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.

Gotta problem with star casting? Talk to Hugh Jackman.

I’m one of the lucky folk that got a couple of tickets to see A Steady Rain, and to be honest, that’s only because I’m a Tony Voter. If I weren’t a TV, I’m not sure I would have even tried to score seats to what is one of the most difficult tickets of the decade.

(I mean, each one of these guys could have sold out a play on their own. Sort of seems like a waste having them in the same play!)

At the end of this 90 minute Hunk-O-Mania, Hugh stopped the thunderous ovation to begin his BC/EFA fundraising speech.

He started it with this question . . .

“How many of you are here tonight seeing your very first Broadway show?”

At least 100 hands shot up.

Star casting has taken a lot of swipes over the years, and believe me, I’ve had my issue with a number of no-talents that have struggled their way through a Broadway play or musical.

But the right stars could be doing more to develop new audiences than we could ever do on our own.

What happened after Hugh’s question?  He and Daniel proceeded to live-auction-off signed t-shirts and backstage visits and photos, all to benefit BC/EFA.  They raised over $20k in about 10 minutes.

Thanks for joining us on Broadway, guys.  And thanks for your incredible generosity to the community.

Today’s audiences are lucky to have you . . . and so are tomorrow’s.

Thanks to Tom Ray of Woodbridge, VA.

This week’s Entertainment Weekly rag, uh, sorry, I mean mag, had the following letter to the editor:

More theater reviews, please!  I enjoyed this issue but I want – need – more!

– Tom Ray, Woodbridge, VA

Thanks for speaking out, Tom. And thanks for reminding a major media outlet that there are Broadway theater lovers all over the country who are looking for more theater representation in what they read.

With the numbers of mega-stars stepping their star-studded shoes on Broadway stages these days (Jude Law, Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig, Scarlett Johannson, Will Ferrell, etc.), we have a chance to break into more mainstream publications.

Let’s hope EW and everyone else listens to folks like Tom . . . and folks like you.

In fact, why don’t we show Tom some support?

Write to Entertainment Weekly at ew_letters@ew.com or snail mail ’em at Entertainment Weekly, 135 West 50th St., New York, NY  10020.

Tell ’em you want more theater.

I’m serious.  Click it.  Tell ’em you agree with Tom.

It’ll take 30 seconds tops.

And tell ’em Ken sent you.  🙂

Oh, and Tom, if you read this, drop me a note. I tried to look you up in the 2009 version of the phone book (aka facebook) but came up empty.  I’d love for you to be my guest at one of my shows the next time you are in town.  We need more and more folks like you.

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