Plays drive attendance, box office

A 13% rise in audiences at plays drove overall West End attendance figures up 1% in the second quarter of 2011 vs. the year-earlier period, according to figures release by the Society of London Theaters (SOLT).

Attendances at musicals, by contrast, dropped 3%, as a figure attributable to the fact that only three tuners opened during the period — “Shrek the Musical,” “Betty Blue Eyes” and “Lend Me a Tenor.” Unlike Gotham, where there is a glut of openings prior to the late-April cutoff for Tony eligibility, London does not see an avalanche of shows open in advance of a springtime award deadline.

Total West End box office revenue for the period climbed 2% over a year earlier. That figure comprised a 20% rise for plays, a 1% dip for tuners and an 8% slip at other entertainments including opera and ballet.

The first quarter of the year had been slow, with attendance sliding by 10.7% and revenue down 5.4%. Second-quarter figures have boosted overall attendance to 6.64 million for January through June (down 5% vs. the same frame in 2010), and total revenues to £250.5 million ($411.1 million), a drop of 1.7%.

According to SOLT chief exec Julian Bird, “We’re on track for another year above £500 million ($820.5 million).”

Annual Broadway attendance doesn’t match the SOLT numbers, but because Broadway ticket prices are higher across the board than those in London, sales regularly outpace Blighty totals. For the 2010-11 season, the Rialto logged an overall attendance of 12.53 million and saw B.O. hit a record-breaking $1.08 billion.

The Broadway tallies take into account the 40 venues that make up the Main Stem, while SOLT reports consider about the same number of venues in a roster made up of West End houses, the National Theater, the Royal Court, the Royal Opera House and the London Coliseum. Broadway’s annual figures are most often measured by season, a 52-week period that tends to begin in late May, rather than by calendar year.

For the West End, the 2010 total box office of £512,331,808 ($833,873,385) was a record and the seventh year-to-year rise. Attendance totaled 14,152,230, exceeding 14 million for only the second time since records began.

With a year to go before the London opening of the 2012 Olympic Games, SOLT has also announced that more than half of the West End’s shows have extended their booking periods to offer sales 15 months in advance, in anticipation of increased demand during the Olympic period.

“London theater is a great ambassador for the U.K.,” said SOLT prexy Mark Rubinstein.

The economic impact of London theater to the U.K. economy, according to Rubinstein, is estimated at £2.6 billion ($4.2 billion) per annum.

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