 Donald Albery contracted him to work in a spectacular new show called BLITZ! with music by Lionel Bart. This production was to present Cockney London under Hitler’s bombardment during the Second World War – on stage, which had never seen its like before or since. Noel Coward described it as “twice as loud and twice as long as the real thing”. Sean Kenny who had created brilliant sets for OLIVER! went on to designing extraordinary sets for BLITZ! at the Adelphi and Richard Pilbrow’s account of the Royal Gala preview found the stage smoke engulfing the orchestra which had to stop playing. Fortunately the first night proved perfection.

This led to Tony Walton writing to ask Richard to meet Hal Prince in New York to discuss lighting a new Broadway musical which Tony was to design. Richard stayed with Tony and his wife, Julie Andrews then starring in CAMELOT and the next morning they discussed producing A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM by Burt Shevelove with music by Stephen Sondheim. This led to Hal Prince encouraging Richard to become a producer, establishing Theatre Projects as Hal’s London office

Their first London project was to be A FUNNY THING… and everyone thought that they were crazy to cast Frankie Howerd in it. They saw him play one of the broker’s men in panto at Coventry and Peter Cook persuaded them about his comic talent. However, the tour proved a nightmare with no laughs and the previews were frightening. The opening night finally arrived with Frankie’s “Comedy Tonight” introducing the notable group of British comedians – Kenneth Connor, Eddie Gray, Jon Pertwee and Robertson Hare brought the audience to its feet in recognition and welcome. The triumph ran for two years and Theatre Projects was the first-ever London management to close the show for a week after the first year to give the entire cast a holiday.

Amidst Richard’s full work programme of plays and consultancy for the new National Theatre and Manchester’s Royal Exchange, he continued to co-produce and light such musicals as HALF A SIXPENCE with Tommy Steele at the Cambridge Theatre and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS WITHOUT REALLY TRYING at the Shaftesbury.

Richard plowed his profits from A FUNNY THING… into SHE LOVES ME which he adored. This had started as an idea of Julie Andrews to turn the film THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER into a musical for her although her Disney contract for the MARY POPPINS film prevented her from appearing in SHE LOVES ME. The reviews in London were the kiss of death – “charming, charming, charming”-which did not help to pull in audiences. The show has never proved commercially successful but Richard was then excited with another score played to him by Jerry Block and Sheldon Harnick for FIDDLER ON THE ROOF.

In 1964 Richard and Tony Walton designed and lit GOLDEN BOY on Broadway, with the book by Clifford Odets and music by Charles Strouse. Its success was partly due to the overwhelming projections for backgrounds which established a new method of designing musicals.

Returning to London, Richard applied himself to opening FIDDLER at Her Majesty’s Theatre although the whole theatre establishment told him that such a Jewish show would never succeed in the west End.

The long story of engaging Topol and the five-year run of FIDDLER has been retold many times. Suffice to note that all producers have their failures as well as successes. Although not a failure but the next Broadway musical to involve Richard was THE ROTHSCHILDS: I myself enjoyed it enormously when I saw it in 1970 but it was not a big hit, although it ran for over 500 performances at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre.

Back in London in 1968 Richard had opened his fourth musical in the West End which was Kander and Ebb’s CABARET starring Judi Dench at the Palace Theatre. Although Judi protested “I just can’t sing”, Hal Prince was enchanted with her, and declared “This will be the Real Sally Bowles”.

The next lighting venture was for Stephen Sondheim’s COMPANY in 1971 in New York which Richard went on to produce in London at his favourite theatre, Her Majesty’s, with Elaine Stritch. It ran for 344 performances but did not recoup its capital. However, it established a long-term relationship with Stephen Sondheim. Richard demonstrated to London that musical theatre could be a profound theatrical form with Sondheim’s A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC in 1975 with Jean Simmons at the Adelphi. This ran for 406 performances during which Virginia McKenna replaced Jean.

The 450 pages of this story of Richard Pilbrow’s life can hardly be summarised in one short article except by highlighting the musicals in which he was involved, which included THE GOOD COMPANIONS in 1974 at Her Majesty’s. This had a libretto by Ronald Harwood with music by Andre Previn. Then there was the large-scale spectacle of GONE WITH THE WIND at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at the Palace, and the failures of CARTE BLANCHE at the Phoenix and the revival of KISMET at the Shaftesbury. His first venture with Cameron Mackintosh was the revival of OKLAHOMA! at the Palace in 1980 and then with Tommy Steele again, he lit SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN for Harold Fielding at the London Palladium.

