London Theater Breaks Box Office Records

Broadway may have ended a record-breaking streak last season, but across the pond, numbers are on their way up. In London, both box office and attendance rose to new highs in 2013, according to the latest report from the Society of London Theater.

At the 52 theaters that fall under the SOLT umbrella, the year-end gross of £585,506,455 ($970 million) repped an 11% gain compared to 2012, besting the £529,787,692 ($878 million) record set that year. Attendance climbed 4% to 14,587,297, the highest tally since 14.3 million theatergoers turned out in 2009.

Comparing Broadway numbers to London totals isn’t apples to apples. Main Stem figures tot up revenue and attendance at only the 40 theaters that qualify as Broadway because each seats 500 or more. SOLT’s reports not only include commercial West End productions but also incorporate figures from some subsidized (i.e. nonprofit) theaters such as the 250-seat Donmar Warehouse, which in New York would be labeled Off Broadway, as well as revenue from some opera and dance venues. Comparisons are made inexact, too, by a London legit economy that’s helped out by lower production costs and far more government arts subsidization than in the U.S.

Nonetheless, the rising yearly cume at London theaters indicates a robustness that’s notable in part because of the city’s lower top ticket prices — such as £67.50, or $112, at “Wicked” on the West End vs. $140 at the same show on the Main Stem. Premium prices, a dominant driver of rising Broadway revenue even when attendance slips, are substantially lower: Whereas the top premium at “The Book of Mormon” in London weighs in at £150 or $249, the Broadway peak is $477.

In London there’s also more of a culture of pricing accessibility than on Broadway, where Brit producer Sonia Friedman’s decision to offer a quarter of the ticket inventory at hit Shakespeare offering “Twelfth Night/Richard III” for $25 a pop turned heads in Gotham. Pricing initiatives such as that one are far more common in London — for instance, the popular, starry inaugural season of the Michael Grandage Company sold a quarter of its tickets for just £10 ($17). Such affordability programs surely account in part for the uptick in attendance.

The average price paid per ticket in London came in at £40.14 ($66.50). On Broadway, the 2013 average hit $103. (Broadway favors season-end numbers as a clearer barometer of the Rialto economy, but calendar-year numbers are still compiled).

In addition, London theater grew stronger on the back of rising U.K. tourism and a national economy that in 2013 grew at its strongest rate in six years, according to a recent report from the nation’s Office of National Statistics. Also keeping legit figures aloft were 2013 additions to the West End slate including “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (which has twice broken West End records for highest weekly sales), “The Book of Mormon,” “Once” and “The Commitments.”

Musicals accounted for £355,354,832 ($590 million) of the year’s tally, or 10% more than in 2012, when new musical product was thin on the ground. Plays, boosted by offerings including Helen Mirren topliner “The Audience” and Jude Law starrer “Henry V,” amounted to £140,020,830 ($232 million). The remaining £90,130,793 ($150 million) was counted at opera, dance and other performance venues that are part of the SOLT figures.

By comparison, Broadway in 2013 saw cume uptick very slightly to $1.193 billion, while attendance declined 5% to 11.58 million. The 2012-13 season-end figures logged a negligible decline to $1,138,734,331, but the 11.57 million attendance tally was the lowest posted by the Street since 2004-05.

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