Opening a new musical in the West End has never been more risky

Just over a week ago, & Juliet began previews at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London. Once a major new West End musical would have enjoyed significant advance-media coverage, instead, this has landed in the West End with surprisingly less noise than I would have expected. It reflects the changing media treatment of many West End productions.

Miriam-Teak Lee talks exclusively to The Stage.

Visiting my mum in Norwich recently, I went through the scrapbooks of theatre cuttings I had made as a child. I was struck by the amount of coverage afforded to theatre productions by national and local newspapers as well as magazines during the 1980s and 1990s.

I found cuttings from the Sunday Mirror – not considered the most theatre-focused publication – which ran features on consecutive weeks behind the scenes on Cats. The paper sent a photographer and journalist to look in-depth at the West End production. Today, a long-running show getting that much coverage seems unimaginable.

&-Juliet – Miriam-Teak Lee

What also interested me among the cuttings was how much newspaper coverage was devoted to new West End shows opening – for both plays and musicals. The cover interview on a March 1992 edition of the Sunday Times magazine was about Cameron Mackintosh opening his new musical Moby Dick. Even though neither of its composers – Robert Longden and Hereward Kaye – were well-known and there was no celebrity star, the opening of a new musical was, in itself, deemed enough to take the magazine’s prestige slot.

All of this made for a fascinating couple of hours of reading, but it served to demonstrate how today media reporting about theatre has considerably changed.

Theatre’s disappearing act from mainstream media has happened slowly, and the arrival of social media has possibly meant the change has been less noticeable. The web has been invaluable at providing greater awareness – especially for the fringe and emerging artists. That’s lucky, because if theatre relied solely on national press, TV and radio for coverage, it would be devastating.

Yet finding stuff online is more often driven by specific searches. It is different from thumbing through a newspaper, listening to a radio or watching TV and having a show or artist unexpectedly introduced as a result. This can grab the attention of a wider audience, and as mainstream theatre coverage has waned, that potential audience has been lost.

The Stage had maintained its commitment to long-read interviews and articles both before and post-opening. But what’s significant about the Sunday Mirror’s Cats feature is that it appeared nine years into the musical’s West End run.

In today’s theatre economy, once the reviews are out, attention swiftly moves on. Many shows receive little mention beyond opening, with the exception of a major anniversary or if there is a news story around it. There’s a certain irony that the current West End production of Death of a Salesman possibly got more interest across mainstream media outlets after the theatre’s ceiling had collapsed than the production itself did before opening.

Looking at old articles, it’s easy to feel nostalgic. But they can clearly show the challenges facing producers today such as keeping a show in the public consciousness once it’s opened. Advance media interest now often has a shorter lead time, with less time to generate interest and more of a fleeting feel to the production.

All this despite theatre’s on-going popularity with the public – good luck finding a national radio station that plays a musical theatre song unless it’s Elaine Paige on a Sunday afternoon.

Photo by Michael Wharley

Producers often resort to celebrity recasting on a show to maintain its profile. In some instances, that’s regardless of whether the replacement is actually right for the role. But once a show has opened, and the run is open-ended, it becomes about maintaining a presence and continued media interest, even if it can feel that the artistic delivery of the work suffers as a result.

There are always ‘event’ shows in theatre such as Hamilton and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which attract huge mainstream media interest – as does the presence of a famous film star treading the West End boards – but these are the exceptions.

So, to & Juliet, a musical set around the pop anthems of Max Martin. Not to be confused with Me and Juliet, the 1953 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical which never crossed the Atlantic to the West End. Even so, it feels like the show that opened 66 years ago may well have scored more column inches and air time than & Juliet has today. Once, Martin’s status in being only second to Lennon and McCartney in writing US number ones, may have been enough to fire an even greater popular media interest than it has so far.

What this means is that opening a new musical in the West End today has never been more risky. These shows will try hard to build a decent advance box office, but it’s increasingly sink or swim. Without the bigger financial cushions to help them through the early weeks, the pressure is on for a show to secure rave reviews, then after that, it’s about how to ensure it will be remembered.

 

 

Peter J Snee

Peter is a British born creative, working in the live entertainment industry. He holds an honours degree in Performing Arts and has over 12 years combined work experience in producing, directing and managing artistic programs & events. Peter has traversed the UK, Europe and Australia pursuing his interest in theatre. He is inspired by great stories and passionately driven by pursuing opportunities to tell them.

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