Staging a show in the West End is a massive gamble for theatre producers, directors and investors – their hard work, money and reputations are at stake when trying to make their musical or play a great success. Unfortunately, looking at the West End’s history spanning over four hundred years, it is more likely to produce a failure rather than a hit.
Having attended the last showing of I Can’t Sing! The X-Factor Musical this May, after just a six-week run in the West End, I realised how fickle the theatre business is. Chief Executive of the production company Stage Entertainment UK who co-produced the musical comedy, said: “The West End can be an unpredictable place as the closure of a number of high-profile productions recently has shown. I Can’t Sing! has had audiences on their feet night after night, four and five star reviews from the critics and an amazing company and creative team, but it seems that isn’t always enough”. Despite containing awe-inspiring vocals; an original score; stitch-inducing humour; clever special effects; a light-hearted storyline; and well-cast performers, the show still struggled to achieve sufficient ticket sales – with the entire upper circle and almost half the royal circle empty when I attended (even though seat capacity across the major theatres in London is on the rise, with an average of 72.7 percent of seats filled in 2013). Following the closure of the X-Factor stage spin-off, the writer of the production, television comedian Harry Hill admitted: “We took a punt and it didn’t work out. If I could do things different, I would have gone to local theatres and built up a following”.
I Can’t Sing! is not the only West End show to close in recent history due to poor ticket sales. The musical Viva Forever! featured songs made famous by The Spice Girls and hoped to follow in the footsteps of the successful production of ‘Mamma Mia!’, but only survived seven months and lost a reported £5m. The writer of the show, actress and comedienne Jennifer Saunders announced: “It is disappointing the show is to close. I am particularly sad for the cast and crew that have worked so hard to produce a wonderful show”. Even though the production had originally opened with over £4m in advance sales, and around £300k was spent on restaging and promoting the show in the hope of enhancing box office purchases, the show failed to impress the critics and couldn’t reach sufficient ticket numbers. Producer Judy Craymer commented, “the show has evolved since we first opened and is now brighter, lighter and funnier, but despite the wonderful audiences and extremely positive feedback, we just can’t make it work”.
Other West End flops include the £25m production Lord of the Rings: The Musical which also failed to deliver, receiving mixed reviews and lasting barely thirteen months. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s original musical based on the Profumo scandal, Stephen Ward, ran for under four months; the three and a half hour stage adaptation of Gone with the Wind closed in 2008 after just 79 performances; and the wartime novel adaptation From Here to Eternity by Tim Rice resided in the West End for only six months.
So why do certain shows fail to remain in the West End? Theatre critic Michael Arditti stated: “My feeling is that the West End lacks originality. There are far, far too may adaptations of films. I am going to see the stage version of Fatal Attraction next week. It may be wonderful, but why would you pay £60 to see it in the West End when you can get it for a couple of pounds on DVD”. This is certainly true for such shows as the television series spin-off Bad Girls: The Musical which lasted a brief two months before announcing its closure. There are however exceptions to this, such as the film adaptations of The Lion King which is in its fifteenth year; Billy Elliot The Musical which is still going strong after nine years; and the recent successes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Bodyguard.
Apart from the reason of cost which could deter audiences from the West End (with the average ticket price in 2013 being £40.14), sales figures could also be flawed due to the rise in last minute discount websites. Judy Craymer, producer of Mamma Mia! and Viva Forever! said: “people don’t buy tickets so far in advance now because everything can be more instant yet shows work on advance sales”.
The publicity and marketing of a theatre production also has an effect on its success or failure. Despite appearances on the Royal Variety Show and the backing of Simon Cowell, I Can’t Sing! failed to entice audiences into the theatre and the production team overspent on advanced advertising rather than keeping some funds in reserve for running costs – so having a simple poster campaign alongside press previews may have been wiser.
All things considered, the main reason for particular West End shows becoming a flop rather than a hit is purely the storyline. If a production has boring content, a confusing plotline, forgettable music or haphazard choreography, it will fail to impress audiences and not receive good reviews or recommendations. Having seen Viva Forever! myself, I sensed that it would not be long-standing in the West End due to its predictable storyline and a soundtrack which was not as good as the original songs.
However, the West End is far from all doom and gloom with grand productions such as Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera having nearly reached their third decade, and The Mousetrap achieving an unbroken record of over fifty years in the West End. The Society of London Theatre reported that attendances in Theatreland increased by 4 percent in 2013 compared to 2012, and advance sales were up by an average of 21 percent. Mark Rubinstein, President of the Society of London Theatre, said: “these figures pay testament to the quality, vibrancy and enduring popularity of the London stage, which, despite a difficult economic climate, continues to pull in the crowds thanks to the world-class entertainment on offer and inclusive pricing structures”.
West End theatres need to produce exciting, intriguing and inspiring shows in order to draw in new and young audiences, and it looks like they are improving with this as over 14 million people flocked to London theatres in 2013 generating over £585m in revenue. As audience members, we also have a duty to ensure the success of the nation’s cultural entertainment industry, by supporting new shows coming into the West End, and not only booking to see the more established classics.