19/22 Tower Street
London WC2 H9S
Incorporated: 1977 as The Really Useful Company
SICs:: 7922 Theatrical Producers (Except Motion Picture) & Miscellaneous Theatrical Services; 3652 Phonograph Records & Prerecorded Audio Tapes & Disks; 7929 Bands, Orchestras, Actors, & Other Entertainers & Entertainment Groups
The Really Useful Group was founded in order to provide the business framework for the development and world-wide exploitation of the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
The Really Useful Group is the umbrella corporation over a welter of entertainment and leisure companies that operate worldwide. The core of the company's business is marketing of the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Britain's most successful composer, known for blockbuster musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Cats, Evita, Phantom of the Opera, and others. The company receives a percentage of the profits from every new Lloyd Webber production, and is responsible for promoting and producing the shows. In addition, the company owns the rights to much of Lloyd Webber's work, and exploits these through film, video, and recording ventures. The Group owns a record company, Really Useful Records, which principally releases recordings of Lloyd Webber's music. The Really Useful Picture Company, the Group's film production arm, develops and produces works for both television and the big screen. Many of the Picture Company's ventures revolve around Lloyd Webber musicals, such as a documentary commissioned by the BBC about the making of Sunset Boulevard. Other film ventures are about other people's music, including a made-for-television film about the Beatles and a series on music made in collaboration with the Walt Disney Company. The Group also owns several theaters around the world, including three in London, and theaters in Germany, Switzerland, and Australia. The company also has a games division. The Really Useful Group's offices are found in London, New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Frankfurt. The bulk of the company's profits come from North America, with a substantial portion also made in continental Europe, and smaller contributions coming from Japan, Australia, Singapore, and other Asian venues, and from the United Kingdom.
Lloyd Webber's Beginnings
The history of The Really Useful Group cannot be separated from the history of Andrew Lloyd Webber himself. Lloyd Webber was born in 1948, son of William Lloyd Webber, director of the London College of Music. William Lloyd Webber was a talented organist, and his broad musical tastes and special fondness for church music may have influenced his son's early work, especially the biblically themed Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Young Andrew was given music lessons from the age of four, and he soon began composing his own tunes. He published his first piece of music at age nine, called The Toy Theatre Suite. Andrew Lloyd Webber made it to prestigious Oxford University, but he quit after one term. His only real interest was in writing musicals. After he dropped out of college, Lloyd Webber subsisted off money from his grandmother, took a few composing courses, and wrote pop songs and several musicals with a friend, Tim Rice. Rice was a talented lyricist, and the two made a dynamic combo. They had limited success with their first efforts, eventually staging a 30-minute "pop cantata"--Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat--in St. Paul's Cathedral. This piece was covered favorably in the newspapers, and because of it Rice and Lloyd Webber were picked up by the agents David Land and Sefton Myers of New Talent Ventures. Land and Myers provided Rice and Lloyd Webber with a living wage in exchange for 25 percent of their earnings over the next three years. Rice and Lloyd Webber then recorded a few songs, and searched for a big idea that would put them on the map. When they recorded a song called "Superstar" about Jesus Christ, it became a cult hit, and in 1969 MCA Records commissioned the pair to write a full-length musical based on the life of Christ. The two-album recording of Jesus Christ Superstar debuted in 1970. It flopped in England, but sold astonishingly well in the United States.
Rice and Lloyd Webber were becoming a hot item, and so they were snapped up by a new backer, Robert Stigwood. Stigwood bought a 51 percent stake in New Talent Ventures, Rice and Lloyd Webber's original agency, and negotiated the rights to 25 percent of the pair's earnings over the next five years, plus the rights to film and stage productions of their works in the English-speaking world. The stage version of Jesus Christ Superstar debuted on Broadway the next year, an immediate smash hit. It was Stigwood who boosted the show, toured it all over the United States, and launched a dozen lawsuits against pirate productions. By 1975, Rice and Lloyd Webber had each made an estimated $2.4 million off Jesus Christ Superstar. Their next show, a full-length version of their earlier Joseph, was also a huge hit, staged in dozens of countries. Then in 1978, Rice and Lloyd Webber produced Evita, a musical based on the life of Eva Perón. Another smash, this show eventually made an estimated $240 million. The album sold 3.5 million copies, and the film rights were sold for $1.6 million.
Lloyd Webber was an immense artistic success, living his dream of composing musicals. His work had made him wealthy by the time he was 23. After Evita, his second five-year contract with Stigwood was up, and Lloyd Webber decided to take control of his own finances. He set up a variety of different companies, each dedicated to a separate aspect of his business. He set up a company called Escaway (an elision of "escape" and "getaway") to manage his personal finances; his Steampower Music Company owned the rights to his music publishing. The company he formed to take over what Stigwood had done he named The Really Useful Company, after James the Really Useful Engine on the popular British children's television show "Thomas the Tank."
Start of Really Useful in the 1970s and 1980s
The Really Useful Company operated out of the profits from Lloyd Webber's new shows. He parted with lyricist Rice at the same time he severed his connection with Robert Stigwood, and moved on to create another sensation, Cats. Cats debuted in 1981, and was still playing in New York ten years later. It was estimated to have made $640 million worldwide in these ten years, and it sold millions of recordings. Lloyd Webber also produced Song and Dance in 1982, which ran for two years in London and 14 months on Broadway. This was followed by Starlight Express in 1984. In 1985, The Really Useful Company was flush with profits from these shows, and Lloyd Webber announced he would offer public shares in the company.
