May 8: Box office snapshots augur a worrying future

Mark ShentonInclude in homepage slide?, Thought of the day1 Comment

But younger producers may reverse the trend

While Broadway has always been more or less transparent about their weekly box office figures — the Broadway League used to give them to Variety every week to publish in its print edition, but nowadays they’re also published on myriad online outlets, including on — the West End has always been a lot more circumspect.

While I’ve regularly seen British theatre fans wondering why London does’t follow suite, the only thing this would be satisfying is their curiosity; where is the RIGHT to have this information? These are, after all, private businesses (for the most part); Boots don’t tell Superdrug how many deodorants or shampoos they sell. Investors and shareholders will be privy to the data, particularly as it affects their returns, as to how a show is doing or has done, but essentially, why would one commercial business WANT their competitors to know just how well — or not — they’re doing?

But the online world we now operate in is actually offering theatregoers an indication, even if it is not definitive, of just how well particular shows are performing; you just have to open up their seating plans online and look for yourself.

And running this exercise this week, as various shows are poised to return or make their debuts, makes for worrying viewing.

One of the first shows out of the gates is the staged concert version of Les Miserables — originally an all-star version that sold out its entire planned run when it was first announced for December, with a cast that included Michael Ball, Alfie Boe and Carrie Hope Fletcher, but now returning with a company made up of cast members of the West End and recent touring editions. Apart from the opening performance on May 20, and a couple more on May 22 (evening) and May 29 (matinee), every single performance is showing “good” availability for the entire run to September 5.

Meanwhile, tickets for the world premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical version of Cinderella, scheduled to begin performances on June 25, are hardly flying off the box office shelves. Here are some sample performances for mid-week nights, starting June 30 and for the next three Wednesdays that are on-sale (July 14 isn’t, as this is the press night).

And even these charts are not an accurate reflection of what has actually been sold, as quite a lot of the tickets that are marked as taken have no doubt been allocated to agencies to sell — and if/when they don’t, they can simply return their inventories.

Of course, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about: will the government meet its deadlines for releasing the COVID lockdown restrictions (in ten days time for socially distanced performances, from May 17), and 5 weeks later for performances with no social distancing at all anymore (from June 21)?

Or will performances be postponed yet again?

Hairspray, beginning performances at the London Coliseum on June 21, is its fourth attempt at scheduling its run. And yesterday it was announced that Les Dennis is replacing Paul Merton in the role of Wilbur: according to the release, “Following the delay to the production because of the pandemic, Paul is unfortunately not able to join the company due to long-standing scheduling commitments.”

Interestingly, even the producers are sceptical of the full release of social distancing rules from June 21, and are selling all performances to July 18 with social distancing still in place. But even with that fact — and thus removing many seats from sale — seats are freely available in all parts of the house for all performances. On July 6, for instance, here’s the picture in the stalls (left) and dress circle (right).

With tickets at up to £125 each, it it any wonder that it’s slow going?

It seems that producers are imagining that the appetite for a return to live theatre will be such that they can once again charge whatever they like to sate it.

But the really smart money, in every sense, is on a new, younger breed of producers that theatre owner Nica Burns is bringing along to reinvigorate the West End as part of her Rising Stars Festival.

These producers are staging short runs of shows that appeal to niche audiences — and not fleecing them either. And the result? They are doing boffo business! The Drag Queens of Pop — an evening of pop songs performed live by RuPaul Drag Race finalists — at the Vaudeville Theatre from May 17-19 has entirely sold out its first night on May 17 already, with tickets from £20-£40. Roles We’ll Never Play — a two nighter celebration of West End talent performing roles they wouldn’t normally be allowed to sing — had (when I checked yesterday mid-morning) 11 tickets to sell for its first performance on May 22 (from £24.50-£34.50) and 39 tickets for May 23 (from £19.50-£29.50).

All of which is massively encouraging not just for the West End right now, but for its future as well: with young producers sensitive to price points that their audiences can actually afford, and marketing product that will attract them, the West End may not die a lingering death, after all, fossilised in a business model that has, post-Covid, left the building — and may never return.