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West End on the rise in 2012

Year-on-year gains in both B.O. and attendance

Both attendance and box office revenue for West End theater rose in 2012, according to official annual figures released by Society of London Theater (SOLT), which reps 52 theaters in Central London.

The figures come as something of a surprise given the lowered expectations fostered by the presence of the Olympic and Paralympic Games during the West End’s peak tourist season. Nonetheless, gross sales of £529,787,692 ($831 million) were up 0.27% on 2011 and mark the ninth consecutive revenue rise. Attendance increased 0.56% year-on-year to 13,992,773.

At the end of 2011, Andrew Lloyd Webber loudly predicted “a bloodbath” for London theater that didn’t materialize. Although figures for those weeks were down, partly due to venues closing on the night of the Opening Ceremony and Games-reactive scheduling that resulted in fewer performances during August, major shows with international appeal did notably strong business. “The Lion King” reported its biggest ever London year since its 1999 opening, with its £38.6 million ($60.6 million) total marking its eighth consecutive record-breaking year.

Plays saw another major increase in 2012 with attendance of 4,113,01 repping a 9% rise on the previous record-breaking year. Alongside continuing SRO productions like “War Horse” and “One Man, Two Guvnors,” the Royal Court had a notably successful season transferring three plays to the West End’s Duke of York’s theater, including Nick Payne’s award-winning “Constellations.” Shakespeare’s Globe transferred its productions of “Richard III” and “Twelfth Night” starring Mark Rylance that together did boffo biz and are still playing at the Apollo theater.

Tuners, by contrast, saw a 3% attendance drop to 7,970,042, largely attributable to the relative scarcity of new product. That situation is likely to be reversed in 2013 with the arrivals of the hotly anticipated “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” plus Broadway transfers of “The Book of Mormon,” “Once” and the first London revival of “A Chorus Line” since the original production closed here in 1979 after just three years.

Speaking to Variety, SOLT prexy Mark Rubinstein commented, “Ending the year up, with nine continuous years of revenue growth against a background of economic downturn with major high street names closing almost weekly, is wonderful.”

Rubinstein is also buoyant about the revenue figures because the average ticket price was reduced this year due to major promotions during the Olympic weeks. Attendance was further boosted by the record success of SOLT’s summer initiative KidsWeek. Thirty-two shows, notably long-runners, took part in a program in which adults take kids free to specific shows. A week long in previous years, it ran for the entire month of August in 2012 and will do so in the future, having sold 129,160 tickets this year.

Analyzing trends made plain by the figures, Rubinstein pointed to a significant rise in box office advances, not least for Michael Grandage’s West End season.

Looking ahead, he argues that the middle ground is likely to continue to suffer the most.

“Strong shows are doing ever stronger business,” he said. “Shows that traditionally have expected to do good but not stellar business are finding it harder to survive. If audiences are going to go to two rather than three shows a year because of the finances, their choices are liable to be more conservative.”

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