The curtain has come down on New Zealand's most-extravagant musical - which cost $8m to launch but had a horror run playing for months to near-empty houses - and its mysterious promoter is overseas and not responding to creditor inquiries.

City of 100 Lovers opened at SkyCity's theatre in Auckland in October, and billed itself as a Broadway or Vegas-style resident show targeting tourists visiting New Zealand.

But the show received savage reviews and raised eyebrows among the local theatre community because of its lack of promotion and bloated budget paired with small houses.

Several sources in the theatre community compared the production with Hollywood vanity project bombs Battlefield Earth and Waterworld.


The end came this week. After the Weekend Herald made inquiries, last night's performance was cancelled. And today, the show's run was entirely cancelled.

A letter sent from producers yesterday to cast, crew, suppliers and contractors described the cancellation as a "temporary show suspension" due to "lack of ticket sales" and a "inability to raise sustainable additional funding", but added that it should be treated as a "termination notice of your services".

The letter said "valid services rendered to date" would be "paid in due course".

In December the production was reported to be often playing to houses where the 70-strong cast and crew outnumbered an audience which was largely comprised of complimentary, or non-paying, ticket-holders. The venue has a seating capacity of 700.

Questions submitted to promoters over the past week have gone unanswered, a contrast to bullish statements in December that acknowledged while tickets sales had been "slow" they were "on target with the long-term strategy of the project".

The December statement said the show had cost $8.8m to date, with a commitment to spend a further $3.2m to see the production through to the end of its scheduled first run in August.

The early closing suggests at least $10m has been sunk into the production to date, with ticket sales likely to have only recouped a fraction of this total. This scale of losses would make the production New Zealand's largest theatrical bomb.

The show has an unusual corporate structure, being produced by a limited partnership - Hundred Lovers Productions - which in turn is controlled by Templar Tourism Management, controlled by controversial businessman Jihong Lu.

Jihong Lu in 1999, shortly before his ambitious plans to redevelop Britomart foundered in bankruptcy. Photo / Sav Schulman
Jihong Lu in 1999, shortly before his ambitious plans to redevelop Britomart foundered in bankruptcy. Photo / Sav Schulman

Lu was bankrupted in 2000 over a $3m debt, at a time when he claimed to be fronting more than $1 billion to redevelop Britomart and a large swathe of the Auckland CBD. He was arrested in Shanghai in 2009 and was later fined $12m over what translations of local court judgements called his firms' "illegal business practices".

He was last seen in New Zealand in December. His social media feed - typically filled with pictures of him enjoying his superyacht and drinking vintage wines - has recently shown him enjoying skiing on Christmas Day in a resort town in Japan, celebrating his 55th birthday at a Tokyo restaurant, and checking himself out of hospital.

Questions sent to Lu over the past week have also gone unanswered.

The chairman of the show's advisory board, former Ateed boss Brett O'Riley, said yesterday he was bound by confidentiality agreements and unable to comment.

"I'm not involved on a daily basis," he said.

Asked about how the show developed into its current financial disaster, with Lu now apparently out of contact with creditors, he said: "It would be fair to say that would be the current state of affairs."

O'Riley, who recently became chief executive of business lobby group the Employers and Manufacturers Association, said he was unable to say where he saw things developing from here: "We live in interesting times."

Numerous outside suppliers of the production owed money by promoters - with debts in some cases stretching back months - have also told the Weekend Herald of troubles in making contact with Lu or getting assurances of payment from his Templar Family Office.

Many of the core cast and crew, whose salaries until this week have been kept up-to-date through the stumbling run, were unwilling to speak on the record over concerns about losing their employment.

Within 24 hours of questions being submitted to promoters in December, all cast and crew were emailed reminders of provisions in previously-signed non-disclosure agreement highlighting provisions for termination if they talked to media.