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Mark Shenton: How long should a new show go into previews for?

The Book of Mormon held extensive previews. Photo: Johan Persson The Book of Mormon held extensive previews. Photo: Johan Persson
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Opera still does things the old fashioned way: the first night is the first night. But in the West End, where that used to be the policy, previews have been adopted as standard practice as long ago I can remember. Critics are not invited to them, and the public is incentivised to buy blind, without prior critical endorsement, by generous reductions on the ticket price.

Those audiences are asked to accept that things might not run as smoothly as they might at a full-price, post-opening performance. Then again, the price could be worth paying, in every sense, to be at the birth of something new.

As recently as 2010, Andrew Lloyd Webber only allowed for just over a fortnight’s worth of previews for Love Never Dies, his ambitious sequel to Phantom of the Opera. And like Sunset Boulevard before it in the mid-1990s, it had the indignity of a double opening. Both shows were put on brief hiatuses after their original openings, retooled a bit and then reopened to the press at a second opening night a few months later.

School of Rock is set for over a month of previews

But now that his next new musical, School of Rock, is due to open directly on Broadway (the first time one of his musicals has debuted there ahead of the West End since Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971), it is set to begin over a month of previews on November 2, prior to an official opening on December 6.

That’s fairly standard practice and preview length for a new Broadway musical (with the notorious exception of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark that ended up previewing for some six and a half months in 2010/11). A show’s weekly running costs – now typically around $600,000 a week – exist outside its initial capitalisation, which typically runs anywhere from $4 million to $15 million now, so it means that there’s a high weekly ‘nut’ to crack even before starting to reclaim capitalisation costs. And those costs are both also often higher during previews (as changes are implemented), and box office revenue is down (owing to discounting to try to fill the place and build a word-of-mouth reputation).

But now that out-of-town try-outs are an increasing rarity, a try-out on Broadway itself is part of the process (following ‘labs’ and private workshops) of making new musicals. And there are signs that London producers are now seeking to emulate their Broadway counterparts by fine-tuning musicals in full public (and paying) view for longer now.

Bend It Like Beckham, which began previews last Friday, has booked in nearly six weeks of previews before it opens officially on June 24. But though it is based on a well-known title, it is a high-risk project nonetheless: an Asian-based, cross-cultural new musical, without a star name in its company or a prior regional try-out. Last year’s Made in Dagenham also previewed for nearly a month at the Adelphi.

London producers are now seeking to emulate their Broadway counterparts

Both shows also adopted a staggered preview period, with dark weeknights after they began, so that they could implement any changes that were needed without having to shoehorn them into a pre-show call. In short, they are buying time to bed themselves in.

As one West End actor tweeted to me in response to a conversation around this: “A standard tryout period for British shows would help iron out kinks that turn potential hits into closing notices. #Ithink.”

But though there are no established rules for how many previews are ultimately right, with the numbers being determined purely by the management, it does seem to me that there’s a key difference between a show that’s brand new, such as Bend It Like Beckham, and a show that arrives with the benefit of a long, Tony-winning Broadway run behind it already, like Kinky Boots (due to preview for over three weeks when it arrives in August) or The Book of Mormon before it (which previewed for a similar period in 2013). Previews, in those cases, are less about ironing out kinks (let alone re-fashioning Kinky Boots) than marketing and branding the shows to a UK audience before the critics check in. 

By the time The Book of Mormon actually opened in the West End, it was established as a juggernaut, with a seemingly unlimited advertising and marketing budget that put it in every newspaper and billboard in town, and full page ads of Twitter comments.

Bend it Like Beckham, by contrast, needs to be discovered for itself, as Once (its immediate predecessor at the Phoenix) was, too. That will take a bit more time.

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