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London theater looks ahead

Riots in rearview, Olympics approach

London– As the West End legit industry shakes off the scare of the city’s recent riots, Julian Bird and Mark Rubinstein, the two incoming heads of the Society of London Theaters (SOLT), remain upbeat about prospects for a coming year that will be capped off next summer by the Olympics, bringing a solid influx of tourists to the city — but also a degree of uncertainty to the theater biz.

“The riots had very little impact,” says Bird, SOLT chief executive, who, along with prexy Rubinstein oversees the org’s shows. “Sales at TKTS were the same as normal. On the streets of the West End itself over those days, nothing appeared to have changed.”

One of the reasons for future optimism is that box office advances for West End shows are higher than they were this time last year, which Bird says is a simple case of plenty of good new shows coming in.

“Some of that is star-driven — such as David Suchet in ‘A Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ — but then there’s also the RSC hit production of ‘Matilda,’ which has no star names at all,” he says. “Having a night out at the London theater is clearly something that people still like doing, and they’re willing to book ahead.”

Citing the list of shows in the pipeline, he’s understandably upbeat about future prospects.

Tony magnet “The Book of Mormon,” Stephen Daldry’s “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and Judy Craymer’s Spice Girls musical “Viva Forever,” are among the shows lining up for West End berths along with “Crazy for You,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “The Commitments” and “Top Hat.”

Potential homes for these and all other West End shows are in the hands of London’s theater owners, but their collective life is overseen by Rubinstein and Bird as the toppers of SOLT.

In June, Rubinstein, who’s producing “Butley” in the West End with Dominic West and the European tour of “Fela!,” became the first independent producer to be made SOLT prexy in 15 years. His predecessors were theater owners like Nica Burns, whose three-year term post recently ended.

Bird has been at SOLT only slightly longer — for nine months. He hit the ground running in 2010, substantially upping the profile and media positioning of the Olivier Awards with a move to the prestigious Royal Opera House, which already hosts the BAFTAs.

The two execs are keeping a particular eye on the 2012 Olympics, which figures to have a major impact on West End biz, for better or worse. Rubinstein sees the Games, skedded for July 27-Aug. 12, as a challenge as much as an opportunity: More people will be in town, but it can’t be taken for granted that sports-minded visitors will want to treat themselves to a night of theater.

As Bird sees it, the main question is what the tourist profile will look like during that period.

“There will be people with time on their hands,” he says. “Accordingly, around 25 shows have already opened their booking period for next summer — booking that far ahead has never been done before.”

The SOLT chief notes that there will be added TKTS booths and sales outlets in strategic places, including the Olympic site itself.

Rubinstein feels the Olympics ultimately will be beneficial to the industry. “In the long term, they will be a good thing for London theater, provided we get it right in terms of using the occasion to promote British theater around the world,” he says.

And the 2012 Paralympics, to be held in London a few weeks later, will give the Society an opportunity to publicize its existing initiatives regarding access, Bird notes.

Promotion, he believes, is central to his role at SOLT. He cites the success of Kids Week, an initiative that has been running in mid-August for the past 14 years, this season from Aug. 12-Sept. 14. During that time, youngsters 16 and under can get free or half-price tickets to shows when accompanied by a full-paying adult. Broadway has initiated a similar program that runs in February.

“Last year saw a record number of sales,” Bird says, “and only a week into this year’s season, we’ve just about equaled that.”

With the number of top shows in the pipeline, Bird sees fall 2012 and spring 2013 shaping up as seasons of change for the West End, though he cautions that “everything (comes) down to commercial deals between theater owners and individual productions.”

Looking beyond the local picture, Bird hopes SOLT can forge a closer association with transatlantic counterpart, the Broadway League.

“We know these are the two biggest markets for theater and there already exists an exchange scheme for actors on both sides of the Atlantic,” he says. “But there’s more work to be done to make the flow of talent between the two cities even easier.”

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