Mormon-mania hits the West End – and prices go up

A scene from The Book of Mormon. Photo: Johan Persson
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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Usually in this slot I look at some of the stories that have recently dominated the arts headlines, but last week the only story seemed to be about The Book of Mormon so today's column will be a Mormon-mania special.

Box office record breaker

The Book of Mormon's juggernaut domination of the West End was confirmed on Saturday when it was revealed that the previous day's box office sale had eclipsed all previous single-day sales records, either in the West End or even on Broadway, with a mammoth take of £2,107,972 ($3,210,019). It helps that they radically expanded the inventory that day, putting an additional 150,000 tickets on sale that extended booking to January next year.

It helps, of course, that this record obviously doesn't take into account inflationary rises, and the fact that theatre tickets seem to have undergone a hyper-inflation over the last decade that reminds one of the fate of the Zimbabwe dollar. It also helps, no doubt, that The Book of Mormon have also put in a price hike for the new booking period, with regular top price tickets from July 1 now hitting £72.50 (excluding a compulsory £1 restoration fee) – a new all-time high for the West End. But even more extraordinarily, they also instituted an immediate price hike for all premium tickets – to £125.

As on Broadway, the number of seats marked as premium will no doubt move to encroach on more and more seats before we know it, as demand exceeds supply. That is how Mormon, which consistently sells out at over 100% capacity (thanks to selling standing tickets – the week before last the official statistic was for 102.6% capacity), constantly manages to break its own records. Once you sell out, you sell out, but  clearly not on Broadway, where the show has exceeded its own record not once, not twice, but 44 times and counting so far, at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre!

You can tell that many, many tickets are being sold at over the 'official' top price, non-premium rate since that is $169 for Mormon, yet its average ticket price is way in excess of that, at $190.49. At least London's premium prices aren't quite yet at the level they are on Broadway, where premium tickets for Mormon now reach $299 on weekends (£196).

And of course, the rationale for premium pricing on Broadway has always been that the producers want to protect the revenue for themselves, their investors and creative teams: if people are willing to pay extra for the tickets, why not make sure that they are getting it themselves? It may look greedy, but I ran a check on Viagogo and found tickets for this coming Friday for £301 each. By the time booking fees (£90.30) and delivery (£9.95) were added, the pair cost £720.31. At those rates, the £125 premium tickets through the box office seems positively reasonable.

Reviews of modified rapture – and hope for the future of musicals
The overnight reviews, as is often the case in London, ran the gamut of opinions, from one star (Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail, who labelled it "a cowardly, coarse, cynical show, worth avoiding") to four stars (Paul Taylor in The Independent, who declared "I absolutely loved it – albeit slightly guiltily.")

The biggest rave came on Sunday from The Observer, where Euan Ferguson (not usually a theatre critic on the paper) called it "the most cryingly good night out to have come along for years". (I can see that on the posters already.) He also threw down the gauntlet to the extremes of both the Mail and Guardian readership, by declaring:

If you're not from the rarefied yet still-toxic outer antlers of the political spectrum, either life-hating leftie or truth-hating counties Tory sexophobe (basically, those folks that even the circulation managers of the Guardian and Daily Mail would quietly prefer not to be forever renewing their subscriptions with such depressing tumescence), a night of unalloyed joy.

But between the lovers and haters, many London critics were a more mixed three stars, including Libby Purves in The Times, Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph and Michael Billington in The Guardian.

These days, of course, the critics no longer have their own last word, and the comments sections for  the reviews of The Times (behind a paywall, so there are obviously fewer), Guardian, Independent and Mail have attracted plenty. But as Michael Billington replied on Twitter:

In Michael's case, however, he's also been challenged in his view by a big column in The Guardian itself last Saturday by regular columnist Deborah Orr, who declared, "It's simply a work of genius, so brilliantly conceived and executed that it makes astonishingly savage and sophisticated satire into joyous, hilarious, literally all-singing, all-dancing fun and glamour." (I can see that on the posters, too).

Deborah goes on to make a persuasive case for the recession-busting ethos of modern (and indeed classic) musicals, and that creativity flourishes thanks to it:

Recessions are an almost perversely fortuitous environment for the flourishing of musicals…

…You'd imagine that trips to London's West End and tickets to frivolous entertainments such as musicals would be the first thing axed from household budgets in lean times. What actually seems to happen is that musicals become more experimental, and start attracting people who wouldn't usually go to them. Even Jerry Springer found its success in 2003, when economic times were hard, and home-owners were living with high mortgage interest rates and negative equity.

Twitter ads postscript (and one-star boasts)

I've previously pointed out here that the critics were already being rendered redundant by a campaign of ads using Tweets solicited by a #lovemormon hashtag before the show even opened.

Last Friday, I also mentioned how odd it was to see another London show Viva Forever! also running a full page ad earlier last week incorporating Twitter quotes. Sarah Hall, the managing director of Dewynters plc who are behind both advertising campaigns, came clean in a response she posted on the blog over the weekend to admit fault:

The Book of Mormon has, via its relationship with Twitter, developed an international campaign using tweets in their marketing and advertising campaigns. That campaign was brought to Dewynters by The Book of Mormon, it was an error on Dewynters part to use a tweet based campaign for another client and we have apologised to The Book of Mormon for doing so.

Instead, Viva Forever! on Saturday tried out a different approach entirely. They took out a full page ad in The Guardian Guide 'boasting' not of the show's five star reviews, but of five of its ONE-STAR ones (from the Sunday Times, Mail on Sunday, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mail and Time Out). It then offered these words:

#whatashocker. 80,000 tweets and seen by over 111,000 people. The critics may not have been dancing in the aisles but the audiences at the Piccadilly Theatre certainly are.

Muhammed! The Musical or The Book of Common Prayer next?

Finally, two critics have pitched their own musicals. In the Sunday Times, Christopher Hart declared on the weekend, "Surely it can only be a matter of time before some enterprising impresario takes up my own brilliant Muhammad! The Musical, sure to be an explosive new West End hit, with terrific sing-along show tunes including Ramadan-a-Ding-Dong and Baby You Look Better in a Burqa." (Actually, I feel he's been beaten to it by a fringe musical a couple of years ago that was called Jihad! The Musical, seen at Jermyn Street Theatre, which was so bad that I dubbed it "an act of theatrical terrorism" at the time.)

And the Independent's Paul Taylor e-mailed to me to propose his own show, The Book of Common Prayer, to go in head-to-head competition with Mormon.

As he wrote,

It's about a gender-reassigned male-to-female C of E curate who plots a "honey-trap" for a visiting death-to-homosexuals Nigerian archbishop while secretly moonlighting as the "hub" of an intercontinental "gay for pay" agency. (It's Maureen Lipman's part if she wants it.)

Sample lyric – You put the 'cum' in 'ecumenical' / You put the 'ass' in 'neurasthenical'

C'mon Mark, get behind it.

I am happy to put it out there and see if any producer bites…