What’s in a Name? The Passport to Success in the Commercial West End

London’s West End was once the home of new British musicals, and thanks to business driven individuals such as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh these iconic shows were exported around the world at an alarming rate. The 1980s saw a boom for original musicals in the West End, and as society was enjoying the finer things in life, the London theatre district became a key economic contributor. Under Thatcher’s government, public money to the arts was significantly reduced, so it was the commercial sector that thrived, and entrepreneurial spirit was justly rewarded. Thatcherism celebrated talented individuals who used their own skills to get ahead, and in many cases this spirit embodied the ‘mega-musicals’ of the period, which have since gone on to break records the world over. Describing Lord Lloyd Webber as a ‘great British export,’ his work dominated the West End and started bringing new audiences to the theatre, and in particular, new musicals.

(Photo: Sarah Lee)

The West End! (Photo: Sarah Lee)

With the UK still recovering from recession, arts funding has once again been reduced, and this has led to a new wave of commercial interests in the West End. American imports continue to thrive, but Broadway is also awash with British plays and musicals growing out of the need to make money in order to compete and survive in what has become a lucrative and highly competitive industry.

The 2013 Olivier Awards proved that the 2012/13 season had the weakest collection of new musicals in the commercial West End in almost a decade. The nominees for Best New Musical included The Bodyguard (based on the songs of Whitney Houston and the 1991 film); Soul Sister (a tribute concert show to Tina Turner); Top Hat (essentially an Irving Berlin Jukebox musical) and Loserville (an original musical penned based on the Busted album ‘Son of Dork’). Of this rather sorry collection, only Loserville could claim to be an ‘original’ musical in the strictest sense. Despite having an original book and score, it failed to capture the hearts of audiences or critics, closing after just 3 months.

Flash-forward to the 2013/14 season, and the picture couldn’t be more different. Original musicals have dominated the theatre industry this year, and we are left with what must be one of the most competitive markets for many years.

Audience attendance continues to rise across all SOLT venues, proving the need for new work is necessary and can capture the public’s imagination. With so much choice now available, it has become more cut throat, and closing notices are being posted regularly for some of London’s biggest shows.

The American presence in the West End has certainly been felt this year, with two new musicals, The Book of Mormon and Once, both winners of the Tony Award for Best New Musical. Opening in the same month, they have almost been pitted against each other from the start, but both have managed to find an audience – the first by shouting its message obnoxiously from the rooftops, and the latter by developing excellent word of mouth.

Surprisingly, it is the original British musical however that will ultimately define this season, and three specific examples that arrive from the commercial sector once again.


Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka (photo: Helen Maybanks)

Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka (photo: Helen Maybanks)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory attempted to recreate the success of Matilda the Musical, which is currently one of the biggest commercial hits in London, despite being produced by the RSC. The Roald Dahl classic has been adapted by David Grieg and features music and lyrics by Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman (Smash, Catch Me If You Can, Hairspray), but has been produced commercially by Warner Brothers and Neal Street Productions. Costing a rumoured £20million, this spectacle of a show is one of the most expensive West End musicals to have ever opened.

Sam Mendes took the helm as director, raising the stakes of the production and giving it a much needed ‘star-name’ to attract worldwide media attention. Critics were slightly less than kind to the production, and tickets weren’t as ‘golden’ as had been hoped. With over 2,000 seats to fill each night, however, there is ample opportunity for discounted tickets, and the show has proved to be successful with school groups and tourists.

Whilst it will certainly take some time to discover if Charlie goes down as a commercial hit, it has certainly raised the bar in terms of what the public now expect from larger musicals. With high weekly running costs mounting, the show needs to regularly take over a million pounds a week in order to survive, and that is before it even thinks about repaying its investors. Unlike the Broadway community, West End venues do not publicly reveal their weekly statistics, so less open speculation can be had about the potential future of certain shows. Figures are released when a show does particularly well, however, usually as a PR stunt to remind the wider audiences that the show is still running and returning healthy advances months after opening, something Charlie did following the October half-term holidays when it broke West End records in taking £1,062,606 in a single week.

arius Campbell, Rebecca Thornhill, Siubhan Harrison and Robert Lonsdale (Photo: Nick Clements)

Darius Campbell, Rebecca Thornhill, Siubhan Harrison and Robert Lonsdale (Photo: Nick Clements)

Whilst Charlie relied on both the name of the show and the prestige of its director, another brand new musical relied on its lyricist to draw in the crowds. From Here to Eternity, which opened at the Shaftesbury Theatre in October, gave top billing to lyricist turned producer Tim Rice. Well known for his collaborations with Andrew Lloyd Webber on shows such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita he has made a name for himself on both sides of the Atlantic with hit commercial musicals such as Disney’s Aida and The Lion King. In this case the composer happened to be an unknown who had caught Rice’s attention by adapting the James Jones novel of the same name into an original book musical. It is usually unknown for a first time composer to open a musical directly in the commercial West End, but the strength of Rice’s name seemed to be enough to solidify sufficient funding for the project.

Stuart Brayson’s score contains many strong moments, and it is certainly an impressive effort for a first time musical. The musical has suffered due to its marketing efforts and the lack of direct audience to whom it relates. In an industry swamped with jukebox shows and familiar crowd pleasers, an original book musical from an unknown composer sadly stands out as somewhat of an oddity. Critics were keen to praise the show, fearful that damning it too harshly would be a nail in the coffin for original commercial shows. Whilst it has certainly found some degree of loyal following, it has not been enough to meet overheads, and has posted closing notices for April 2014.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charlotte Blackledge, Alexander Hanson, Charlotte Spencer and Richard Eyre

Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charlotte Blackledge, Alexander Hanson, Charlotte Spencer and Richard Eyre

Perhaps one of the only other names with enough prestige to open an original musical directly in the West End is Andrew Lloyd Webber himself. His latest musical Stephen Ward opens at the Aldwych Theatre on December 19th, without an out of town tryout or UK tour.  This show has enjoyed an accelerated journey to the stage, driven by the composer’s personal passion for the project.

Collaborating with the team behind Sunset Boulevard, Don Black and Charles Hampton, Stephen Ward is a fresh look at the Profumo Affair of 1963, which rocked British society and threatened to bring down parliament in the midst of the Cold War. An unlikely subject from the outset, it certainly lacks a commercial appeal. Labelling it a ‘chamber musical’, the show falls between two stalls. You can see how The Lord has resisted the urge to create a commercial hit similar to his earlier shows, but the material and score does not lend itself to an exploratory experimental musical that he seems desperate to present.

Commercial musicals have certainly dominated this season, and are looking likely to continue into the New Year, with more Broadway imports lined up. Whilst this is good news for the industry as a business, the question has to be asked about how a contemporary musical theatre writer can hope to get their new work into this commercial sphere. Over the next few months I will be looking at the rise of new musicals on the London fringe, as well as talking to people directly involved with bringing new musicals to life in London, who don’t have the luxury of being attached to well connected industry figures – something that this year’s commercial successes couldn’t have done without.

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