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

2009 was a thermometer-bursting year for West End theater.

Despite the world economic crisis, the West End set a record with a yearly gross of £504,765,690 or approximately $786,134,270, which is a 7.6% increase (!) from the previous year.

But that’s not what’s got me curious/burning with envy.

Even us tea partiers can keep the grosses going up year after year, thanks to our yearly price increase.

What’s remarkable about the London figures is that they’ve also managed to increase their attendance at the same time, by a whopping 5.5%, to a 2009 total of 14,257,922 theatergoers.

And this was all in the midst of a monumental recession!

Huh.  An increase in gross and an increase in attendance.  Isn’t that exactly what’s supposed to happen?

But it’s not happening here in the colonies.  We’re on track to see a drop in attendance for the third season in a row, despite slight increases in our grosses.

What is London doing right?

Is it the half price booths on every block?  Is it because they let you eat and drink in the theatres?  Is it because Hollywood stars seem even more willing to do West End productions than Broadway productions?

Is it because they have a Queen and Princes and say things like “bollocks”?

Nica Burns, the President of the Society of London Theatre (their version of our Broadway League), had this to say about the increases:

Britain’s artistic community continues to create exceptional work. The extraordinary quality and breadth of productions available nightly in London explains these record figures in such a difficult year economically.  Excellence is everything – look no further than London’s theatre which adds a great deal more to London’s revenue than just the ticket price.

Well said.  This is a product-driven industry on both sides of the ocean.  My only quibble is that I’d trade the word “excellence” with the phrase, “The Rumpelstiltskin Factor.”  When people are willing to give their first born away to see a show (whether or not it’s any “good”) that’s when numbers are going to increase.

If we had 12 Steady Rain-like shows with 12 Hugh Jackmans, our mercury would be rising, too.  12 Wickeds, 12 Will Ferrell’s and so on and so forth.

Still, it can’t just be that.  These increases suggest a different sort of energy occurring in the West End than is occurring here.  And I’m not quite sure what it is.

But I tell you this . . . I’d almost be willing to give them back one of the colonies in exchange for the secret.

  • Impeccable timing, Ken. This issue has been on my mind for a while now, and between your post and this one by David Cote for the Guardian’s theatre blog from earlier today (http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2010/feb/19/american-theatre-enron), I – and I think all of us involved in the American theater – have a lot more to mull over…

  • Alicia says:

    I also think that there is a very important cultural difference between London and NY. When I was 10, my father brought me and my sister to London for three months while he was on sabbatical. During that time, we sublet a flat and had a caretaker who earned very little money. When the caretaker discovered my father was a playwright, they began talking about the theatre. My father was amazed by the fact that, despite his low income, his new friend and his wife always made a point of attending the theatre. As my father relays the story, it was said: “We go to the theatre because one should.”
    I believe that in the UK theatre is seen as a critical part of our cultural awareness and appreciation whereas in the States we tend to view it more as a luxury or something that “fancy folks” do.

  • Uke Jackson says:

    I think it’s really a matter of attitude. Brit producers and artistic directors are willing to be surprised, and thankful when they are. Their American cousins seem more interested in appearing to have all the answers, as opposed to having hits that are original and relevant. (I exclude you from this, Ken, of course.)
    A new show coming out of nowhere and getting rave reviews is more likely to be ignored than explored by “producers” in NYC. A showcase that gets rave reviews is an inconvenience. The predominant attitude seems to be “If I didn’t think of it, or if it didn’t come from my network, it can’t be any good.” That’s the way it is, and that’s the way it has been a long time.
    When American theater becomes the domain of people who genuinely care about our country and our culture, and where it’s going as opposed to where it’s been (endless revivals), then audiences will grow. Right now American theater is a playground for the upper classes.
    Of course, I’m speaking from the viewpoint of a playwright.
    Uke Jackson

  • There’s a few things pushing the West End these days.
    One is the fantastic selection of plays coming out of the subsidised sector: all three of the big straight pieces in the West End (minus the Misanthrope which is a celeb piece) got a subsidised start: War Horse from the National, Enron and Jerusalem from the Royal Court.
    Second, Musical producers are playing it very safe and picking shows with the widest possible appeal. It would be genuinely shocking to see something like Next to Normal come straight to a commercial venue here, Best Score award or not.
    Third, tourism in the UK is up thanks to the weak pound. More people are coming to London for shopping and general holidays, and like New York, one of the Things You Do when coming to London is see a West End show.
    Fourth, theatre really is in the blood here and people start young with Pantomime (Wiki it, not talking about Marcel Marceau) and a wealth of family productions at the opera houses, ballet, etc.
    And, Fifth, it’s the knock-on effect from the reality shows. As much as ‘true theatre fans’ and ‘real talent’ complain, research by Society of London Theatres shows that people have seen MORE SHOWS IN GENERAL because of the casting programmes than just the ones in the show itself. The exposure has been amazing and people who aren’t regular theatre goers will attend to see the TV show winner and it turns out they keep coming back.
    Lovely, innit?

