Love the Musicals, but Save the Drama; Straight Plays Are Being Edged out of the West End. without Action Soon, Says Our Theatre Critic,we Risk Losing the Rich Variety of the London Stage
Byline: NICHOLAS DE JONGH
NEVER in living theatrical memory have so many musicals shot up in the West End almost all at once. There are about 25 of them at the last count.
From the amusing anti-musical Spamalot to Mary Poppins by way of the splendid Cabaret and Wicked, they dominate the London stage in all shapes and genres.
The Sound of Music and Porgy and Bess are still to come, while Dirty Dancing, which opens at the Aldwych next week has already taken [pounds sterling]12 million, the highest advance ticket sale in West End theatre history.
The "house full" notice outside Spamalot at the Palace this week is indicative of that air of popularity and prosperity lightening the West End air. Even producer Bill Kenwright, who holds his financial details secretively close to the place where his heart is rumoured to be, admits Cabaret is doing "very well".
Could it be, then, that the London stage is swinging - in rare, rude health? Well yes, happily, of course.
And yet the health of the West End is not as rude as it might first appear. For this outbreak of musicals is also symptomatic of the fact that the ordinary, traditional play, of which there are presently nine examples in the West End, is becoming an endangered species in Shaftesbury Avenue and beyond.
Take a crystal ball and gaze into the theatrical future, say 10 years on, and what you are likely to see is a place transformed beyond recognition. For the first time in hundreds of years there could be no straight plays in West End playhouses.
Walk around the area and you will find yourself in a dumbed-down, garish new world. There will be no seriousminded, commercial triumphs like Don Carlos, no Mary Stuart or The Crucible - admittedly transfers to the West End, but at least reminders of the fact that London's commercial stage was not all song and dance. The off-West End theatres and studios, the likes of the Donmar, the Almeida and the Hampstead, will remain, thanks to government subsidy. But such productions will no longer be offered in commercial theatres.
Neon lights, or their successors, will be advertising all round the day and evening comedy shows, cabaret, pop and world-music performances, recordings of television and radio shows.
Restaurants and casino-gambling facilities will be attached - though you will have to buy tickets for the entertainment as well.
Some big musicals will remain in the
larger theatres, but the American investors who go wild over investing in them now will to some extent have moved on. The Old Vic will be given over to lap-dancing. Only the National Theatre on the South Bank will remain as a memorial to a nation that was once regarded as the world leader in terms of drama. Commercial imperative and inadequate laws to protect theatres will have precipitated this change.
You may think this a pessimistic view, exaggerated to the point of sensationalism.
It is, though, perfectly possible on present trends. The demise of the straight play has to do with cultural,
economic changes that are
already under way. Cabaret, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Dancing in the Streets and, recently, Sunday in the Park With George have all been presented in theatres that traditionally host straight plays. …