I read this article in yesterdays London Evening Standard. In it Tom Conti complains that he can’t find a West End Venue for his “critically acclaimed” play Wife After Death and he’s blaming musicals for this.
While I share his concern that there are few plays on in the West End, the reality is there are currently plays on in the West End, and a good variety too. Admittedly newly written plays are few and far between in the West End, but they’re easily accessible at The Royal Court ( a quick tube ride from the West End) and The National (which is a short walk from West End).
He then makes the statement that “The thing is, most musicals these days are not any good at all.” That’s just plain wrong, if they were all rubbish the theatres wouldn’t be full with people constantly. Yes they’re a safer option for theatre owners, but they’re running a business and several of the West End theatre owners use the musicals to support and subsidise them putting on plays and productions that may not have such mass appeal. I see nothing wrong in this business savvy approach.
Also I think Tom Conti misses the point, the majority of West End theatre goers are tourists either from the UK or oversees, as David Mamet points out brilliantly in his book Theatre, tourists are after spectacle and an experience/event. Which musicals fulfil perfectly.
His dismissal that long running musicals decline once the original cast leave is again I think totally wrong and leaves me wondering if he’s just using them as an excuse to vent his own frustration. Most long running musicals are revisited by the choreographer/director/writers regularly to ensure the standards are maintained. Yes some do deteriorate, but so do plays with long runs too, he doesn’t have a go at The Mousetrap or Woman in Black, they could equally be accused of “preventing good new plays finding a home.”
The article made me think about how many are long running (how “long” does he think defines “long” too, I’d like to know)? Phantom, Les Mis, Lion King, Chicago, Blood Brothers, We Will Rock You, Mamma Mia! Wicked, Dirty Dancing and Billy Elliot came to my mind. (Avenue Q has now closed and gone on tour and Grease is to do the same early next year) So that’s 10 theatres out of a total of 37 West End Theatres. Some of the above shows are also in venues with 2000+ seats, does Tom Conti really think his play will fill that size venue night after night? 12 of these venues have plays on currently. The current trend is for musicals, but play attendance is on the increase which is great. However I can’t see what’s wrong with musicals being the most popular form of theatre in the West End at present.
In the current economic climate, I can totally empathise with theatre owners going for more risk averse productions, and if these shows are employing hundreds of staff in the theatre industry and entertaining thousands of people night after night we should celebrate that, not denigrate it.
There are lots of off West End venues I’m sure he could find for his play, and I suggest he looks there rather than complaining and putting other people’s hard work down.