Catch It While You Can: The West End’s new maxim
PUBLISHED: 12:28 07 October 2017 | UPDATED: 12:28 07 October 2017
It seems that the era of the long-running West End show is coming to an end. The trend is now for short-term engagements which, Arts editor Andrew Clarke says, is a good thing for our cultural economy and offers greater opportunities for new work
London’s West End is synonymous with some of longest-running musicals in the world: Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Matilda, Evita, Cats, The Lion King, Oliver, The Sound of Music, We Will Rock You, Miss Saigon, Wicked, Billy Elliot and just recently The Book of Mormon have all had runs which have lasted years if not decades but there is a trend that suggest the era of the mega-hit maybe coming to an end.
Mega-hits tend to be costly extravaganzas and therefore are very hard to maintain. Once the audience dips then they are very expensive to keep running with half empty houses.
Since the dawn of the 21st century there has been a growing trend in limited runs. During the 1980s and 90s, shows would open with an unlimited run. There would be cast-changes and they would keep going for as long as there was an audience.
Today, an increasing number of shows open with a pre-determined closure date. They have a high profile cast which will remain with the show for the whole run. In the 1980s commercial theatre was dominated by musicals, today there are an increasing number of short-run plays filling the theatres of Shaftesbury Avenue.
You can trace the start of these changes to the dawn of the 21st century when the terrorist attack on New York’s twin towers ushered in an era of uncertainty which had far reaching effects for the West End. Big name shows like Peggy Sue Got Married and Chitty, Chitty Bang, Bang closed as audiences nervously decided to stay at home as the global political landscape shifted.
The situation changed again when the stock market crashed and burned in 2008 and once again audiences became nervous about spending money, particularly as the banks themselves required baling out.
Thankfully, theatre is both a rewarding and resourceful and came up with a new form of theatre experience: the limited season. This would pair star-names (theatre stars as well as TV and movie talent) with well-advertised short-runs.
Producers like Michael Grandage were all ready adept at coming up with seasons of star-filled plays, featuring such recognisable names as Judi Dench, Samantha Bond, Jude Law, Ben Whishaw, Simon Russell Beale and Nicole Kidman.
Now London theatre is full of limited run engagements. Kenneth Branagh opted to take that concept further by taking over the Garrick Theatre for an entire year and filling it with a back-to-back season of star-filled theatre – giving London the nearest thing it has had to rep.
There are many advantages to staging plays and smaller scale musicals. They are cheaper for one thing, requiring fewer special effects, and the focus is more on the words and the performance. Also, if you know that a play or a show is only on for a fixed time then it adds a degree of urgency to the booking process.
No matter how good the reviews, no matter how many awards the show wins, it is going to come off, so book now. This has happened recently with various award-winning productions including Half A Sixpence, Nell Gwynn, Mrs Henderson Presents, Much Ado About Nothing, Hangmen. Photograph 51 and Funny Girl which all came off despite good ticket sales and reviews because the cast needed to move on and the theatre had another production booked in.
The show Top Hat came off a week after winning its Olivier award, Gypsy with Imelda Staunton and Lara Pulver came off after six months, as did Sheridan Smith’s Funny Girl and Tim Minchin’s musical re-invention of Groundhog Day came off to free up the stage at The Old Vic after a short six week run.
It is accepted theatre lore that six months is the maximum run for shows that appeal to homegrown audiences. If a show is to go on for longer then it needs to have international appeal – something that will grab the interest of tourists.
This usually means spectacle and feelgood production numbers. One of the reasons that shows like Betty Blue Eyes, Stephen Ward, Girls and Made In Dagenham didn’t join the ranks of Wicked and Les Mis was because they were too parochial – too concerned with their British settings.
Betty Blue Eyes was a story wrapped up in post-war rationing whereas Girls (a musical remake of Calendar Girls), Made in Dagenham and Stephen Ward were entirely the product of 1960s British scandals which would mean nothing to foreign tourists.
A series of shorter runs would create a healthier West End. Decade long residencies for shows like Phantom and Les Mis create a world of musical stagnation. I hope Hamilton, the Broadway sensation that is about to open, is a huge success, plays for a year and then gives way for something new and equally as good.
That way we all win and the West End continues to be a place of inventive magical theatre.