Page last updated at 17:39 GMT, Monday, 9 February 2009

Musicals 'to keep West End going'

Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Maria winner Connie and David Ian
David Ian, right, with Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Maria, Connie Fisher
Theatre producer David Ian is predicting the West End will buck the economic trend in 2009. He spoke to BBC Radio 5 live's Simon Mayo.

Once billed by The Stage as "the most powerful man in UK theatre", David Ian is behind some of the biggest shows in London's West End.

2008 was a bumper year for theatre and, despite the economic downturn, Ian says 2009 could follow suit.

"No doubt, we're in tough times. It's as hard as it's ever been," he said.

"But historically people tend to go to the theatre in times of recession."

He added that it was "beholden on we producers" to price tickets "sensitively".

FROM BBC RADIO 5 LIVE

But the breadth of what is on offer has been derided by, among others, the playwright Alan Ayckbourn - who railed against "musicals, musicals, musicals".

At the last count, there were 24 musicals to seven straight plays in the West End.

Unsurprisingly Ian, a judge on the BBC's hugely popular search for a star for the Sound of Music, is unrepentant.

He blames market forces, and says that being engaged in a high risk commercial venture, theatre producers have to pick shows which they think they can at least break even on.

But he also says there are "fabulous plays", particularly The View from the Bridge with Ken Stott which opened earlier this month.

Ayckbourn turned his back on the West End to protest against the merciless advance of the singing and dancing show - and Hollywood stars in lead roles who, he said, disappoint audiences.

Plays next?

Ian acknowledges the decision is increasingly based on "having to cast the poster".

"Unknown pieces with unknown actors are very difficult to sell just now," he explains.

However, Ian - once an understudy for Cliff Richard and David Cassidy himself - was able to cast unknowns in Grease, using the same TV talent show formula of the Sound of Music.

He points to the Saturday night success of shows like Any Dream Will Do, which cast Joseph, as a large part of the success in the current crop of musicals.

So could the TV formula work for well-known plays? Shakespeare, perhaps?

"I don't think people would engage in the same way," says Ian. "The reason they are watching is because everyone has an opinion on someone singing a song. It's easier to vote for people singing a song, than the nuances of an acting scene."

"I think they work well, these programmes, when it is a role the public know well. I think they could have great input into who Annie should be."

Annie is not yet on the cards, but Ian's attention is on two new shows for 2009 - and they are both musicals.

He is bringing a touring production of Flashdance to the West End and a stage version of Xanadu is in the pipeline.

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