The transfer of WEST SIDE STORY, revived at Leicester, to Her Majesty’s proved a big hit in 1984 and led to the production of LENA HORNE: THE LADY AND HER MUSIC at the Adelphi.

There are still dreams and hopes of shows which never achieved their potential such as BUSKER ALLEY with Tommy Tune, based on the 1930 movie ST. MARTIN’S LANE, and Cy Coleman’s THE LIFE. Very sadly the failure of the 1986 revival of A FUNNY THING… at the Piccadilly with a sick Frankie Howerd put an end to the wealth of Theatre Projects’ programme of musicals but Richard’s continued career in the US in the 21st century finds him lighting revivals of WHERE’S CHARLEY?, THE BOY FRIEND and the new A TALE OF TWO CITIES.

All in all, anyone wanting to read the whole background of the creation of musical theatre will find it in Richard Pilbrow’s engrossing book “A Theatre Project” published by Plasa Media.

AFTERWORD: You can find out more about Richard Pilbrow’s fascinating book A THEATRE PROJECT here


Lyric Hammersmith at 125

The Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, celebrates its 125th anniversary on 20th July.

The Lyric Theatre is a rare and truly remarkable survivor. It was originally built as a music hall in 1888 on Bradmore Grove, Hammersmith by a local businessman, Charles Cordingly . It was rebuilt and enlarged on the same site twice, firstly in 1890 and then in 1895 (with additional remodeling in 1899) by the master theatre architect Frank Matcham. The 1895 reopening, as The New Lyric Opera House, was graced by an opening address by the famous actress Lillie Langtry.

Lyric Opera House – drawing from the ERA, 4 Feb 1899
An early Lyric programme

After a chequered history of seventy years of successes and slumps, the theatre went up for auction in 1965 but was only finally sold in 1968. According to some sources, the auction was won by a “Mr Richards” who bought the theatre for £26,000. However, the Council believed that they had bought the theatre at the same auction, for the same price. As a result, the theatre went back to auction and the Council eventually bought it for £37,500.

1969 Awaiting demolition

Everything pointed towards the closure and demolition of the theatre. However, a local campaign started to save the Lyric- well, some of it. The campaign argued that the auditorium was of such a high standard that it should be dismantled and reconstructed within a new structure a short distance away in King Street, a much more central and visible location in Hammersmith’s centre. The campaign gathered momentum and eventually succeeded.

The epic work of reconstructing the original auditorium within a new structure is a very rare occurrence today – and even more so over 50 years ago. But with patience, planning and perseverance the work continued, and by 1979 the Lyric Theatre’s new building welcomed the original Lyric’s 550-seat auditorium, opened by HM the Queen.

Lyric auditorium as reconstructed
Lyric auditorium as reconstructed

In 2018 the auditorium’s glorious plasterwork was restored and refurbished to a high standard, as you can see in a detail photo below.

Lyric auditorium as reconstructed

Today, although closed due to COVID-19, the Lyric is thriving as a vital part of its community, and I hope that the theatre enjoys another 50 years of success ahead!

Anyone wishing to explore the removal of the original auditorium plasterwork can see a comprehensive range of fascinating photos at the arthurlloyd.com website here


Time to Remember: London’s original TKTS

July sees the 40th anniversary of the Official London Discounted Ticket Booth – TKTS. In its time it has become a London landmark for theatregoers looking for a last-minute bargain. But did you know that there was a London TKTS before the one in Leicester Square?

Photo courtesy Society of London Theatre website.

In this look into the archives, my friend and colleague ANTHONY FIELD writes about his time as the pioneering Finance Director of the Arts Council (1957-1984) – and his first experiment with reduced price tickets – in a caravan in Covent Garden! This article dates from June 2010

As long ago as 1976 the Arts Council of Great Britain was concerned to bring together the commercial and subsidised theatre [NOTE: Something that Anthony himself had been working on since 1956!]. This concern manifested itself in the launching of the Theatre Investment Fund which was funded by £100,000 from the Arts Council and £150,000 raised from private sources by Lord Goodman, then the Arts Council’s chair.

