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Is London’s West End losing way?

British equivalent of Broadway is struggling
/ Source: The Associated Press

The West End, London’s equivalent to Broadway, is again a focus of woe, with many wondering why the shows aren’t more sparkling and whether Britain’s commercial theater has lost its touch. Last year at this time, the historic West End had Judi Dench and Maggie Smith in “The Breath of Life,” a sellout play by David Hare. There also was a rare repertory season of Elizabethan and Jacobean classics. And Elaine Stritch had an acclaimed London run for her Tony-winning solo show.

This year, by contrast, London’s 40-odd commercial playhouses seem largely to be hosting shows that have been around nearly forever (among them, “The Mousetrap,” now a half-century old) or theaters are sitting dark.

Some have productions that are so bad that they barely deserve comment. Those include not one but two separate stage treatments of the Rat Pack — Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin and crew — as well as various attempts to rip-off the long-running musical “Stomp.”

A new musical, “Money to Burn,” closed Oct. 11 within 36 hours of opening at The Venue to excoriating reviews and a nearly $600,000 loss. Shortly before that closing, popular British comedian Michael Barrymore canceled his own stand-up show mere days into his engagement at Wyndham’s Theatre, after deciding he was in no shape to continue a run that had received decidedly mixed reviews.

This sequence of theatrical misfires is making itself felt: “Bright lights, big rip-off,” read a recent headline in The Guardian. “The West End is full of dud shows.”

It doesn’t help that the infrastructure around the theaters seems to be crumbling, with erratic public transport and anti-social behavior on the streets making some theatregoers wonder whether a night out is even worth it.

There are those within the industry itself who agree with the critics.

“I have to say I think he’s quite right,” says veteran producer Peter Wilson (”The Woman In Black”), referring to remarks from The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer, who dismissed London’s theatrical hub as “a stagnant artistic wasteland.”

But because London’s big theater chains need product in order to get a rent so they can pay staff and keep shareholders happy, “you fill your theater with whatever you can lay your hands on,” says Wilson — which explains, in his view, “the ability (for a theater) to take any old piece of nonsense.”

Down time
One could argue, of course, that New York’s commercial theater isn’t that much better. For much of the summer, Broadway hosted only one new play, Richard Greenberg’s Tony-winning “Take Me Out,” although things have improved with the fall season. Where the West End loses out with cachet is in competition from such powerful state-funded institutions as the National Theatre, which regularly gets the sorts of high-profile premieres that end up transferring to the West End and Broadway.

Chief among those is “Jerry Springer — The Opera.” The acclaimed British musical about American tabloid TV reopened Nov. 10 at the West End’s Cambridge Theatre, some seven months after it first stormed the National.

Next spring, Michael Frayn’s “Democracy,” currently a tough ticket at the National’s tiny Cottesloe, will move to Wyndham’s Theatre. Frayn’s drama follows another play, Moira Buffini’s “Dinner,” that began at the National, which has three theaters under one roof.

The National, “has raised the bar for us all,” says Sonia Friedman, the producer behind Madonna’s West End debut last year in “Up for Grabs.”

In any case, commercial playhouses, theater owners argue, can only take what they are given, which can be tough in a town where the National and smaller, not-for-profit venues like the 251-seat Donmar Warehouse tend to reign.

And the apparent stagnation could be merely cyclical: an obvious down time for an industry that has always known creative highs and lows.

Next year already promises the return of Dench to the West End in February in Shakespeare’s rarely seen “All’s Well That Ends Well,” while Jake Gyllenhaal (”Moonlight Mile”) will make his second West End appearance next summer in “Romeo and Juliet.”

Calista Flockhart, too, has been rumored to lead a starry revival of the Eugene O’Neill play “Anna Christie,” for which Mark Ruffalo (”In the Cut”) also has been mentioned.

Such star power at least gives the West End a chance to restore some of its lost sheen. And there’s the promise in 2004 of several major new musicals: “The Woman in White,” composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest, as well as stage versions of the films “Mary Poppins” and “Billy Elliot.”

“I’m an eternal optimist,” says impresario Cameron Mackintosh, who is co-producing “Poppins” with The Walt Disney Co., the corporation behind the film. The show opens Dec. 15, 2004, at the Prince Edward Theatre. “People are writing, and they will come up with new material. I think we’re in a period of renewal."