The Tourist Factor
The fate of yet another British-born musical was sealed this week, as 'Made In Dagenham' will close its Ford factory doors for good on 11th April 2015 at the Adelphi Theatre. This piece of unfortunate news got me to thinking about why recent musical offerings have all (sadly) closed prematurely.
Even though I actually really enjoyed 'Made In Dagenham' myself, I left the theatre with a sense of foreboding and said to myself: "This will be closed within six months." ...Unfortuantely, I was right.
So why did the Essex girls not get to enjoy a longer stay in the West End? What does a new musical need in order to survive in one of the West End's bigger theatres? The answer to this question could be argued to be a complex one, taking into consideration a plethora of factors, or it could be answered quite simplistically. Yes, of course you need a great book, memorable music and lyrics, a strong cast and, in some cases, impressive production values - that all goes without saying. But the vital ingredient for a show's longevity in the West End, if it wants to survive in huge theatres such as the London Palladium, Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Dominion, Adelphi, Prince Edward, Lyceum or Apollo Victoria Theatres, is something called 'The Tourist Factor.'
To me, it is plain and simple, if you want to fill one of those aforementioned theatres eight times a week, you need to put something on that will appeal to tourists. Getting British bums in the seats is important, for sure, but there simply aren't enough of them for a show to survive long term. From the start, I felt that 'Made In Dagenham' would have zero appeal to tourists visiting London. The 2010 film is probably not widely known outside of the UK and neither is the town of Dagenham nor the real-life story of the Essex ladies of Dagenham's Ford factory. Why would a tourist want to pay between £30 and £70 to see 'Made In Dagenham' - something that they know nothing about, regardless of whether the production is any good or not? The same goes for 'I Can't Sing! The X Factor Musical,' 'Here To Eternity,' and 'Stephen Ward' - If a tourist is here for a few days and wants to take a friend or take his family to one show, why would he or she choose any of those ones?
Whether the business wants to admit it or not, tourists only want to see things they are already aware of. The success of 'Cats' at the London Palladium is testament to this. Tried and tested musicals like 'Les Misérables' or 'The Phantom of the Opera' also continue to draw in audiences heavily dominated by tourists. And after a shaky start, ticket sales are now also better for 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,' now that word has spread and tourists are aware and interested in seeing the production - having already read the Roald Dahl novel and/or seen the film - especially, if they perhaps can't get a ticket for sold out shows such as 'The Lion King' or 'Matilda' and need a suitable family-friendly alternative. 'Mamma Mia!' and 'We Will Rock You' have done tremendously well at the box office too, due to the international appeal of ABBA and Queen, and not due to the British fans of those groups (nor to the quality of the productions, in my opinion).
We are in an age now where these huge theatres need a box office draw with already existing phenomenal appeal. Properties such as 'Harry Potter' and 'King Kong' spring to mind that would instantly draw in an international crowd. Brand new musicals with lesser international appeal are better starting off in smaller theatres and building a legacy that could lead to transfers to bigger venues (or future revivals in bigger theatres) after a fan base and much needed hype has been created. 'The Book of Mormon' is a great example of this strategy.
Times have changed and we live in a multi-media-obsessed society. The 'powers that be' in the West End need to recognise this and stop producing shows in our biggest venues that younger generations already know are going to flop and further tarnish the West End's reputation for launching new successes.
Sub-Editor at Londontheatre.co.uk & NewYorktheatreguide.com