London theater scene booming

You could call it the Tale of Two Cities. With just 20 shows now running on Broadway following a slew of January closings, you don’t need to have majored in economics to see that the global recession has caused an understandable loss of nerve among New York producers.

Their London counterparts, meanwhile, appear to be toughing it out. The West End has 36 shows, not including not-for-profit addresses like the Donmar Warehouse and National Theater. The latter has five shows playing in repertory, two of which, “War Horse” and “August: Osage County,” are completely sold out.

West End closures thus far are few. “Monty Python’s Spamalot” shuttered Jan. 6, but, having run out of steam, that closing date had been announced several months ahead. The tuner will be replaced by Australian hit “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” which begins previews March 3. Likewise, “The Sound of Music” quits the Palladium Feb. 21, making way for “Sister Act” (previews start May 7).

On both sides of the Pond, confidence was temporarily boosted by the holiday period. In the week commencing Dec. 29, “Wicked” grossed £885,294 ($1.28 million), the highest weekly tally of its entire London run, while “Billy Elliot” also broke its own weekly box office record.

In the same sesh, Queen compendium “We Will Rock You,” which just celebrated its seventh birthday at the vast Dominion Theater, achieved the highest number of paid admissions in one week for any West End show in 2008.

There’s more good news. Four months before its first preview, “Waiting for Godot” is selling like hotcakes. Though in case anyone imagines Britain overtaken by Beckett mania, it’s worth pointing out that the revival pairs Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart.

Even more impressively, a week ahead of its Jan. 14 opening at Theater Royal Drury Lane, Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of “Oliver!” was riding high on a record-smashing $22 million box office advance. That’s $4.3 million more than the previous West End high, set by “Dirty Dancing.”

Ironically, the release of these figures — a rarity in a town where B.O. receipts are traditionally a closely guarded secret — points up one reason for London’s seeming business buoyancy: The lack of available statistics by which outsiders can judge the success or failure of a show means producers can bluff through the bad times to create the illusion of a hit.

Another reason for the trans-Atlantic disparity is that West End wages and running costs are considerably lower than on more powerfully unionized Broadway. Also, ironically, producers may be finding succor in the collapse of the pound against the dollar. London is once again affordable to U.S. tourists. But will producers’ pockets be deep enough to play through the cold months before those tourists arrive — if, given the equally tremulous state of the U.S. economy, they ever do?

Certain shows are still running at a considerable cost to the gross. Judging by the ticket offers flooding entertainment websites, the decision is clearly to boost attendance and word of mouth in the hope that business will improve.

One show widely on offer is the transfer of Lisa Kron’s “Well.” Eve Leigh’s new production had a brief run at the tiny Trafalgar Studios 2 and then moved to the West End’s Apollo Theater to fill a gap before the arrival of Jamie Lloyd’s new production of “Three Days of Rain,” which begins previews Jan. 30.

Price reductions or not, nothing is likely to save “Well” after some of the worst reviews in memory. “Subtle as a flying mallet,” concluded one of the kinder putdowns. If, as another remarked, the play “seems to offer further proof that America and Britain are two nations divided by a common language,” current differences between the legit landscapes of Manhattan and London offer yet more evidence.

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