What’s the West End doing right that we aren’t?

Sometimes I think of the different corners of the theatrical world . . . Broadway, Chicago, The West End . . . like baseball teams in a giant theatrical league.  We’re all in this together, and we have to work together to continue the advancement of what we do.

But at the same time, Broadway is my Red Sox.  And The West End is my Yankees.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for The West End, just like I have a lot of respect for the Bronx Bombers (that now have a Broadway show named after them, ironically).  And The West End has done a lot for our “sport.”

But I don’t like losin’ to ’em.

Yesterday, The Society of London Theatre reported another record year with revenues up 11% over last year’s figures.

I know, you’re thinking what I’m thinking.  “Big deal. Anyone can increase revenues.  Just raise prices!”  That’s what we’ve been doing over here, anyway.

But get this . . . their attendance also went up 4%.

(This is where my jealous monster wants to come out from the closet and play.)

Wait, there’s more.

The year before last, their attendance rose by a gob-smacking 9%.

And the year before that, it went up another 1.3%

That’s three years in a row of more bodies seeing theater!

Let’s compare that to Broadway.

Wah-whah.

We’ve had a decline in attendance for the past three years.  (Click here to see some disappointing graphs on the subject.)

You know how that makes me feel?  Like The Yankees won the World series three years in a row, and The Sox came in dead, dead last.

What are they doing right and what are we doing wrong?  Is it the economy?  Is it the way they distribute tickets (with discounts on every corner)?  Is it the alternating performance schedules?  Is it just simply better shows???

Whatever it is, we’ve got some work to do in the off-season.  Because increasing revenue is great in the short term, but the future of the theatre is not writ in dollars, it’s in bodies.

 

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Comments
  • Dean Roth says:

    Well, with 62 shows listed on westend.com (compared to 48 on Playbill.com) and top priced orchestra seats for shows like Wicked and The Lion King right around $100, it’s a bit more accessible.

  • Luke W says:

    It’s true– after a year of living in the UK, it’s amazing how reasonable most ticket prices are there(even adjusted for the oh-so-painful exchange rate). Are they cheap? Well, certainly no. But they’re not going to keep you from paying your rent that month, either.

  • Jared says:

    It’s some of everything. They have more shows over there, which entices avid theatregoers to come more often. Here in New York it sometimes feels like half the shows on Broadway have been running FOREVER, which means there are less choices.

    But I think a lot of it is price. Shows are cheaper over there. Period. The end. Even after taking into account the exchange rate. Broadway has really priced itself out of most people’s pocketbooks at this point.

    I also have read a lot about audience building initiatives over there specifically aimed at making shows accessible. Entire blocks of tickets are specifically set aside at super low price points at every performance (no blackout dates, no having a special offer, nothing). The Shakespeare double bill is doing this and it is selling out every night when almost nothing else it (and recouped it’s investment, I might add). I know “The Cripple of Inishmore” with Daniel Radcliffe is doing the same thing, and he is a proven box office draw.

    This goes back to what I’ve been saying for years; we have GOT TO bring Broadway prices down. Producers like Ken need to figure out how to keep their costs down so they can set aside more mid-range tickets for every performance. I bet you most shows would see an attendance increase if the initial asking price on the mid-rear mezzanine was lower (and probably more full price ticket sales, which is something Ken is always trying to figure out). If things keep going the way they are now, Broadway is going to price itself out of the grasp of all but the most affluent and, let’s be honest, older audience members who will eventually die off without a new generation of theatre goers to replace them.

  • Jaysen says:

    The thing is, most people in US are not interested in anything too “cultural”. Although, Glee and some other things have helped a little, most people see theatre as a niche market, even in the theatre capitol of the US. Of all my friends, only maybe 3 people like theatre even close to as much as I do. I really believe theatre is more appreciated in the UK and Europe. I am probably even stating the obvious

  • Jaysen says:

    The thing is, most people in US are not interested in anything too “cultural”. Although, Glee and some other things have helped a little, most people see theatre as a niche market, even in the theatre capitol of the US. Of all my friends, only maybe 3 people like theatre even close to as much as I do. I really believe theatre is more appreciated in the UK and Europe. I am probably even stating the obvious

  • Jaysen says:

    No idea why that double posted. My apologies. feel free to delete this as well.

