Mark Shenton: The truth is, there is no formula to manufacture event theatre
It would be great if theatre could be a habit, but for most people it is actually an occasion. That’s partly a matter of price. As The Stage recently highlighted, the average top-price ticket to a musical in the West End now costs £153.54, so it would be out of reach for all but the wealthiest to turn it into a habit, even if tickets do tend to be available at significantly lower price points.
But it’s also about inclination: unlike the majority of The Stage’s readership, most people are content to dip in and out of theatre occasionally and need to be persuaded to do so. There’s a song in Jason Robert Brown’s Honeymoon in Vegas, in which a character lists some of the things he likes doing: “I like Broadway once a year.” That exactly nails what Broadway and the West End represent for many.
For the hottest shows, it’s about availability: one of the factors that has driven Hamilton to be the top-grossing show on Broadway is that its ticket inventory is necessarily limited, and demand far outstrips supply. Managing and exploiting that demand becomes part of what drives the ongoing success of the show.
Hamilton has become its own piece of ‘event theatre’ – built from the ground up into a once-in-a-generation juggernaut – but there are also shows that are conceived as events from the beginning. The first official Harry Potter stage show, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, was always going to be popular, given the global success of the book and film franchise, but lead producers Sonia Friedman and Colin Callender upped the ante by getting its original creator JK Rowling on board to help create a new instalment in the continuing story and turning it into a two-part show that runs for six hours in all. It is now rolling out around the world in replica productions.
Theatrical double bills like Cursed Child, Angels in America and The Inheritance require an added commitment from the audience, but this can also be a part of the event experience: it helps unite people in a remarkable collective encounter over an extended period of time. But the show needs to be good enough to hold an audience’s attention. Length alone is not enough. Other shows aspire to event status by a novelty aspect of their presentation – whether it’s aerial flying across the whole theatre in the case of Broadway’s Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, or a giant gorilla puppet in the current King Kong. Sometimes this can be spectacular, but it can also lead to crash landings, sometimes literally, as dramatic exposition is sacrificed to awe-inducing effects.
Then, there are occasions when theatre becomes the presenting venue for what would have been an event anyway, intensified by the rarity value of the experience, as when a rock legend like Bruce Springsteen, who can usually sell out sports stadiums, brought a show featuring just himself and an acoustic guitar to a 948-seater Broadway theatre. He ends a run of 236 shows this weekend – one that will have grossed more than $113 million in the process. Tickets didn’t come cheap, but fans got a close-up and intimate experience like no other. Now a version of that will be available to a wider audience as Netflix releases a film special of the concert for streaming from December 16.
As Broadway theatre producer Ken Davenport (unconnected to the Springsteen show) recently told the Guardian: “This one for me hits the trifecta of what a theatrical production on Broadway should do: it was an incredible piece of art; it made money; and I think it expanded the Broadway theatregoing audience… whenever you can do those three things, you’ve hit the bullseye.” But he also fears its success will result in lesser imitators, seeking to cash in on an apparently winning formula: “I’m afraid that what we will now see is a ton of other people come to try to rip that off and replicate it that actually don’t go as deep into the theatrical storytelling. They just say: ‘This model works, I’m gonna put a pop artist in there and see what happens.’ That won’t be as effective.”
A similar phenomenon happened in the wake of Mamma Mia!, another show that brilliantly packaged up something familiar and turned it into theatre event. Following that show’s global success, the West End, Broadway and commercial touring markets were saturated with jukebox musicals, with varying degrees of reward. Looking at the current listings, the West End and Broadway sometimes seem to be stuck in an endless loop of tribute shows, from Tina Turner and Carole King to current and future entries on Broadway, including the just-opened The Cher Show, the soon-to-close Head Over Heels (the Go-Go’s) and the soon-to-open Ain’t Too Proud (the Temptations).
This all just goes to underline a truism that applies equally to event theatre as any other type: it’s nearly impossible to predict success and slavishly following a formula will nearly always result in failure.
Mark Shenton is associate editor of The Stage. Read his latest column every Wednesday and Friday at thestage.co.uk/columns/shenton