July 9, 2008

Talent-Show Musicals Bring Record Crowds to West End

By Arifa Akbar; Furquan Akhtar

Reality TV shows in which performers compete to become West End musical stars have led to record audience figures in London's theatreland.

Progammes such as the BBC's Any Dream Will Do and How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, where contestants vied for a starring role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Sound of Music, drove up box-office takings to 470m and annual attendance to 13.6 million in the West End last year, according to The Society of London Theatre's (Solt) annual report.

While some hailed the figures as proof that this is a golden era for the West End, others lamented the rise of "McMusical" shows, pointing out that while they generate huge interest among a young audience, these fans are unlikely to go on to become regular theatregoers. Despite the rise in takings at the box office, the number of new West End plays fell by a third.

Solt, which represents producers, theatre owners and managers, said that ticket sales rose by 70m in 2007. Two-thirds of all sales were for musicals, with Joseph and Grease - itself preceded by a reality TV show - doing particularly well. Film actors who trod the boards also bolstered theatre audiences, with Daniel Radcliffe, star of the Harry Potter films, proving hugely popular with his critically acclaimed lead performance in Equus.

The appearance of Patrick Stewart in Macbeth and Sir Ian McKellen in King Lear also sold out venues. The Royal Shakespeare Company's forthcoming production of Hamlet is to star Doctor Who's David Tennant, while Jude Law is also set to perform the same role at the Donmar Warehouse next June.

Solt found the upturn was also boosted by the opening of high- profile musicals at the end of 2006, including Wicked and Monty Python's Spamalot. Last year's success carried over into the beginning of this year, with attendances up 2.29 per cent on the equivalent period in 2007, but recent weeks have seen a slight downturn in attendances, suggesting that 2008 may not be another record-breaker.

Advance booking revenues are also down on this time last year while some West End offerings flopped, including Trevor Nunn's musical version of Gone With The Wind, which closed in June after just 79 performances.

Terri Paddock, editorial director of the What's On Stage website, said the credit crunch was likely to take its tol. "Last year was an exceptional year in terms of big openings," she said. "There was also critical acclaim for a lot of plays, with some of those featuring actors who were also screen stars, such as Daniel Radcliffe and Orlando Bloom."

But Solt's commercial manager, Paul James, said he was hopeful this year's attendance figures would be just as healthy. "The story this year is of a vibrant sector. I think we are set fair for an excellent year," he said.

Takings later this year are expected to rise with the revival of Oliver!, which is due to preview at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in December. Its stars were chosen on the BBC reality show I'd Do Anything.

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