  • Josh Ruben says:

    Jaysen is correct about the cultural differences, but it goes beyond that. Broadway has done a BRILLIANT job at marketing to tourists. But while Americans make special trips to New York specifically for Broadway shows, I doubt that people are going to London JUST for the West End.

    Furthermore, if we keep making shows that appeal only to the initiated theatre lovers, how much outreach and audience development are we really doing? Why can’t producers bring smaller, yet still great shows, out into the “sticks”? Why can’t we have more filmed productions on PBS or in movie theatres so that the “heartland” can experience great Broadway shows?

    Oh, and ticket prices are way to high.

  • Matinees almost everyday, so you can see two shows in one day. A culture raised with more exposure to theatre. I never spent over 45 pounds on tickets including orchestra seats (last time I was in London was 2006, so I can’t speak about inflation). THE NATIONAL THEATRE, THE OLD VIC, ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY. Also, we need to research the longevity of shows like BLOOD BROTHERS, LES MIZ, and PHANTOM in the West End vs. Broadway. Shows get more of a chance to try out in the West End. THE TESTAMENT OF MARY really should not have premiered on Broadway prior to London, Broadway is unforgiving. International casts-do you know how many Americans work in the West End, not to mention Swedish, French, Asian as well as Brits which gets the best casts possible. I love New York and I loved all 26 shows I saw in the three trips that I took (except for the National’s production of GUYS AND DOLLS it really was awkward as an American watching it fumble)

    • I also think the filming of live shows is a great way to spread interest in theatre and gain a larger audience. Whether it is a movie theater or the Digital Theatre Video site.

  • 1. Government subsidies. Socialism!

    2. More variety.

    3. More affordable.

  • In total agreement with those above comments i.e Broadway tkt prices are way too high, especially when over half the seats are mid mezzanine, it’s far more affordable in London. I remember being able to walk up to Tkts and get an orchestra seat for $20, and now it’s $72 for upper mezzanine at the Tkts booth.
    But also take note that the entertainment dollar (pound) is no where near as fragmented in London. We have far too much product here…sporting events, esp. when baseball is in season to the tune of 82 home games, Lincoln Center, Symphony Space, concerts in the park, and ultimately cable tv with 200 + channels… the list is endless. We are overloaded with many entertainment choices and options. London’s entertainment program is more limited. And theater is in their blood… goes back to the days of Shakespeare and Sheridan.

  • Clair Sedore says:

    London has the National Theatre, and it has more affordable tickets, and teachers can take their students there at reasonable prices. This makes an entirely new group of theatregoers, and they in turn start to make up the West End audiences as they mature. Broadway NEEDS a National Theatre, with reasonable prices, so the younger generations can grow up as theatrelovers. Also the filmed plays, and musicals from the National Theatre reach our audiences here and around the world, like our Metropolitan Opera series does.

  • Mark says:

    Ken, this is a fantastic post. You hit the nail on the head with the sustainability being in bodies, as opposed to dollars.

    I have to immediately agree with everyone above regarding the cost of seeing shows, but it really isn’t as simple as just lowering ticket prices. With unions to worry about, families to feed, the cost of living in NYC, etc. it is a difficult task. One that should be addressed, but difficult nonetheless.

    Most shows do a good job of providing rush or lottery tickets, as well as discounted tickets through TKTS. It would be great to have a larger block of tickets at a lower rate available similar to Jared’s post about West End ticket sales having “Entire blocks of tickets are specifically set aside at super low price points at every performance (no blackout dates, no having a special offer, nothing)”.

    I think the real issue to work toward is growing our audience for the future. Jared’s comment (great response btw, Jared) also made a valid point that “older audience members… will eventually die off without a new generation of theatre goers to replace them”.

