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Orson Welles musical comes around again

By Andy McSmith

In 1946, Orson Welles had what seemed like a brilliant idea: to turn Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days into a stage musical. But it was a financial disaster which dogged Welles for the rest of his life. It was also the low point in the career of Cole Porter, who wrote the songs.

The one person who benefited from the experience was the show's producer, Mike Todd, and that was because he pulled out early and abandoned the stage for the cinema.

But now, more than 60 years after its first disastrous run, the work, one of the 20th century's great lost musicals, is returning to the stage. Last performed on 3 August 1946, the production is being brought back in five "semi-staged" Sunday performances by the Sadlers Wells company.

The story, written by Verne in 1873, concerns a playboy named Phileas Fogg who makes a bet that he can circumnavigate the world in 80 days. Through his journey, he is pursued by a diligent but incompetent police officer, Inspector Fix, whose mission is to arrest Fogg before he completes his journey.

Orson Welles had only recently passed his 30th birthday when he decided that Inspector Fix was the part for him. He was already long established as one of the biggest names in the entertainment industry. At the age of 23 he had induced panic in thousands of radio listeners who heard his adaptation of H G Wells's War of the Worlds and thought the planet had been invaded by aliens. Two years later, he directed and starred in Citizen Kane, often chosen by critics as the best feature film ever made.

But Welles's ego, his grandiose ambitions, and his knack of falling out with the bosses of film studios landed him in a series of problems, of which the collapse of Around the World was the most serious. Being Welles, he had to put on a spectacular in which expense was not a consideration. It featured a cast of 70, and included four mechanical elephants and 54 stage hands.

Mike Todd had an ego to match Welles', but more financial acumen. As the bills piled up, he pulled out, and Welles put up his own money to keep the show going. He also borrowed from Columbia's president, Harry Cohn, on a promise to write, produce, direct and star in a film for Cohn for no fee.

The show ran for 65 days over the summer of 1946. After it shut, smart people in Hollywood predicted that it was the end for Cole Porter, who had suffered two flops in succession, but he confounded them by coming back in 1948 with Kiss Me, Kate.

Welles had to keep his promise to Cohn by making a film called The Lady of Shanghai. It was such a disaster that he later recalled people refusing to speak to him to save him from embarrassment. The leading lady was his wife, Rita Hayworth; they divorced soon afterwards. He fled to Europe, leaving debts of several hundred thousand dollars, and stayed away from the US for six years.

Todd turned to cinema, and clung on to the rights of Around the World. In 1956, he turned it into the immensely successful film, with a star-studded cast headed by David Niven. It won a string of academy awards. Its popularity had a lot to do with the camera work, shot in the Todd-AO system, which was then a startling novelty.

A 2004 remake, starring Steve Coogan and Jackie Chan, did less well.

For the 1956 film, Todd discarded Welles' script and Cole Porter's score, which lay, forgotten, in various American archives. The director Ian Marshall Fisher spent three years tracing and researching them. Yesterday, he was rehearsing his cast for their task of bringing the forgotten musical back to life in the Lilian Bayliss Theatre at Sadler's Wells. The show starts tomorrow.

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