Three times as many original plays are staged in the West End today compared with a decade ago, new research by The Stage has revealed.
A snapshot survey of the West End in 2019, 2014, 2009 and 1999 has revealed the proportion of original plays is at its highest now, accounting for more than a fifth (21%) of all productions.
Ten years ago, only three plays in the West End were not based on existing source material, such as a book or film, or were not revivals.
At the time of counting, the nine original plays in 2019 included Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, Kenneth Lonergan’s The Starry Messenger, Stefano Massini’s The Lehman Trilogy and two Jack Thorne plays: The End of History… and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Of these nine, five opened directly into the commercial West End.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child producer Sonia Friedman said: “It’s not enough to want to put on new plays. They must be good, so the conditions must be right.
“Writers must have something to say and producers must be receptive to them.”
Friedman added: “It is a sad axiom that art thrives on adversity. Of course it is very exciting to see more new plays being produced, but it doesn’t entirely surprise me. When you live in challenging times, writers will have something to say and audiences will want to listen.
“For me, the question is always: why this play now? Urgent subjects provoke a response. Hence plays like The Jungle about the refugee crisis.”
Caro Newling of Neal Street Productions, which produced The Lehman Trilogy with the National Theatre, argued that collaborations between subsidised and commercial producers had helped boost new work in the West End.
She said: “It’s commonly thought that finance drives such partnerships, but a marriage of expertise from both sectors can provide positive producing chemistry for writers and creative teams.
“New work needs time and nurture. The other factor, of course, is audience appetite.”
Kenny Wax, who produced both Mischief Theatre plays, said: “On the face of it, [the percentage of original plays] is a surprising statistic because it’s a commonly held belief that producers are more risk averse than ever.”
He added: “Social media, streaming of music, online reviews and YouTube footage have all made it easier to find out about new productions.”
Wax also argued that a growing trend of giving significant investors co-producing status had made it easier to raise funds for productions.
The research looked at whether work on West End stages was completely original, an adaptation of a source material, a revival, or, in the case of musicals, a jukebox work.
Other findings include that the balance of plays and musicals has remained roughly static across the snapshot survey, with the West End now comprised of 48% musicals and 45% plays.
Despite criticism of the proliferation of jukebox musicals, the percentage of these shows has also remained approximately the same, ranging from 7% to 10%.
In each year, shows performed on a single nominated date (July 17) were counted. If there was no performance on the specific date chosen for any reason, the venue was listed as not applicable and no show recorded.
For 2019, online booking sites were used to determine which shows were playing, and for the three historic years productions were recorded through analysis of SOLT’s annual West End box office data, and confirmed via online research or through press departments where necessary.
Shows have been sorted into four categories: original, adaptation, jukebox or revival.
Original shows are not based on pre-existing source material. For a play, this would mean an original script written for the theatre, and not drawn from a piece of work already in existence – for example, Sweat. For a musical, its book and music must have been newly created for the stage and not adapted from an existing work such as The Book of Mormon.
To be classed as an adaptation, a show had to be adapted for the stage from existing material such as a book – for example, Matilda or The Phantom of the Opera.
A jukebox show is based on a catalogue of existing music, such as Tina – The Tina Turner Musical or Mamma Mia!.
A show would be counted as a revival if a major stage production of the title had been performed before in the UK – such as Jesus Christ Superstar. This does not include shows transferring to the West End from elsewhere, providing it is the first time the show has received a West End run.
Productions not classed as plays or musicals were recorded separately as ‘other’, but their origins were analysed using the same methodology as above and they have been included in the overall West End figure.
Research was carried out in July and August 2019 by The Stage’s news team.