Are We Losing To London?

I’m going to tell you a secret.  I know three jokes.  (My wife would argue that two and a half don’t even qualify as jokes.)  

When I speak about the theater, odds are you’re going to hear one of them. 

One of my go-tos is this . . .

“New York is the capital of the theater world . . . I don’t care what London says.”

Ok, ok, it’s not funny-funny – but it usually elicits a few Broadway jingoistic titters.  

The not-so-funny thing is . . . I haven’t been using that joke lately.  Because I’m getting nervous it isn’t as true as it used to be.

More and more of my Producing peers are more in West End and even Off West End productions than they were before the pandemic.  When I meet a producer at lunch or coffee and the inevitable question of “What are you working on now?” comes up . . . the most common answer is . . . “I’m doing XXX in London.”  

(I just signed on to two shows over there myself – and I haven’t signed on to any new shows here.)

In fact, I just surveyed my Broadway investors and asked them if they were interested in London.  Not only did more give me an emphatic YES than I ever anticipated, but I was SHOCKED at how many of my investors were ALREADY INVESTING IN LONDON.

So what’s happening?  Why is US theater money going to the UK?  

Here are three reasons:

  1. Their business is booming.

    Pandemic?  What pandemic?  While Broadway’s business is still down a whopping 17% from 2019, and seems to have hit a temporary ceiling on its recovery, The West End’s attendance is UP over 7% over 2019.  That’s right . . . UP! 

    How did they do it?  One reason is that the pandemic is more in the rear view mirror in the UK than it is here.  In the fall of 2021, when we were just starting to put up a show or two, and very nervous about it, they were BACK.  Pubs were overflowing, masks weren’t required, and most importantly, politics were not part of getting back to the “normal.”

    I’m not saying that it was the safest thing to do, but the fact is, they got back to their pre-pandemic habits faster than we did, which is why they are in a better place now. (And the hope is – maybe in a year or so, we’ll catch up.)

  2.  They’ve got lower expenses, which means a better chance at recoupment.

    The West End has always had lower expenses.   But with Broadway’s expenses now higher than ever, they seem even lower.  Lower expenses both up front and in operating mean one thing –  a better chance at an investor getting their money back.  (You’ll notice I didn’t say “make money” – because the most common thing I hear from investors is their desire not to make money – they’d put their cash in the stock market if that was the goal – they just want to get their investment back so they can put it in another show.)

    Plays can cost a million pounds or less.  Musicals well under ten. 

    Oh, and then there’s the 40-45% (!) tax credit.

  3. It’s not only cheaper to do shows – it’s cheaper to SEE shows!

    Yep, their tickets are cheaper.  They’re not cheap, mind you.  A top price for Wicked can be £159 (around $200).  But you’ll find more lower priced options, partly because they have so many options of shows to see. 

    You also won’t find the premium markup that we have. They’ve resisted that trend – although I expect that’ll change in the next couple of years. 

    Should Broadway lower prices?  Eh. I’m not a big believer in the theory that lowering the price of a product is the key to fixing a struggling business.  Especially when costs are so high.  But could the lower ticket prices in the UK get people out of the house and back in the theatergoing habit faster?  Could be.    

And here’s a bonus, FOURTH, reason why we may be losing our status to London:

  1. There are more “MUST SEES” there than here.

    Cabaret, Sunset Boulevard, the immersive Guys and Dolls, Stranger Things, Operation Mincemeat are just a few of the titles that folks have been telling me I MUST see.  (I’ve seen Cabaret and Operation Mincemeat – and they were worth the trip.)  And there are more.  A lot more.

    And while I included this as the “bonus” of this newsletter, it may be the most important factor after all.  Because nothing matters . . .  not price, not location, not who is in the show or not . . . when the content is extraordinary, and more importantly . . . UNIQUE. 

    And of course, it is easier to experiment with unique and extraordinary content, when expenses are lower.  (See #2)

We’ve had good shows here.  Some great ones.  But apart from a limited-run Sondheim revival or two . . . we haven’t had the Hamilton, Chorus Line, Jersey Boys, mega-hit that gets EVERYONE back to the theater.

Don’t think that I’m giving up our theater capital crown just yet.  (I can’t afford to lose one of my jokes!)  Broadway is going to get back to where we were, and even beyond.  In the meantime, there is a lot to learn from the renaissance happening in the West End.

And a lot to congratulate them on.  Sure, it’s easy to be envious . . . but the fact is, their success is good for us as well. 

– – – – – 

Speaking of the UK, my staff, some producers and investors of mine, as well as some theatermakers, are going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year!  Want to join us?  Click here to see how you can come along!

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Ken created one of the first Broadway podcasts, recording over 250 episodes over 7 years. It features interviews with A-listers in the theater about how they “made it”, including 2 Pulitzer Prize Winners, 7 Academy Award Winners and 76 Tony Award winners. Notable guests include Pasek & Paul, Kenny Leon, Lynn Ahrens and more.