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What makes a West End hit?

Phantom of the Opera
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This month, Wicked celebrates a decade on stage in London. In October, The Phantom of the Opera will have stumped up 30 years of playing continuously to audiences.

These shows are part of a roll call of West End long-runners – alongside productions such as The Mousetrap (64 years) and Les Miserables (31 years) – that have become landmarks in their own right.

But what marks out a production for West End longevity?

In reality, it varies from show to show, from initial rave reviews, to low production costs, to simply opening at the right time in a given year. And, of course, what’s happening in the world beyond the West End can also shape a show’s long-term prospects.

Ed Snape produced comedy-thriller The 39 Steps until it closed in 2015 after nine years in the West End. He says: “What makes a long-runner is where the show itself, musical or play, becomes the star. As opposed to those shows that are very much about casting.”

Essentially, a show is more likely to run for years, not months, if its name can outlive its first cast change. In this vein, says Snape: “I’ve just seen Harry Potter [and the Cursed Child], and all I can tell you is, I don’t think it’ll ever leave that building [the Palace Theatre].”

Plays based on works by globally popular authors such as JK Rowling (and Agatha Christie, in the case of The Mousetrap) have a distinct advantage over entirely new writing.

The Mousetrap. Photo: Helen Maybanks
The Mousetrap. Photo: Helen Maybanks

But it is no coincidence that a list of the longest-running shows currently playing the West End [see box-out] is dominated by musicals. It helps if it is hummable.

“Musicals provide a very emotional experience, whether laughter or tears,” reflects Michael McCabe, executive producer of Wicked. “And the fact that it involves music as well as design and story is an across-the-board experience. There is always the escapism issue, in that musicals take you to a different place.”

And long-running shows depend on buzz. “Word of mouth is 60% to 70% of the reason why people see things,” says Peter Wilson, who produces The Woman in Black. And he attributes the show’s success (it opened in the West End in 1989 and is the second longest-running non-musical after The Mousetrap) to its appeal to the imagination.

Like ‘that’ scream in The Woman in Black, or The Mousetrap’s twist ending (which, since 1952, audiences have been asked to keep secret), aspects of a long-running production can take on a life of their own.

“It’s self-perpetuating now,” says Denise Silvey, production supervisor for The Mousetrap. “Families are coming who saw it on their first date, and bringing their grandchildren. It’s like going to Madame Tussauds.”

But even some of the most enduringly popular productions took a while to find their perfect groove. The Woman in Black moved through four venues, starting in Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre, before arriving at its current home, the Fortune Theatre, in 1989.

“I always wanted it to be there,” says Wilson, “because I knew it was the perfect place for it.” He continues: “I have a theory – entirely unproven – that it’s always best to play a production in a space that is slightly too small for it, because the energy will make the walls bulge.”

And The Woman in Black wasn’t an immediate hit. “There’s a context for everything, isn’t there?” Wilson says, reflecting on its first weeks in early summer, “which is always difficult in the West End.”

Wilson also argues that it wasn’t until Cameron Mackintosh opened Miss Saigon on Drury Lane that September that more audiences started coming to that part of London.

McCabe, looking back at Wicked’s start in 2006, observes that “perhaps we were the underdog, in a very busy year of musicals. We opened in the middle of Spamalot and Dirty Dancing, so we had to work harder to find our place”.

Wicked. Photo: Matt Crockett
Wicked. Photo: Matt Crockett

Wicked arrived in London from Broadway with a North American fan-base, but, says McCabe, “while we were settling in, it wasn’t a traditional West End audience. Our demographic was younger than usual”.

What helped Wicked was the rise of social media at that time. “We were very much riding a new way of people communicating with each other, and we pushed hard,” McCabe says. “It was the speed with which word of mouth could spread: what would have taken months was taking seconds. A huge community built up around the show, and they became our ambassadors.”

“And marketing is still key, every day,” McCabe emphasises. “We’re constantly trying to come up with new, pioneering things. It’s a big theatre and we have to fill it many times a week.”

Indeed, Joe Public, the marketing company of which McCabe is co-founder, evolved from the array of digital and online companies enlisted to help promote Wicked in a non-traditional West End way. “It’s the umbrella for those, and the beating heart of that.”

If there is any moral here, it’s that there is no resting on any laurels. Success might look self-assured after a while – at least from the outside – but a good marketing strategy can be just as important to a show several years down the line as at the start.

Arts and live entertainment marketing company Dewynters works with some of the longest-running shows playing the West End, from Wicked and Les Miserables to The Lion King, Mamma Mia! and The Phantom of the Opera.

Dewynters’ UK chief executive James Charrington likens marketing a long-running show to the task that faces a dance captain on a daily basis. “How do we keep it fresh?” From working closely with the production team and PR agencies on new events, “the landscape has changed” with the advent of digital media, he says: “There’s far more opportunity to tell stories about a show.”

The 39 Steps. Photo: Dan Tsantilis
The 39 Steps. Photo: Dan Tsantilis

Reflecting on The 39 Steps, Snape takes pride in how, working with designers and with AKA, another major live entertainment marketing agency, “we constantly refreshed the art work”.

Quite often, he continues, “we would make it more suitable for summer or winter, for Father’s Day or Valentine’s Day – anything we thought would show that we were alert, awake and relevant”.

And it’s about making sure the production itself doesn’t become stale. Robin Herford, The Woman in Black’s original director, still rehearses every new cast, while The Mousetrap changes its director every couple of years, and its entire cast every 10 months.

For some longstanding London shows, such as Wicked, taking a touring version on the road also generates valuable publicity. “Since our UK and Ireland tour,” reports McCabe, “we’ve seen a big increase in people coming from those areas. The tour acted as a showcase [for the West End production].” He regards it as “a huge marketing outreach”.

And it’s not uncommon for audience numbers for long-lasting shows to evolve from being predominantly Londoners at the start, to encompassing regional visitors and international tourists.

When a night in the West End is expensive, the reassurance of the ‘tried-and-tested’ is often a key factor in what audiences choose to see.

Ultimately, what makes a long-running West End show is repeat business born out of loyalty. “If you’re a show where people say: ‘Well, I enjoyed it, but that’s that,’ and don’t return, that makes a big difference,” says McCabe.

He continues: “We have fans who’ve seen [Wicked] hundreds of times. And I think that’s true of The Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables – all of those shows.”

And, for a producer, says Snape, finding yourself with a long-running show “gives extraordinary certainty in probably one of the most uncertain businesses you could ever think of being part of”.

Top 10 longest-running shows currently in the West End

1. The Mousetrap (1952): more than 26,439 performances

2. Les Miserables (1985): more than 12,621 performances

3. The Phantom of the Opera (1986): more than 12,289 performances

4. The Woman in Black (1989): more than 10,998 performances

5. Mamma Mia! (1999): more than 7,144 performances

6. The Lion King (1999): more than 6,913 performances

7. Stomp (2002): more than 5,770 performances

8. Wicked (2006): more than 4,024 performances

9. Jersey Boys (2008): more than 3,395 performances

10. Thriller Live (2009): more than 3,045 performances

Information supplied and verified by the Society of London Theatre, correct as of April 19, 2016

wickedthemusical.co.uk; thephantomoftheopera.com; the-mousetrap.co.uk; lesmis.com; thewomaninblack.com; mamma-mia.com; thelionking.co.uk; stomplondon.com; jerseyboyslondon.com; thrillerlive.com

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