Wicked! Theatreland is alive to the sound of ringing tills

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Singing nuns, green witches and dictator's wives may not be an obvious list of saviours. But if you're a West End producer, they have proved a most lucrative route to salvation in the form of the hit musicals The Sound of Music, Wicked and Evita.

After a few tough years with attendance dented by bombings, foot-and-mouth disease and a dearth of foreign tourists, new figures released by the Society of London Theatre yesterday showed 2006 was a record year. Long-running stalwarts including Billy Elliot, Mama Mia and The Lion King had kept the revenues flowing even during the trickier times.

But a cult-life reverence for the American import Wicked and a nostalgia fest over the stage version of Dirty Dancing - which took a record £6m before opening - helped transform the West End in the second half of last year. And the mass public interest sparked by the BBC TV's How to solve a problem like Maria?, the hunt for a star for Andrew Lloyd-Webber's stage version of The Sound of Music was the final key to the surge of interest. In the last round of the competition, two million viewers voted for Connie Fisher to take the role immortalised on film by Julie Andrews.

By the end of December, more than 12.3 million people had paid a visit to the major commercial and subsidised theatres of central London, a 0.48 per cent increase on the previous record set 12 months earlier. And total ticket revenues broke through the £400m mark for the first time with the final figure of £400,802,809 being 4.78 per cent up on 2005.

The year closed with an unheard-of total of £57m in advance bookings for the blockbuster hits. That was more than double the figure for the end of 2005.

Only straight plays suffered a small drop in revenue of 2 per cent in a climate dominated by the musical and other forms of entertainment such as the Blue Man Group. Even then, certain plays have done cracking business. They include the revival of Michael Frayn's Donkey's Years starring Samantha Bond, and the transfers of the Royal Court's Rock 'n' Roll by Tom Stoppard and the Donmar's Frost/ Nixon with Michael Sheen and Frank Langella. Both Rock 'n' Roll and Frost/Nixon are also now Broadway-bound.

Rosemary Squire, president of the Society of London Theatre, said: "At the six-month mark, the industry was braced for a very tough 2006 with audience numbers - and in particular visitor numbers to London - still depressed from the difficult days of the previous year.

"That the industry has bounced back so spectacularly gives us great hope for the future - and a great boost to the London economy."

Richard Pulford, the society's chief executive, added: "These figures show that there is still an incredible public demand for quality theatre in the West End."

David Dobson, managing director of the whatsonstage.com website, said what was extraordinary was the advance ticket sales. "I think it's down to the fact that there were some really hit shows opening in the second half of the year. It's due to the quality and quantity of the product," he said.

"There was Dirty Dancing, Wicked, to some extent Spamalot and latterly The Sound of Music, which did just phenomenal business. There was a huge demand for all these shows because of the buzz around in a way that we haven't seen in the West End for quite some time. I think this year will be a really tough year to beat."

Mr Dobson calculated that the average ticket price last year was £32, a pound higher than 2005. "What it means is there's still a lot of people out there discounting," he said.

The impact on the London economy goes far beyond the straight cost of ticket sales because of the benefits to the travel, hotel and restaurant sectors. The society also estimates that the Treasury received VAT receipts of more than £59m from ticket sales.

The big earners


Boosted by the publicity of the TV show How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, which found its star Connie Fisher, the first West End stage version of the film has proved a blockbuster


Despite starring two complete unknowns - Josef Brown and Georgina Rich - the stage adaptation of the Patrick Swayze film notched up a record £6m in advance ticket sales


A cult hit in America, the West End version, opening with the original Broadway star Idina Menzel, quickly broke all West End records. It has taken £873,020 in a single week and plays to houses that are typically 95 per cent full


The first West End revival since its London premiere in 1978 of the musical by Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice about Eva Peron, the Argentine dictator's wife, proved a critical as well as a commercial hit


A show "lovingly ripped off" by ex-Python Eric Idle from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Spamalot was another major Broadway hit before opening in the UK in the autumn