We are just chuffed to bits about our West End Musical Theatre summer training program. I get downright giddy when I tell people they can train in famous studios in the heart of London with current and veteran West End actors.
What’s the West End, you ask? Well, the simplest answer is that it’s the Broadway of London (or that Broadway is the West End of New York City, depending on your perspective.) London is arguably the Theatre Capital of the World, and the West End is shorthand for the forty or so commercial theatres in and around the Theatreland district.
But whether you’ve only vaguely heard of the West End, or you know your way to and from every theatre without a map, here are five things you should know:
#1 The West End has a LONG history.
OK, to be fair I’m an American writing this, so “long” might be subjective. (What’s the difference between an American and a Brit? An American thinks 100 years is a long time and a Brit thinks 100 miles is a long way.) Still, the first theatre opened in the area in 1663—110 years before the United States was a country—so you’ll forgive me if I’m a little impressed.
Of course one theatre does not a theatre district make, and the West End of London didn’t become THE West End until much later. In the 19th Century lots of small theatres and concert halls sprang up in the area, and it became a thing. That might sound like a slow start, but opening a theatre wasn’t such an easy thing to do because…
#2 Censorship played a huge part in the history of London Theatre—even more recently than you think.
So we know that in Elizabethan England the Theatre scene was hopping. You had Marlowe, Burbage, and of course The Bard himself, Shakespeare. But just 26 years after Big Willy’s death, the Puritans banned plays, tore down theatres, and straight up flogged actors. (Remember that the next time you get a bad review. It could be much worse.)
After the Restoration in 1660, it wasn’t “anything goes” overnight. Licenses from the government to produce plays were ridiculously hard to come by. The restrictions eased some in 1843, but the government censorship of Theatre wasn’t done away with until 1968!
This censorship had a HUGE influence on the history of theatre. For example, while straight-plays would (apparently) damn your soul, music was considered virtuous, so it wasn’t restricted like Theatre was. In the early 19th century, people who just wanted to put on a darn show used Melodramas to get around the restrictions. See, Melodrama has a musical underscore, so you could say the straight-play restrictions didn’t apply. And thus, the line between concert hall and theatre started to get more and more fuzzy, and eventually you get: musicals! (Don’t tell the Puritans. If they knew THEY were indirectly responsible for the flashy, flamboyant fabulousness that is Musical Theatre they’d be SO upset.)
#3 With all that history comes…the need for a little facelift.
And by “facelift” I mean £250 million of needed repairs to modernize the buildings. See, there are some grand old theatres in the West End—beautiful, grand buildings with luxuriously detailed interiors that take your breath away and can be a huge part of the experience.
The downsides to these amazing old buildings are: 1. People used to be much smaller and they were accustomed to less legroom and tiny bathrooms. 2. During a recent performance at the Apollo Theatre the ceiling collapsed injuring 76 people.
But not to worry, they’re working on modernizing the old structures and it certainly hasn’t scared people away. More than 14.5 million people attended shows in London last year!
#4 The tickets are cheaper than Broadway.
Everything is more expensive in London right? Well, almost right. While the meal you get before the show and the souvenirs you buy after will cost more, the ticket will be $30 cheaper on average than the exact same show on Broadway. So what gives? The short answer is that the UK government subsidizes Theatre. It doesn’t subsidize the commercial (we might call it “for-profit”) theatres that make up the West End, but since non-commercial theatre is subsidized, folks in London are used to lower ticket prices, so the commercial West End theatres have to lower their prices to compete. As a matter of fact when I went to see shows in London I was blown away at the diversity and vibrancy of the audience (compared to in the US.) It’s cheap enough that people—like, regular, normal, real people—can go. It sounds like a magical fantasyland from over on this side of the Atlantic.
#5 The longest-running show isn’t what you’d guess. (Hint: It’s not even a musical!)
When you think of long-running shows on either the West End or Broadway what comes to mind? Cats? Les Misérables? Phantom of the Opera? All good guesses. In fact, Les Miz and Phantom are in second and third place, still running after 30 and 29 years respectively which is really impressive, and they both come in ahead of the longest running Broadway show, Phantom of the Opera (it opened on the West End two years before Broadway.)
But believe it or not, if you combined the number of performances of both Les Miz, AND Phantom, you STILL wouldn’t be able to touch the #1 spot. The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie is a murder mystery, a straight play, and it’s been running continuously since it opened in 1952!! That’s 63 years! That’s 25,393 performances! That’s longer than Alaska and Hawaii have been states! It’s been running since before Elvis music existed! Stalin was still alive when it opened!
OK, we think that’s out of our system. But seriously, that’s a long time. In fact it’s the longest running play in the world—by a lot. The best part is that since it’s a murder mystery, after the show they ask people not to reveal the twist ending. So even though over 25,000 audiences have seen it over the past 63 years, we don’t want any spoilers please.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this teeny, tiny taste of what’s up with the West End. You should go! And if you’re more inclined to dream about performing in the West End than attending performances, be sure to check out our program. (The application deadline is March 15!)
Ben Abbott is Performing Arts Abroad’s Outreach Coordinator. He has business cards and everything.