London mirrors Broadway bump

LONDON — Broadway’s successful season has been echoed in London’s West End, which, like the Rialto, has exceeded expectations despite the recession and a slew of recent shutterings, most notably the transfer of “Spring Awakening.”

Straight plays are doing remarkably well. Since January, dramas have seen a 7% rise in attendance, led by the National Theater’s spellbinder “War Horse,” which is breaking West End records for a play. Other sold-out shows include “Waiting for Godot,” starring Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, and screen-to-stage phenomenon “Calendar Girls.” Equally impressive are “Three Days of Rain” and “A View From the Bridge,” which both played limited engagements during the period and recouped.

Overall for the first four months of this year, 72% of West End seats have been filled.

“We’ve done exceptionally well in the school half-term and Easter weeks,” says Paul James, commercial director of the Society of London Theaters (Solt). “That might suggest that people are spending time and money in the U.K., which in pre-recession days they might otherwise have spent abroad.

“The few really poor weeks we’ve experienced are, with hindsight, understandable,” he adds. “There was a deeper than usual Christmas/New Year hangover, and the week of the G20 summit in London had been preceded by grim — and misplaced — warnings in the media about ‘Battlefield London.’ ”

Unlike Broadway, where the annual season ends in May, before the Tony Awards, London operates by calendar year. According to figures released to Variety by Solt, total West End attendances from Jan. 4 through May 9 hit 4,723,332, a drop of only 3.5% on the previous year. Total revenue for that period — £169,009,184 ($280.3 million) — is down by just 3.15%.

In other words, although the recession is having an effect, it’s not as deep as expected. Also, the comparison with previous years should be considered in light of the fact that 2008 broke all records for both attendances and revenue — the latter up by 3% — a feat considering the 2007 figure had already leaped by an astonishing 10% year to year.

Solt prexy Nica Burns is bullish about the figures.

“The bottom line is that we’ve had four growth years,” she says. “If the theater industry can end 2009 less than 10% down, we will have done very well.”

That the year-on-year change in B.O. is similar in percentage terms to that for attendance indicates these figures are not the result of excessive discounting.

“Our audiences have become very savvy about finding discounts online and elsewhere,” concedes Burns. “But even if budgets are stretched, people are able to continue their theatergoing habit because London has a far wider range of seat prices than New York. In addition, the hottest shows haven’t met with price resistance.”

Although evidence thus far is anecdotal, the fall in the dollar is likely to have a further positive impact. One of Burns’ yardsticks is talking to cab drivers.

“They tell us that visitors seem to be here, both from Europe and America,” she says. “We certainly need them. With the attractive pound, hopefully that will create a strong summer that will make the difference.”

Tourist audiences are the lifeblood for tuners, which have been doing less well. Future prospects in that market segment are mixed. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Phantom” sequel “Love Never Dies” would have boosted box office but has been postponed until March to accommodate a grander, newly orchestrated score. And “Legally Blonde” doesn’t begin previews until Dec. 5.

Of the year’s two big tuners, the Whoopi Goldberg-produced “Sister Act” is in its opening week and has so far met with mixed notices. Dragfest “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” meanwhile, recently announced a five-month extension to Feb. 13.

Long-runners remain stable. The bombastic Queen musical “We Will Rock You” has extended into its eighth year at the 2,016-seat Dominion, “Billy Elliot” is now booking to April 3, the Michael Jackson tribute “Thriller” has extended into 2010, and “A Little Night Music” has added six more weeks.

On the down side, five shows recently exited. But while producers favor the ready-made recession excuse, individual factors are to blame.

“The Last Cigarette,” based on diaries by late playwright Simon Gray, lasted barely a month at Trafalgar Studios. Literate, tastefully acted and elegantly directed, it was dramatically inert and wholly unsuited to the West End cut-and-thrust.

Unsuitability was also the key to its polar opposite, “Shout.” A ’60s Britpop jukebox show with risible script, shoddy production values and nothing to recommend it beyond incandescent vocals from Shona White, it had camp energy that sustained a tour, but it died in town.

Two Lloyd Webber shows have also recently shuttered. But the actor-musician production of “Sunset Boulevard” had already played longer than anticipated while “Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” was always skedded to close at the Adelphi to make way for illusionist Derren Brown.

Of the recent casualties, “Spring Awakening” is the most significant. After an SRO run at off-West End venue Lyric Hammersmith, the transfer managed just two months at the Novello Theater.

“The financial model, with lower prices for young audiences, needed 20% of the house at full price,” says producer Matthew Byam Shaw. “We were hugely popular with that young audience, but despite going in with 14 five-star reviews, we never managed to appeal to older, more traditional theatergoers.”

That last point may be the determining factor for the West End in the months ahead. The recession is making producers, investors and audiences risk averse. With wallets tightened, theatergoers want some kind of guarantee before shelling out. Attendance may be relatively stable, but unknown quantities like “Spring Awakening” are liable to be in increasingly short supply.

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