It’s a cold, miserable Tuesday in London’s West End, but the crowd clustered around the red carpet outside the Shaftesbury Theatre doesn’t seem to notice. Tonight is the opening of Motown: The Musical and a flashbulb chorus greets stars including Mary Wilson, Smokey Robinson and Motown founder, Berry Gordy.
“I’ve had, and Motown has had, a love affair with the UK for many years,” says Gordy, as explanation for why he brought his musical over from Broadway, where the Tony-nominated show enjoyed a run of nearly 800 performances, but that’s not the only reason he’s here.
The West End is as synonymous with London as the drizzle in the air and it’s also seriously big business. Last year, almost 15 million people bought a ticket for a West End performance. The 47 venues that are members of the Society of London Theatre (SOLT) grossed over £630m (€790m) in 2015 and SOLT estimates that 41,000 jobs depend on the industry, which contributes over £2bn to the economy.
West End theatres may combine grand traditions, beautiful venues and decades of history but at work is a shrewd, modern business model that has moved with the times – and it’s one that everybody wants a piece of.
Paul Ibell, author of Theatreland, a history of the past five centuries of London theatre, argues that West End shows have remained popular – even during both world wars – because they offer us entertainment, education and escape. “Noël Coward’s play Blithe Spirit, which opened in 1941, was a hit partly because the theme – a comedy about ghosts – enabled audiences to laugh at death at a time when they were experiencing it all the time in their own lives,” he says. “Much the same applied to the Depression between the wars, so it’s perhaps not surprising that at a time of economic and political upset, people flock to see shows like The Lion King, Mamma Mia! or The Phantom of the Opera. As a result, the West End has sailed through the recession, despite predictions of disaster.”
However, despite the thriving scene, launching a new show remains a risky business. Last year, 278 new productions opened in the West End, but some only remained open for a few weeks. While Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap has famously run continuously since opening at St Martin’s Theatre in March 1974, others are not so lucky. Harry Hill’s X Factor parody, I Can’t Sing, closed in 2014 after just six weeks, losing its backers much of their £6m (€7.5m) investment.
What makes predicting the success of a new venture so difficult is also one of the West End’s greatest strengths: its variety. On any given night, you’ll find a mix of high-camp musicals, serious psychological dramas and, in the case of Stomp, lots of people clattering about with bins.
Beautiful is one recent success and this biography in musical form of the singer-songwriter Carole King, recently celebrated a year at the Aldwych Theatre. “It’s weird. Either a show runs for decades or it seems to close within three months,” says Cassidy Janson, who plays King. “There are big, big shows which close, so it’s a relief when you make it to a year.”
Alan Morrissey, who stars opposite Janson in Beautiful, agrees: “Particularly with new musicals, it’s really hard to survive in the West End. The majority don’t last a year, but these days six months is a great run.”
For Morrissey, as for many of those who perform in the West End, acting here is the realisation of a childhood dream. “Doing this job, London is totally the best place to be,” he says. “You’ve got New York, obviously, but Broadway has its own challenges. I love being a British actor and I love the quality of work we get over here.”
He says his most important motivation is remembering how inspired he was the first time he travelled down from Stockport as a child. “My first West End show blew me away and it’s someone’s first one tonight. That’s a beautiful pressure that we give ourselves as a show.”
Those looking for an illustration of the breadth of West End audience’s palates should look no further than The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Having started life at the National Theatre, adapted by acclaimed playwright Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s book, it’s told from the perspective of a teenage boy with Asperger’s syndrome. It’s a remarkable play that has become a West End hit at the Gielgud Theatre.
Bunny Christie, who designed Curious Incident’s wildly inventive, set, argues that West End shows don’t have to fall into pre-existing moulds. “I think it’s a mistake to think, ‘Oh, that’s not very commercial’ or ‘That’s not very West End’,” she says.
Christie is passionate about theatre’s ability to ask more of its audience than a television or iPad screen can. “If you imagine a film of Curious Incident, chances are it would be quite a straightforward narrative with lots of locations,” she says. “Of course, we can’t do that in theatre. What’s fantastic is that we ask people to use their imaginations and fill in the bits that we miss. It feels more sophisticated, in a weird way, because it’s about using our creativity. It’s a lovely thing that we all do as children really naturally and then kind of forget about later in life.”
There’s certainly something childlike about the awe and wonder of seeing a great performance, but following the premiere of Motown: The Musical, the producers, cast and crew make the short journey to a very grown-up opening-night party at 100 Wardour Street in Soho. It’s attended by the likes of former Friends star Matthew Perry, who’s in town with his playwriting debut, The End of Longing, at the Playhouse Theatre. While the live band couldn’t go wrong with a string of Motown hits, including Superstition, You Can’t Hurry Love and My Girl, the cast are avoiding the stream of free cocktails.
“If you’re a lead in a West End show, you get membership to the Ivy Club and the Groucho, but it’s one of those things where, when you finally get it, you can’t really enjoy it,” laughs Janson. “You don’t go out and get hammered at the weekend.”
Performing eight high-intensity shows a week doesn’t exactly lend itself to the sort of bacchanalian debauchery the likes of Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed once enjoyed. Working from 5.30pm until 10pm six nights a week would wreak havoc on anyone’s social life.
Away from the private-members bars, where performers might enjoy a mocktail, there’s at least one pub that can count on a regular theatre crowd: the Nell of Old Drury, on Catherine Street. It’s named after Nell Gwynn, the actress and mistress of King Charles II, who was recently the subject of an eponymous play at the Apollo Theatre. The pub, once known as the Lamb, has attracted thespians since 1663, when the Theatre Royal was built opposite and is connected to it by an underground tunnel, by which Charles is said to have visited his lover. “If you say you’re going to the Nell,” says Janson, “everyone knows where it is.”
“We cross paths with actors from other shows all the time,” adds Morrissey. “You meet at the same places, but there’s no rivalry. Everyone’s in it together.” That goes for all involved – playwrights, actors, crew, wardrobe, make-up.
“You’re working with the best of the best. It feels lucky to be here.”
No wonder, then, that shows and fans in their millions continue to be drawn to the West End, regardless of modern distractions, wider economic gloom or grey London skies.
“The West End feels more successful than ever,” says Christie. “There’s just something about sitting together in a theatre with people around you laughing or gasping that works. I think we really miss that, because many of our lives are quite solitary or insular. Going to the theatre is a communal experience and, as human beings, we like that.”