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Thursday, 19 July, 2001, 15:53 GMT 16:53 UK
West End musical chairs
Arts correspondent Rosie Millard looks at the state of London's West End musicals and finds it is not all doom and gloom.

Lets hear it from that doyenne of British stage Sian Phillips.

"The West End is like an ailing patient," she pronounced. "But it never actually dies."

Sian and I were sipping champers at the relaunch for the Witches of Eastwick, the Cameron Mackintosh musical which premiered to good reviews last March, but whose box office never really took off.

It might have even died completely, but for its feisty producer who is not the type to take failure lying down.

Mackintosh moved the show to a new theatre, gave it a largely new cast and even threw a champagne-fuelled second First Night at it, hoping perhaps to boost ticket sales by a second round of notices and column inches.

Because in recent days the papers have been full of commentators lining up to declare the British Musical in general and the West End in particular, dead.

Troubled shows

Given the individual cases concerned, its not a particularly shocking diagnosis.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest piece, The Beautiful Game, has just announced it is to close on 1 September.

So is the Lennon/MacCartney vehicle, All You Need Is Love. The RSC's Secret Garden has already closed at the Aldwych.

And its not just confined to British fodder. The recent French trio of musicals in London have fared no better.

Notre Dame de Paris is in trouble, while Napoleon and Lautrec have both closed.

According to the Evening Standard even the smash of last year, Mamma Mia, is not managing to pack them in, (although when I rang up with a fictional hen party to book in they could only offer me seats in December).

The reason for the depressed audience figures and closing shows has been put down to a huge variety of causes.

"I don't know if it's because of ticket prices. Or foot and mouth. Or the lack of any decent parking in London," said Christopher Biggins at the Witches party. "But the audiences just aren't around."

Meanwhile director and choreographer Matthew Bourne put it down to a traditional fear of new product.

"It's no coincidence that the hottest ticket around at the moment is My Fair Lady." He choreographed the show.

Witches 'whoosh'

Ask Cameron Mackintosh about it though, and he just shrugs it off.

"Witches was in the wrong theatre at the start. Drury Lane is not the place for a romantic comedy. Its too big. This is the perfect size for it. And the new cast just makes the show go whoosh."

The critics seemed to agree, generously giving Witches not only a second series of reviews but a general thumbs-up.

And when you look at them, the figures don't actually underline the doom-and-gloom brigade.

The Society of London Theatres has released the box office figures for the quarter April-June. And what do you know? They are actually up 7.2% on last year, and the money is also up, by 10%.

Clearly foot and mouth has taken its toll on the tourist industry; this summer, tourists to the UK are down by 17%.

But perhaps its hit Madame Tussauds and Alton Towers more than the West End. So why all the closing shows?

Familiar tunes

Productions often announce they are to close in autumn at the beginning of high summer, presumably to hurry up sales throughout August.

And although group booking tickets haven't been having stacks of advance reservations, they have eventually all been coming in, albeit days, or weeks in advance.

Its true, unknown musicals have not been doing well, but if you want to know why people would rather go to My Fair Lady than a new production about the Irish Troubles, just take one look at the price list.

If you are spending 40-50 per head on tickets, you sort of want a guarantee that the show is going to be decent.

At least people know the tunes in My Fair Lady.

No, I put it down to a spirit of timidity in the West End. The audiences are still there; the producers are still there. But shows aren't pushing the boat out for originality because they know that at the moment they are unlikely to get the coach loads of punters to support them.

And for expensive glossy musicals, lines of parked up coaches are precisely what's needed.

See also:

11 Jul 01 | Showbiz
Full-time called on Beautiful Game
28 Feb 01 | Entertainment
West End crisis 'near'
12 Feb 01 | Entertainment
Theatres woo young
19 Jul 01 | Arts
John Major - the musical
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