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Musicals strike upbeat theater note in weak U.S., UK economies

Lights illuminate 42nd Street at Times Square in New York in this photo taken April 2, 2004.
Lights illuminate 42nd Street at Times Square in New York in this photo taken April 2, 2004.

By Belinda Goldsmith

LONDON (Reuters) - A slate of new musicals has given the two major international theatre districts, New York's Broadway and London's West End, an upbeat start to 2013 despite economic weakness curbing the spending power of theatre fans.

The earning clout of theaterland in New York and London is considerable with Broadway sales rising to $1.1 billion in 2012 although attendance slipped and London sales nudging up to 530 million pounds ($830 million) with slightly higher attendance.

But industry groups in both cities this week reported optimistic starts to 2013 in terms of revenue and attendance, citing the power of feel-good musicals in an economic downturn.

"Musicals really are the thing that makes Broadway pump and this year we are seeing some excellent shows," said Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of The Broadway League, adding that 80-85 percent of Broadway's revenue came from musicals.

"We have ridden out the financial crisis on Broadway with revenue up about 1.5 percent this year despite the impact of Hurricane Sandy that hit New York hard."

She said powerhouse musicals like "Wicked" and "The Lion King" continued to do well and have been joined this year by a revival of "Annie", "Cinderella" which opened last month, and two openings this month, "Motown: The Musical" and "Matilda".

"Kinky Boots", Cyndi Lauper's first Broadway score, opened last week to good reviews and a strong box office. A much-anticipated revival of "Pippin" is due later this year.

Not all new musicals on Broadway have fared well. "Hands on a Hardbody", a downbeat musical about a competition for a truck, is closing due to poor sales after just 28 regular performances.

In London, Julian Bird, chief executive of the Society of London Theatre (SOLT), also said 2013 had started well, aided by a longer list of new and revived musicals than in recent years.

Musicals are a major force in the West End as well with SOLT figures showing they accounted for about 60 percent of 14 million theatre-goers last year, down three percent from 2011.

GOOD TIME FOR MUSICAL UPSWING

"This year is a big year for musicals and that is largely cyclical but it has come at a good time," said Bird.

"We do need to keep an eye on the economy and make sure we are providing shows that people want to see."

Higher ticket prices have not dampened the demand for musicals which are often staged at the larger theatres.

A survey of London ticket prices by industry publication The Stage this month found the average ticket price for the best seat at a musical had risen to 95.09 pounds ($145) from 86.53 pounds a year ago. This compared to 78.24 pounds for a play.

Despite the cost, record ticket sales of 2.1 million pounds were reported the day after last month's London opening of the Tony award-winning musical "The Book of Mormon".

The musical, which also broke box office records after opening on Broadway in 2011, is written by the creators of animated TV comedy "South Park" and has been both praised and blasted for its irreverence and expletive-laden script.

This week another U.S. transplant, "Once", based on the popular Irish film of the same name, opened in London, again reporting strong pre-opening sales.

"Once", the love story of a Dublin musician who meets a Czech girl, was adapted for the stage by Yorkshireman John Tiffany and last year won eight Tony awards, Broadway's highest honors, including Best New Musical and Best Director.

"Musicals these days tend to batter you into submission .. ("Once") wins you over with its simplicity, charm and air of sweet melancholy," wrote critic Michael Billington in the Guardian newspaper on Wednesday, giving it four of five stars.

"The Book of Mormon" and "Once" are just two new musicals to arrive in the West End this year, playing alongside ongoing favorites like "Matilda" and "Billy Elliot".

"A Chorus Line" opened in London for the first time since the 1970s in February.

In the wake of "Matilda" comes a new Roald Dahl-based musical, "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", opening in June, directed by Sam Mendes who made the James Bond movie "Skyfall".

In September Tim Rice, known for such musicals as "Evita", "The Lion King", and "Jesus Christ Superstar", opens his first new show in 10 years, the musical version of "From Here To Eternity" about U.S. soldiers stationed in Hawaii in 1941.

"People really do love a good musical so we are mildly optimistic for this year," said Bird.

(Additional reporting by Chris Michaud in New York, Editing by Paul Casciato)

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