The 1976/77 Arts Council Annual Report records that I launched a trial run of TKTS in London modelled on the scheme which had been running successfully in New York since 1973. The Times Square model was based on unsold tickets on the day of performance being made available at one-half of the face value plus a nominal sales charge. In 1975/76 the Times Square booth made a profit of $160,000 which was ploughed back into commercial producing managements on Broadway.

TKTS Times Square, New York, 1973

I proposed a similar scheme at a meeting of the Society of West End Theatre (SWET) and it was thrown out. Undeterred, I then borrowed a caravan from the London Tourist Board and placed it on a bomb site in Covent Garden and persuaded the Arts Council to finance a trial run. As the Arts Council’s Finance Director, this was considered to be one of my “capers”.

However, led by Sir Peter Saunders, then the SWET Chairman, the West End theatre managements did not want to encourage the sale of cheap tickets and certainly did not want to admit that any shows were not selling out.

The TKTS scheme was devised so that theatregoers could queue each day for any available tickets without having to visit each of the many theatres throughout London. However, as only the few managements who were not SWET members sent us tickets, we were forced to close down the trial run after three months. The Arts Council’s 32nd Annual Report wrote “the expertise is now there should SWET ever choose to interest itself in the existence of such a scheme”.

Luckily, after several years SWET did come to realise how useful a TKTS scheme could be and launched it successfully in Leicester Square where it is the official channel for unsold tickets – unlike the many unofficial tickets agencies now cluttering the West End.


With thanks to the Estate of Anthony Field for permission to publish this article.


AFTERWORD The recent news that the TKTS box office In Leicester Square is to close “for the foreseeable future” is a sad ending of a chapter in the life of a venue which has become a much-loved London landmark; it is horribly sad that this should occur on its 40th anniversary. It had been selling 400,000 theatre tickets a year – a very significant contribution to the West End. I sincerely hope that it will soon rise again to continue to serve London’s theatregoers for many years to come.


Exhibitions and events with a theatre theme to enjoy across the UK – now and soon!

COUNTRY-WIDE From 13 to 22 September, there are over 100 theatre-related events going on across the country during Heritage Open Days. Most likely a theatre near you will be opening its doors to offer tours of the buildings. Intrigued? Then take a look at their website here where you can search what’s happening near you.


LONDONV&A – Discover the creative process behind designing for performance, from costume to set design at Staging Places, which celebrates the diversity of British performance design across spaces and genres. This display, in collaboration with the Society of British Theatre Designers, presents costumes, set designs, models, photos, drawings and puppets that reveal the creative process behind designing for performance. And best of all, its free! Running now until 29 March 2020. More information here


Stockton Globe

STOCKTON ON TEES – Preston Park Museum – A fascinating exhibition about the life -and rebirth- of Stockton’s magnificent Globe is now on. The building has had a splendid history. Opened as a 2400-seater cinema in December 1935, the building closed in 1996 and has lain empty for over 20 years, falling into terrible disrepair. Thankfully Stockton Council have saved the building and it is undergoing extensive modernisation works, with a planned reopening in Spring 2020. Explore the story of the Globe and its restoration in this fascinating exhibition.  Find out about the famous acts – including Buddy Holly, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Elton John – who played at the venue. Plus, discover the exciting future for the newly restored Globe. The exhibition is on now until October 6th at the Preston Park Museum. Admission into the museum is paid but the Globe exhibition is presented at no extra cost. More information here. And to find out more about the reborn Globe, see their new website here.


Collins’s Music Hall on Islington Green – sadly long gone!

LONDON – ISLINGTON MUSEUM – “Ta-Ra-Ra Boom-De-Ay!” is an exhibition about Islington’s many popular Music Halls. For over 100 years, throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the borough’s many music halls and variety theatres entertained generations of Islingtonians. Each venue promised a unique evening’s entertainment and local residents and visitors would drop in to see their favourite ‘turns’. Explore a time when variety was definitely the spice of life. The exhibition is free and a range of attached talks, shows and walks have been curated to further visitors’ enjoyment. On until 22 October. More details here