West End’s big musical number

Competish fuels tuner flame in London

In the world of theater, apparently there’s no such thing as too much competition.

For the last six months, pundits have predicted that the flood of 2006 musicals in London would cannibalize each other. Or, at the very least, they would hammer nails in the coffins of the long-running tuners.

As it turns out, the opposite is true.

Of the 37 productions now running in the West End, a whopping 25 are musicals. Nine of them are sellouts, led by “Dirty Dancing” and the “Sound of Music” revival, which have chalked up advance sales of $23 million apiece.

Disney’s “The Lion King” is doing its best ever business for the fourth consecutive year. At the ripe old age of 20, “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Les Miserables” (here since December 1985, now the world’s longest runner) saw serious box office hikes.

“Chicago” (nine years) and “Mamma Mia!” (five years) are turning people away. Even the Queen jukebox musical “We Will Rock You” — which threatened to close earlier in the year — hit 99% capacity.

With London’s total advances, according to Society of London Theaters (SOLT), running at a record $101 million, the picture should be rosy until well after Christmas.

Several factors have produced this sales surge. According to figures from the Mayor of London’s office, tourism is booming. Overseas visits for the first eight months of 2006 were up 7% on 2005, with every indication of a continuing rise.

Furthermore, marketing companies are placing less stress on traditional print advertising in favor of more adventurous ways to reach audiences. A video promotion for “Dirty Dancing” on iTunes was downloaded more than 160,000 times in three weeks. A competition to win tickets for “Billy Elliot” received 37,000 text message entries.

Buzz about the theater boom has led to ceaseless editorials in the U.K. press, giving a further fillip to sales.

As for the tuners riding in on the wave of their Broadway success, “Wicked” opened to a $9.5 million advance, with “Spamalot” at the 1,380-seat Palace Theater not far behind. The former, however, is following the pattern of its original Rialto incarnation, riding out mixed notices — British critics either loved or vehemently loathed the show — and doing boffo biz. The “Wizard of Oz” backstory tuner is averaging 95% capacity at London’s largest house, the 2,304-seat Apollo Victoria, thereby pulling in a gross well in excess of its rivals, with a record high of $1.5 million for the week ending Oct. 28.

That week was always going to be strong for the simple reason it was a school holiday. Nonetheless, business was booming in record numbers elsewhere, too.

Given the hype surrounding their successive October openings, it’s not surprising to learn that both “Spamalot” and “Dirty Dancing” hit 100% capacity. The latter will continue to do so, having sold out the relatively small 1,163-seat Aldwych Theater, leaving merely a handful of same-day seats available through May.

Yet according to Anthony Pye-Jeary, managing director of U.K. theater marketing and advertistising agency Dewynters, “Last week, there were eight or nine shows you simply couldn’t get into.”

In other words, the long-runners are more than surviving the shock of the new.

After a set of largely lackluster notices, “Avenue Q” initially looked vulnerable. Yet it has stayed afloat on strong word of mouth among a younger crowd even though that aud has tested producers’ nerve because they aren’t used to booking ahead. The pattern is now changing as the show’s advance continues a slow but steady rise that looks to be boosted by high-profile TV appearances over Christmas.

Most surprisingly, especially to those who read its worst reviews, “Daddy Cool,” the jukebox show of hits by 1970s and ’80s combo Boney M, is clinging on.

“We knew we started out as the underdog,” said a spokesperson who claims the show has taken just $2.9 million since September but is now averaging 70% capacity. The show is trading heavily on its cast, which includes U.K. pop names. “We’re getting a noticeably young crowd who are attracted to a musical with rapping.”

“Daddy Cool” also may be the beneficiary of the successes of its more celebrated rivals. It could become the destination for coach party crowds in search of nostalgic jukebox fun who can’t get tickets to “Mamma Mia!” or “We Will Rock You.”

Trevor Nunn’s keenly anticipated musicalized rewrite of the Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess,” opening Nov. 9, is an unknown quantity — a hard-to-sell, prestige product that will be unusually dependent on reviews. Without them, it may find itself as vulnerable as other revivals likely to suffer the chilly winds of late February. That’s when the producers of “The Drowsy Chaperone,” “Jersey Boys” and “Hairspray,” among others, may start circling, vulture-like, faltering shows as they shop for a theater.

The most vulnerable is “Cabaret,” a hit with certain critics but too austere to have generated box office excitement. “Evita” also has been wobbling, due in part to a bizarrely low press profile and only a very recent campaign advertising the ecstatic notices for star Elena Roger. Proof of her pull is the low 29% attendance figure for a recent Monday, the night Roger doesn’t perform. The second half of the week pulls in well above the production’s break, but at this rate, when Roger leaves, the show may depart with her.

The same applies to “Guys and Dolls.” As with all revivals, it has a limited shelf life but it’s being kept in sizeable profit by star casting, currently Patrick Swayze.

Fragile shows aside, the hits really seem to be breeding other hits.

Instead of the same audience being stretched ever more thinly, new audiences are being attracted and returning ones are building a more regular habit of theatergoing.

Adam Kenwright, managing director of theater marketing and advertising company Aka, is positive. “We’re definitely looking at over 14 million attendances this year, up on last year, our best ever. Property prices and share prices are higher than ever, London is packed. If the work stays as good as this, we can get them into theaters. We’re now playing at 72% across the West End. But there’s still room for growth.”

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