The new publicly owned company, called The Really Useful Group, promised investors a share in Lloyd Webber's upcoming works for the next seven years. The company was also still raking in profits from Cats. Lloyd Webber retained 40 percent of the stock in Really Useful, and sold the rest on the London Stock Exchange beginning in January 1986. The stock started out at $4.79 a share, and had risen almost 60 percent by the autumn of 1987. Revenues for its first year as a public company were $29 million, and the profit came to $8.5 million. The Group's managing director was Brian Brolly, who had formerly been Paul McCartney's business manager.
The company flourished when Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera debuted in 1989. The new show packed in audiences in New York, London, Los Angeles, and Vienna. Meanwhile, Cats continued to do well. Yet there was some evidence that things were not running altogether smoothly at the company. Director Brolly quit the company, apparently over differences with Lloyd Webber. Brolly then sold his shares in the company, and they were bought up by publishing magnate Robert Maxwell. Maxwell spent some $16.5 million for the 14.5 percent stake in Really Useful. Despite his large investment, Maxwell claimed he did not want a say in the company, but merely saw it as a good investment.
Maxwell bought his stake in the company in August 1989, and by February 1990, Lloyd Webber had apparently decided that he was in danger of losing artistic control of his work to outside investors. Lloyd Webber asked to buy back the shares he had sold to the public, and take Really Useful private again. Though there had been no real conflict with Maxwell or any other investor, Lloyd Webber explained that he wanted to do new things, such as make movies, and he did not want to feel bound by investor expectations. Company literature also explained that Really Useful felt its "core activities were not understood by, or suited to, the financial markets." After negotiating with major stockholders, who included Maxwell and the Australian tycoon Robert Holmes à Court, Lloyd Webber bought back all Really Useful's stock in March 1990.
Private Again in the 1990s
After the stock buyback, Really Useful began to transform itself into a bigger and more ambitious operation. In 1991, the record and entertainment conglomerate Polygram bought a 30 percent stake in The Really Useful Group. Polygram paid $110 million for its shares, and this money relieved Really Useful of debt. The partnership did not seem to threaten Lloyd Webber's artistic control the way the earlier investor relationships had, and the company forged into new territory. Really Useful opened a television production division shortly after the Polygram deal went through. The division, which became the Really Useful Picture Company, developed and produced TV documentaries and dramas, mainly music- and arts-oriented. Because it had the rights to Lloyd Webber's work, some of its programming revolved around his musicals. But the division also coproduced and cofinanced other television projects, and eventually produced feature films in partnership with the BBC, Disney, The Children's Film Foundation, and the American entertainment channel A&E.
The Really Useful Group began to expand geographically as well. Lloyd Webber's theatrical productions proved easily exportable, and the shows traveled across Europe and into Asia. In 1993, the company ventured for the first time into Southeast Asia, where audiences were for the most part unprepared for Western musicals. Really Useful used its Australian arm to mount an Australian production of Cats, and then brought the show to Singapore. Marketing and production cost $11 million, and the eight-week run at Singapore's Kallang Theater was considered a big risk, since local shows played there for no more than ten days. However, southeast Asia seemed like the last big market left unexplored.
By 1996, the company had successfully penetrated this new market, and it had permanent offices in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Sydney, as well as in Frankfurt, New York, and Los Angeles. At one time that year, 31 Lloyd Webber musicals were being staged in 12 countries across the globe. Over 90 percent of the company's earnings came from outside the United Kingdom that year.
Close to half of Really Useful's profits came from its North American operations. The New York and Los Angeles divisions began to take on more responsibilities. In Los Angeles, Really Useful Films worked on Hollywood feature films, including an animated Cats and a coproduction with Warner Brothers of Phantom of the Opera. The division of The Really Useful Group headquartered in New York, called The Really Useful Company, mainly oversaw North American theater and concert production. This included managing the many hectic details of traveling shows, such as getting waivers for English artists to work in the United States and producing advertising and booking theaters for new productions. The New York company also produced some works by artists other than Lloyd Webber, such as a musical adaptation of the film A Star Is Born.
In 1997, The Really Useful Group restarted its London-based record branch. The record division had released chart-topping albums in the 1980s and 90s, including a number one single in 1991, of a song from Joseph. Since that time, the division had not progressed, and it had no plans outside producing Lloyd Webber works. The company recruited a top executive from EMI, and announced that it was ready to sign on new talent. Meanwhile, Really Useful Group trimmed back other areas. Some staff was cut from the main London office in January 1997, and the New York office also reduced staff and moved out of prestigious Rockefeller Center into a smaller mid-town office. In August, the president of Really Useful Company resigned. This was at a time when there were no upcoming New York productions of Lloyd Webber works, and action in the parent company seemed centered on upcoming film deals and on a sequel to Phantom of the Opera.
Midway through 1998, Lloyd Webber seemed to be repeating his actions of 1990, when his fear of losing artistic control led him to take his company private. In June Lloyd Webber began negotiating with Polygram to buy back the 30 percent share that company held in Really Useful Group. Polygram had apparently worked well with Really Useful. They were both entertainment companies, and their goals were similar, but Polygram was bought out by Seagram's in May 1997, leaving some speculation that the stake in Really Useful might fall into other hands. Nonetheless, Lloyd Webber affirmed in an interview with Variety that even if he should somehow lose control of his company, the company would be nothing without him. Lloyd Webber's creative talent was the essential product of The Really Useful Group, and its future success seemed to hinge on his continued unfettered artistic output.
Principal Subsidiaries: Aurum Press Limited; Palace Theater London Limited; The Really Useful Picture Company; The Really Useful Record Company Limited; The Really Useful Theater Company Limited; Interactive Instructional Systems, Inc. (U.S.A.); The Really Useful Company, Inc. (U.S.A.).
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"Stock Offering in A Major," Time, December 16, 1985, p. 50.
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Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 26. St. James Press, 1999.