  • Vrigsbee says:

    I honestly think that Broadway needs to lower ticket prices.
    London theatres have done a fantastic job at making theatre financially accessible and I think that’s why they’ve been able to continue to grow their audiences in this economic landscape.
    At the lowest level, the National Theatre has £10 student rush tickets but most Broadway musicals charge rushing students between $25-40.
    I always see more shows when I’m in the West End than I do when I’m in New York, simply because I can afford to see more for the same amount of money – even with the exchange rate at $2 to £1. For those earning pounds, its even more affordable.
    Ken, you’ve suggested that theater look to baseball on a number of occasions – let’s look to it in terms of admission costs. Yes, some die-hard fans will pay out the ear to get great seats, but the stadiums also let kids pay next to nothing to sit in the nosebleed section.
    Why not lower our prices so these people can really afford to come to the theatre? People pay $9-13 for movie theatre tickets now. Why can’t we let them pay that for a Broadway show?
    I’ve looked at the numbers; shows RARELY sell to 100% capacity. Why not get some passionate young people rush for those extra seats at truly affordable prices? Maybe they’ll tell their friends, maybe they’ll come again, maybe they’ll become the next generation of producers! We’ll never know if we keep them out with expensive ticket prices…
    We have made theatre an elite thing by charging so much.

  • Nathan C. says:

    I have a theory that theater today fills the role held by circuses 100 years ago: exotic, spectacular entertainment followed by the purchasing of souvenirs to prove to your friends that you were there. We’ve emphasized the “special event”-ness of a Broadway show to the point that it’s closer to being a once-in-a-lifetime experience than simply a life experience.
    How to change it is tricky – the economics of Broadway aren’t like to to change as long as costs are sky-high, and audiences are willing to pay top dollar.
    Maybe one difference between theater here and in London is that their entire country is about the size of Kansas, and West End theater is simply more accessible to a larger percentage of their population. Maybe the future of American theater is outside of New York, and reaching all of those under-served audiences out there, and Broadway can become the showcase where the best work floats to the top.

  • Drewster says:

    I think Alicia nailed it. Theater isn’t breed in us anymore like it used to be and still is in England. I run a box office in the regions, and you would think 100 seats in a major metropolis would be easy to fill. It is not. People here, for the most part, don’t go to the theater simply to go. They go for a guarantee of being entertained. And our tickets top out at $36!

  • Kile Ozier says:

    LOL…well, that’s quite a quibble, Signore — more or less changes the entire quote… I think the guy’s right on the money; the quality of work done in the west end is consistently better, the quality of talent generally better trained an directed, the overall experience dependably a far better risk…. IMHO, of course…

  • Vance says:

    I agree that part of it is cultural like Alicia said, and part of it is the (sometimes) lower ticket prices (or at least the availability of a range of prices for all to choose from (which I keep saying NY needs to do more of), but my guess from another theory is that since a lot of the “big shows” court the tourists (which actually AREN’T cheaper than in NY), the easy tourist access to London, with the weakening pound (so thus more bang for the tourist buck) works in its favour. While the USD has weakened too, its offset by the fact that it seems harder to get into the States (Visa, security, hassles, etc).

  • Which colony? I vote for South Carolina. I don’t imagine they cultivate many theater goers anyway. Or Rhode Island… It’s really small, in more ways than one.

  • Andy says:

    1. The British are taught Shakespeare. You can’t pick up a daily newspaper without seeing a reference to Shakespeare. If you are taught the work of a great playwright, you understand great theatre.
    2. You can see the work of Shakespeare performed, anywhere, anytime.
    3. You can see new works on major stages.
    4. You can see major stars on stage, be it movie, television or stage stars.
    5. Theatre is subsidized by the government.
    6. Theatre is supported by the royalty. When was the last time the President went to the theatre? OK, other than Obama?
    7. Theatre has always been important to the culture.

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