REFLECTIONS: I CAN'T SING! And The Problem With West End Theatre
The theatre world was stunned on Saturday night as news broke that I Can't Sing! Would be closing in two weeks' time.
It might not be a surprise, exactly, but it's a bit of a puzzle. It's unusual for losses to be cut quite so quickly, particularly after so much time and money have been invested.
However, although reviews had been decent, word-of-mouth had not been fantastic, despite the near-unanimous praise for the cast. In a giant theatre like the Palladium, good ticket sales for every performance are imperative, and will require a loyal fanbase and repeat attenders. Anecdotal evidence indicates that I Can't Sing! didn't quite manage that.
There's also the rather confused marketing for the show (not the first new production to fall foul of this) - it was billed initially as "The X Factor musical", and because that brand has such global interest it must have been assumed that it would automatically sell tickets.
But that tagline got quietly shelved. One of the criticisms many observers had made about the show was that its audience was unclear - X Factor fans wouldn't want to see a show that was satirising it, and those who might appreciate the satire wouldn't want to see a show under The X Factor banner.
So much for I Can't Sing! then, but is it indicative of a wider problem in theatre? It's not the first new musical with a putative open-ended run to head out of the West End so abruptly in recent months. From Here To Eternity and Stephen Ward both bowed out at the end of March; Viva Forever disappeared prior to that, Loserville at the start of 2013.
Is it possible that the only shows who have a chance of a decent run now are those transferring from Broadway (with a decent track record behind it, a la The Book of Mormon), revivals of well-known and well-loved classics (I suspect Miss Saigon will linger) and ones based on an already-famous property (The Bodyguard and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory have not had great reviews but have enough clout just in their names to attract an audience)?
And if so, why is that? Can it be something as simple as ticket pricing? Are mainstream audiences just not willing to take a risk on something they're not sure they'll like - especially as they're being asked to shell out over £60 per ticket for a decent view? (I've just checked the ticket website for I Can't Sing! - the cheapest ticket I can find is £20 for the very back row of the Upper Circle; and all the other Upper Circle seats are £40. Stalls seats are £65, with the added fees for premium seats, restoration levies and sizeable booking fees.)
It's all very well for theatre aficionados to point to discount ticket booths and offers, but the average audience member won't know about that. They'll just see that they're being asked to pay literally hundreds of pounds to take their family to the theatre - before even considering travel and hotels and food - and they won't bother taking a chance. They'll opt for the show with the songs they know they'll like or the story they're familiar with, and ensure that they'll all have a good time.
For instance, the new production of Miss Saigon has £27.50 listed as its cheapest ticket price. As a teenager, I used to go to see the original production of Miss Saigon quite regularly (it closed a few months into my first year of university). I wasn't rich, but I had a part-time temping job - and I knew that on Wednesday matinees I could pay £10 for an upper circle seat to see one of the most spectacular and moving theatrical experiences I'd ever encountered. This wasn't a long time ago - inflation has certainly played a part, but compare that ticket price to the national average and minimum wages and it's evident that there's a bit of a disparity.
On a personal level, the closure of a new and original musical makes me sad for the cast and crew and for the future of musical theatre; but I do think it's time that producers started to think about why so many new shows are failing so badly. If they want mainstream audiences and repeat business, they need to think carefully about their demographic and how to appeal to them, and they need to think about how much that demographic - and indeed anyone - can afford to pay to see a show.