Rufus Wainwright blames UK’s ‘narrow outlook’ after Brexit for Opening Night’s flop | Musicals

Rufus Wainwright has defended his musical Opening Night, which was forced to close early after mixed reviews, saying West End audiences lack “curiosity” after Brexit and the British press had turned on the project because it was “too European”.

Opening Night was Wainwright’s first musical and is an adaptation of John Cassavetes’ 1977 film about an actor struggling to cope, who is played by Sheridan Smith. Directed by Ivo van Hove, it opened in March at the Gielgud theatre but a month later announced it would be closing two months early.

Some audience members reportedly walked out during the performance or left during the interval. The musical included a scene where Smith staggers out into the streets of the West End while being filmed and projected back on to the stage.

Wainwright said the experimental elements of the show were too much for conservative audiences, and seeing Smith – who is a mainstream star – in something more avant garde was anathema to certain critics and audience members.

“I do feel that since Brexit, England has entered into a darker corridor where it is a little more narrow in its outlook and the vitriol because we put ‘English rose Sheridan Smith through this ordeal of European theatre’ felt a little bit suspect to me,” he told the Guardian. “I was a little surprised by that.”

Opening Night did get some positive reviews. The Guardian gave it four stars and said it was “the most unusual thing on the London stage right now”, while Time Out called Smith “superb”. But other critics weren’t convinced.

The New York Times critic Houman Barekat said the adaptation “desecrated” Cassavettes’ original film, while he dismissed Wainwright’s songs as “algorithmically bland”. The New Statesman said it was a “chaotic and masochistic project”, while Attitude called it a “missed opportunity sorely lacking in camp”.

Although Wainwright admits the show “wasn’t perfect by any means” and that there “were mistakes made on many fronts”, he believes the negative reaction to the show was partly because Britain has become more insular since the 2016 Brexit referendum.

“There’s a lack of imagination and curiosity about change,” he said. “All of the reviews from Europe were incredible for this piece; the staging and the rhythm is more European and there was a vitriolic reaction against that. I don’t think it was perfect and that I don’t deserve criticism, but this thing of shutting it down if it’s not exactly what you want is not really the theatrical lane that I want to live in.”

Opening Night’s producers, Wessex Grove, said “what is sure-fire and safe has its place” but it was proud to have taken a “risk”, when it announced the show was ending prematurely.

“In a challenging financial landscape, Opening Night was always a risk and, while the production may not have had the life we had hoped for, we feel immensely proud of the risk we took and of this extraordinary production,” they said.

Van Hove said it was “always sad” when a show was cut short.

Wainwright defended Smith, who told the Guardian she “had something to prove” because – like the character she plays in Opening Night – she had unravelled on stage in 2016. “People were saying be careful, we have to be delicate with her, and it couldn’t have been further from the truth,” he said.

“She was always excited and giving her full – I have nothing but admiration and love for her.”

The songwriter, who is the child of two famous folk singers, Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, and whose sister Martha is also a famous artist, has written two operas and 11 studio albums.

Wainwright said he was “a little beaten up by” the experience but was glad the production was ambitious and stood out from what he thinks is a conservative landscape on the West End. “I think the West End has got pretty staid,” he said.

“The main objective I have is that people think about it for days and days and look: people have thought about Opening Night now for weeks. It has remained in the psyche of the press and the public … it does endure for better or for worse.”

Wainwright said he was working on the cast album of the show, which he hopes can give it another life. The final performance of Opening Night in the West End will take place on 18 May.

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