The West End: Is it for the tourists?

Millions of people visit the West End each year to see the biggest and best shows in UK theatre – but are they really the biggest and best? Look around the West End and what will mainly be found is an overwhelming number of jukebox musicals, film adaptions and revivals. These types of stage musicals dominate the West End and leave little room for anything else, causing some to wonder who producers are really thinking of when deciding what shows ‘deserve’ their place there.

I know a great many people who are less than impressed with the current state of the theatre industry in regards to the West End scene and their complaints all follow a similar thread, in that no-one takes risks there anymore and new writing just isn’t given a chance. There is a certain safety in going for the familiar with a show, whether that’s through the music, the story or simply that it’s been seen before. In contrast, new writing presents a risk to a producer as there is just no guarantee that it will be worth taking a leap of (financial) faith for. Original work is being regulated to fringe/regional theatre more and more while the West End continues to take the safe route with money-drawing shows, which leads to the question of who the West End is for anymore, theatre fans or tourists?

True, consistent theatre-goers seek out work that is fresh, exciting and interests them, no matter whether it is a big razzle-dazzle West End show or a low-key, low-budget Off-West End production. They want to see high quality theatre and a show which has earned the right to be on a stage through the merits of its work, but it’s becoming increasingly common for such audiences to venture outside of the West End to find this. That’s not to say that there are no good shows in the West End of course, there are many. Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera are the two longest-running musicals there for very good reason. Most of the incoming shows now though are going into West End venues for the sole fact that they will sell tickets…the recently announced touring productions of Cats and Evita being two such examples. There are too many shows in the West End which play on popularity and familiarity, but the problem here is that it’s not enough to sustain a lasting interest and that’s why too often they don’t make it past the 2-year mark.

A huge issue for writers and composers struggling to get their shows to the stage is that unknown names are not given the same chances as established ones when it comes to new writing. It seems that a well-known name is a far more important thing to possess than the talent to write a high-quality musical, but it should be about the work. Would Steven Ward The Musical or From Here to Eternity have made it into the West End if Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice not been attached to them? Most likely, the answer would be no. Both productions closed early into their runs, the names of these two musical theatre greats not enough to save them. At least they had that opportunity to try though.

New writing has always been a passion of mine and there are some truly wonderful writers of new musical theatre in the UK whose work I believe in. I’ve heralded Christopher J. Orton and Bob Gould’s Welsh musical My Land’s Shore on numerous occasions as a show that needs to be seen, and one which certainly has the potential to be a huge West End hit. They’ve been working on it for over a decade now though and are still looking for someone to take a chance and give it the platform it so thoroughly deserves.

A lot of new musical theatre writers are losing faith in the West End and setting their sights on the fringe/regional scene instead, including festivals such as the Edinburgh Fringe. Just as theatre fans are turning to venues outside of the West End to find new, exciting shows, so too are writers looking for a space to showcase their work. It’s never an easy task to get a new show to the stage, but the difference is that many non-West End theatres are actually looking for original work to put on. These smaller theatres can’t compete with those in the West End, they don’t have the same kind of money to play with and can’t hope to stage the same kinds of shows and win. Original work of a high quality nature provides their best chance of emerging from under the huge shadow that the West End casts.

There have been an assortment of new musicals staged at fringe theatre venues in the last few years that have caused quite a splash, such as Dougal Irvine’s Departure Lounge which was a hit in Liverpool and Edinburgh before running at the Waterloo East Theatre. Other examples include After The Turn (Courtyard Theatre), which featured music by Tim Prottey Jones, and Ian McFarlane’s Betwixt! (The King’s Head, Trafalgar Studios). Then there are the revivals which have been re-visualised so expertly and beautifully that they may as well be new productions, such as with Parade, Mack and Mabel (Southwark Playhouse), Passion (Donmar Warehouse), Taboo (Brixton Clubhouse) and The Hired Man (Landor Theatre). Last year’s production of Maury Yeston’s award-winning musical Titanic, which made its UK premiere at the Southwark Playhouse featuring a new chamber arrangement of the score, was one of the biggest hits of the theatrical season and won numerous awards here too.

I often hear theatre fans raving about the brilliant fringe theatre productions they’ve seen and wishing that they would make it into the West End. Some do of course. The Judy Garland-inspired musical End of the Rainbow first started outside of the West End, as did the Chichester Festival Theatre’s brand-new production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. In Stratford-Upon-Avon, the RSC staged a 12-week trial run of the original musical Matilda, based on the beloved Roald Dahl book, before it transferred to the Cambridge Theatre in London’s West End and it is still going strong as one of the top shows in town.

West End producers look for shows that are guaranteed to put bums in seats and make money, so if you go to see a show in the West End then you pretty much know what you’re getting, it’s a safe choice. Most theatre fans go to see a show in the hope of finding something in it that they can connect to. Theatre is all about the experience and there’s no more memorable experience than discovering something new and completely wonderful. There’s not a lot of that to be found in the West End anymore. The way it’s going, soon all the true theatre fans will be heading for the fringe and the West End will belong to the tourists.

By Julie Robinson: @missjulie25

Tuesday 1st July 2014

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