    Here is where I think a readily available solution lies. I think every show (NYC or touring) should host one or two completely free shows every semester for college and high school students. This shouldn’t be just for the theatre majors or the students who are already waiting in line for student discount tickets, but rather the entire student population (with ID). Think about it. A show doesn’t sell tickets for two shows every 6 months in order to build buzz in the immediate term, but more importantly the Broadway lvoing community is being enhanced for the future. Producers are trying to ensure that the next generation is still falling in love with this beautiful experience.

    Obviously, this is a rough idea and there is more to work through in terms of implementation, but I think it is definitely a step in the right direction.

  • PDXComposer says:

    Saw West End musicals this summer and have been wondering this as well, since then. I agree with a lot of these comments.

    Bought my admission from TKTS booth and did not see any noticeable discount, no lower price than NYC that I could tell. Not when factoring in pounds to dollar conversion.

    I walked away from my summer West End experience with two distinct impressions:

    1) You see a lot more of the production dollars in the production values. West End sound, set, effects, lighting and costume design were completely better than any I’ve seen in US – from LA to NYC and points in-between. The designers have 6 or more months, according to what I’ve since read and seen, to fully integrate fresh and original ideas into the written project and they spend that time developing new, creative audio and visual elements that are fresh, original and (sometimes) better than the written work. As this is the norm, it goes that UK audiences expect to see big, creative spectacle. And from what I saw, they are not often disappointed. No NYC show I’ve ever seen has been so intricately designed to dazzle the senses. No doubt union costs account for some of this. And some of this is in audience taste and expectation.

    2) (Here’s where I may earn hate mail.) Conversely, whether a result of their fixation on the technical spectacle or not, the UK audiences do not appear to be as demanding of quality craftmanship in the written work itself. Despite modest reviews Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is selling well. Not due to the craft of the book or lyric, which suffer enough that the authors are reworking the project before bringing it to NYC, but because the technical design spectacle (which is sensational)is dazzling to see. The audience goes home and says it’s a faithful adaptation of a favorite book (a mistake in itself) with astonishing special effects, toe-tapping music, high-energy dance that places these effects above the need and demands of a strong, engaging adaptation. (One could say it masks the weakness of the book and integration of song to advance plot – which barely exists.)

    And there are numerous examples of this, from My Bodyguard to Priscilla and much more. Viva Forever lived six months before closing but would not last 6 weeks in the US.

    No there is something far more simple and forgiving in the audience demands and needs of their participation in the West End. Shrek, which closed in NYC with yet to be solved writing problems, lived a long, successful life in the West End (Yes, reworked while there to correct the NYC draft.) It did this, while being corrected, drawing strong audiences from the beginning.

    There is something uniquely different in the entertainment requirements of the audiences separated by the Atlantic. I do not profess to have many answers, but I think these two points are clues where to start a comparative look.

  • Nathalie says:

    This is a topic I’ve given a lot of thought. Such great comments.

    Cost is absolutely one of the main issues. I live in LA. When a Broadway show comes here via Nederlander Corp, for example, it’s simply too expensive for most people to attend. Especially our future theatre patrons. As a high school teacher I try so hard to get my kids out to all possible shows. Many of the theaters in town will offer free or deeply discounted performances for school groups. Including the big LORTS. Not the Broadway shows(Pantages in LA. It’s too bad as I KNOW it’s a good investment in the future of theatre.

    Also, it’s our “culture.” Theatre just isn’t part of the everyday American landscape. It has been in the UK for hundreds of years; whether it’s community theatre in Northumberland or West End London fare. Theatre is attended and attention is paid. Good or bad. Like going to the movies for Americans. We, I believe, by centering all the “big shows” in one city and by making it very expensive, have done theatre a dis-service. Raised it to a “cultural” or almost “deified” experience as Josh and Jaysen have said. We have a huge country and not enough theatre to give to the population. And so, the general population doesn’t care about theatre. My two cents.

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