Theatre flops show the risk of cheap tickets: A costly lesson for the stage lets the sunshine out and a moral in

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The Independent Online
THE Age of Aquarius will not be dawning tomorrow. The revival of the Sixties tribal love rock musical Hair played its final performance last night at The Old Vic Theatre, closing early because of pounds 1.8m losses.

The demise of Hair was overshadowed last week by the even more newsworthy theatrical event of Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber getting egg on his face. Eurovision, a gay comedy in the setting of the Eurovision Song Contest, had closure notices posted within a week of opening, leaving Sir Andrew, the show's principal backer, pounds 180,000 poorer.

Eurovision was critically savaged, earning, in its own Euro vernacular, nul points. Yesterday one theatre publicist, Mark Borkowski, urged Sir Andrew and other impresarios embarrassed by mega-flops to exploit their failures.

'They should,' he said, 'put up posters proclaiming The Worst Show In The West End. People would flock to it. If you have a real turkey, then have the confidence to make the most of it. It could be appropriately enough like the Norwegian song that got no points in the Eurovision song contest but, because of its awfulness, became a cult and a big hit.'

But being a big hit with audiences need not necessarily save a show. As Hair's director, Michael Bogdanov, discovered to his cost, heavy discounting of tickets can pave the road to early closure. Hair achieved the ambition of the most politically correct theatre impresarios and attracted new young audiences. But the teenagers and students who queued every night bought cheap student standby tickets and the show could not balance its books.

Yesterday both the matinee and final evening performance were sell-outs, but the show will lose nearly pounds 2m.

Different as the cases of Eurovision and Hair are, a similar moral can be drawn from both: namely that no West End show can succeed any more unless it draws in a broad audience. For bringing in a new young audience may be an investment for the future but such a strategy will bankrupt a producer unless he or she attracts the affluent who buy the more expensive, full-price tickets. The high costs of production, including hire of venue and wages as well as the need to provide backers with a return, make it essential to sell as many seats at full price as possible.

This is spelled out by Thelma Holt, one of the most experienced West End theatre producers. Miss Holt put on Much Ado About Nothing in Shaftesbury Avenue this autumn, the first Shakespeare in the Avenue for 55 years by a commercial management. It received fantastic reviews and numerous full houses before closing after an extended run a few weeks ago.

Yesterday Miss Holt was finalising her accounts. The production lost pounds 83,000 and she lost pounds 53,000, though she remains intensely proud of putting it on. Just as with Hair, the audience was enthusiastic and young, and many bought discounted student standbys and two-for-one offers.

She says: 'The finances of a West End show are these: it cost us pounds 200,000 to put the play on. The weekly running costs, rent and paying the actors and staff came to pounds 32,000. Every week we took enough to break even and pay a little back to our investors, but in the end the investors only got 18.2 per cent of their investment and they become philanthropists.

'Simply, you have to have a catholic audience. You can't keep a show on with just young people coming. It's the top- price seats that make you balance your books.

'And with Eurovision those top price seats cost about pounds 20 and people aren't going to come unless there's either a very big star or a product that'll be big enough.

'People have to know what to expect. They know what the product is with Chekhov or Stoppard or Ayckbourn, but they didn't with Eurovision. With pounds 20 seats, theatregoers who used to go three times a month are now only going once a month. You need to have the product right for them, and not just for the young ones among them.'

Andrew Leigh, producer of Hair at the Old Vic, says there was no answer for Hair, which had to discount its pounds 26 top price tickets to between pounds 12 and pounds 16 for the students who came. A large cast musical had to charge pounds 26 for stalls seats.

But he urges the West End to rethink its pricing policy.

'We've got to start pricing the theatre right. We in the theatre set our costs by asking what the market will bear. Other businesses figure out what it costs to make their product and then add on a percentage for profit.

'In other words, some small cast West End plays could be charging as little as pounds 10 a ticket.'

(Photograph omitted)

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