Plays need mega-stars to compete with musicals, says director

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The Independent Culture

It was launched at a major West End venue by one of the biggest names in musical theatre and its leading lady was groomed in a reality TV show watched by millions every week, so the success of Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Sound of Music may not have come as a big surprise.

But the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic is one of several London musicals pulling in regular bumper crowds, prompting claims that such shows are eclipsing plays in the West End.

This week, there were two high-profile casualties in the non-musical industry when early closures for Martin Sherman's Bent and Tennessee Williams' Summer and Smoke, were announced. The play Stones in His Pockets also declared that it was to close after one of the actors fell ill.

Summer And Smoke, starring Rosamund Pike, was to be staged until February, but will now close on 25 November, after six weeks.

Its producer said that "despite positive reviews, ticket sales have not been sufficient and therefore I have made the very difficult decision to close the show." Meanwhile, Sherman's 1979 drama about male concentration camp inmates, starring the American actor Alan Cumming, will end five weeks early in December.

In another sign of the waning of plays' fortunes, the Oscar-winning director, Sam Mendes, said that he was returning to the stage after a three-year break - only in New York, not London. Mendes' decision to direct David Hare's new play, starring the American actress Julianne Moore, on Broadway will be the first time that the playwright's work has not premiered on home ground.

Experts pinned the blame squarely yesterday on musicals.

Bent's producer Sonia Friedman said plays needed "megastars" to lure audiences away from big budget musicals which had incomparably large marketing.

She also suggested that the current political climate, with concerns over the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, could be leading to international theatre-goers seeking "escapism" rather than gritty realism. " Looking at the shows in terms of figures at the moment, people are wanting pure escapism, fun and enjoyment," she said. "In general terms, they are seeing the West End in terms of entertainment. So it's harder for plays to get noticed."

The instant commercial success of The Sound of Music this week - it had already broken box office records after taking £1.1m in the first eight hours of opening - is the culmination of a victorious year for the West End musical.

Twenty of the new productions to open in the West End since January have been musicals, an unprecedented figure. Eight have opened in the past two months including Trevor Nunn's Porgy and Bess, Spamalot, Wicked, Dirty Dancing and Cabaret. All have proved hits.

This means that venues are at such a premium that many playhouses, small theatres which have normally been the home of plays, have been co-opted.

Friedman conceded that the recent onslaught of musicals was invariably of excellent quality, but said she feared that venues previously rented out to play producers for 12-week runs were now favouring musicals, which tend to run for longer periods, a safer commercial bet. She said she hoped the West End would not "go the same way as Broadway", where the volume of musicals has utterly dwarfed plays. "If you're a play out there in the same market, you can't compete because you are not noticed. It's not because you're not good. You can't take out the half-page advert in a newspaper," she said.

Mark Brown of Equity, the actors' union, said that it was "clear there are a lot of musicals at the moment" but suggested it may be " cyclical".

Terri Paddock, editorial director of theatre website, Whatsonstage.com, said that a recent survey of more than 1,000 theatre-goers found 71 per cent were content and 42 per cent said that, for them, there was no such thing as too many musicals.

Openings and closings

* THE SOUND OF MUSIC

Opened at the London Palladium this week to fabulous reviews, with Connie Fisher, the reality-TV winner, starring in the part of Maria. The box office took £1.1m in the first eight hours of opening.

* DIRTY DANCING

Opened at the Aldwych at the end of October. The stage version of the classic 1987 film, which tells the story of a young girl who falls for a dance instructor. Attracted £11m in advance ticket sales.

* PORGY AND BESS

Opened at the Savoy earlier this month to critical acclaim, mainly due toTrevor Nunn's re-orchestration of George Gershwin's self-styled " folk-opera for black voices" set in South Carolina.

* BENT

Announced its early closure this week. The 1979 play by Martin Sherman about men who fall in love at a concentration camp stars Alan Cumming and Chris New.

* SUMMER & SMOKE

Directed by Adrian Noble, it will end its run at the Apollo on 25 November instead 7 February. The Tennessee Williams play stars Rosamund Pike as a repressed preacher's daughter in a story of unrequited love.

* STONES IN HIS POCKETS

Opened at the Duchess Theatre this month but will close in December as one of the actors in the two-man show, has been taken ill. The story of Jake and Charlie, two "extras" in a movie being filmed in County Kerry.

* FROST/NIXON

Focuses on David Frost's interviews with Richard Nixon following the Watergate scandal. Opened at Gielgud Theatre, this week after transferring from the Donmar.

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