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A Weighty West End? Seriously : On London's theater scene, the glitter of blockbuster musicals has started to give way to more plays. The formula: a few stars and a classy story.

February 12, 1995|David Gritten | David Gritten, a frequent contributor to Calendar, is based in London

LONDON — A quiet revolution appears to be happening in London's West End.

Since the early 1980s, there has been a widespread complaint that London's commercial theater district is dominated by a handful of hugely successful musicals, while too many of its other offerings are lightweight dross. Theatergoers in search of serious drama have headed for Britain's great subsidized companies, the National Theater or the Royal Shakespeare Company.

All signs are that this is changing. True, the blockbuster musicals--"Cats," "Les Miserables," "Miss Saigon" and "Phantom of the Opera"--roll on relentlessly, with no signs of dwindling audiences. They have recently been joined by the revival of "Oliver!," which looks set for a similarly long run.

But alternatives to musicals in the West End suddenly look richer and more challenging. Producers sat up and took notice last year when two decidedly highbrow plays--the Greek tragedy "Medea" with Diana Rigg and an adaptation of Turgenev's "A Month in the Country"--attracted huge followings. ("A Month in the Country," starring John Hurt and Helen Mirren, sold out its scheduled 14-week run.)

The hint was taken: There's an audience for serious work if all the elements are right. Edward Albee's latest play "Three Tall Women," starring Maggie Smith, looks daunting at first glance--a dense, complex portrait of an unsympathetic woman (based on Albee's adoptive mother) at various stages of life. Yet the play is a box-office hit and will end its scheduled run in March in the black.

"Class" and "seriousness" now appear to be buzzwords among West End producers. Peter Hall's four-hour production of "Hamlet," with a virtually unknown actor, Stephen Dillane, as the Prince, is attracting large enough audiences for producer Bill Kenwright to predict it will break even. No one remembers when there was last a Shakespearean tragedy on Shaftesbury Avenue, the West End's main thoroughfare, let alone one that did not incur big losses.

"I believe good plays will survive in the West End," says Kenwright, the most prolific theater producer in London. "But you have to get the right mix, and you have to market your product. I have marketing meetings every single day."

Robert Fox, producer of "Three Tall Women," agrees the mix is crucial. "In theatrical terms, Maggie Smith is as big a star as you can get. So the combination of her and a new play by Edward Albee is exciting. To do a new play or a serious play without stars is tricky and courageous. It's hard to raise money, apart from anything else."

The importance of the right mix also is clear in other West End productions. Most audiences might not ordinarily be tempted by "The Clandestine Marriage," an 18th-Century comedy; but they flock to see leading man Nigel Hawthorne, who has received rave reviews in the film "The Madness of King George" and is well-known in Britain for his TV series "Yes Minister."

Tom Stoppard's highbrow "Arcadia," a heady cocktail of landscaping history, Byronic biography, chaos theory and detective thriller, has been running since May. And two well-reviewed dramas by new or newish playwrights--Terry Johnson's "Dead Funny" and Kevin Elyot's gay-themed "My Night With Reg"--are both performing strongly.

It hasn't hurt the new productions that paid attendance at all West End theaters set records in the last two years. According to Susan Whiddington, from the Society of London Theater, 11.5 million tickets were sold in 1993, the highest attendance recorded since the society was established in 1908. "The final figures for 1994 aren't in yet, but up until October, they're only 2% off that figure," she said.

Whiddington believes the most heartening aspect of last year's projected audience figures was the difference in the mix of plays: In 1993, 22 of 60 new West End productions were musicals; last year, the total was 14 of 63, leaving more room for serious theater amid the comedies and light dramas that are West End staples.

"We had been concerned about the balance," she admitted. "Musicals are a wonderful part of theatergoing in London, they're certainly important to the tourist industry, but we don't want to crowd out good straight plays with them."

For now, at least, that seems unlikely to happen. A new Tom Stoppard drama, "Indian Ink," arrives this month. Arthur Miller's "Broken Glass" is transferring from the National to the West End. Late spring heralds the opening of Webster's Elizabethan revenge tragedy "The Duchess of Malfi," starring Juliet Stevenson, and Alan Bates in Ibsen's "The Master Builder," directed by Peter Hall. Already it looks a promising year for lovers of quality theater.

Fox, meanwhile, has sounded a warning. He concentrates on producing just one or two shows a year aimed, like "Three Tall Women," at discerning adult au diences. And he worries that more prolific producers (he does not name Kenwright, though clearly he has him in mind) cannot maintain high standards if they work on 10 or 12 shows a year.

"Quality can never be that consistent," he says. "The theater's a very particular thing. When it's good, there's nothing better. When it's bad, there's nothing worse. If you've had a really bad experience, you think: I never want to go to the theater again. Because it's not cheap. So there's a big danger to theater if standards start to fall."

Still, the overall mood in the West End is broadly buoyant. "It's encouraging to us that so many straight plays are doing well," said Whiddington. "We believe the people who go to see them are the heart and soul of the theatergoing audience. For a lot of people who go to musicals, it's a one-off experience, maybe a special occasion like a birthday or anniversary. But the straight-play audience, those are the people we have to count on."*

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