Promising to write the first column of 2023 with an optimistic title borrowed from Ian Dury and the Blockheads seemed a little reckless but, on digging a little deeper into recent trends, this could be the moment when the theatre industry finally begins to leave a long malaise behind. If that seems a little too hopeful, there are certainly signs that things are already heading in the right direction.
As we all know, almost everyone who chooses to work in the arts is an irrepressibly eternal optimist. While some fall by the wayside, those that make the grade have the kind of enthusiasm to overcome obstacles and guarantee a successful future for the industry.
The coronavirus pandemic has been particularly damaging to our cultural sector, hardly helped by lack of support from the government and Arts Council England, but, despite the difficulties, the theatre is still bouncing back, keen to entertain, educate and, lest we forget, help the country’s balance of payments by bringing in tourists and taking work overseas.
In that light, it would be wonderful to get significantly more help from the powers that be, especially as the energy crisis has added an additional cost that theatregoers will struggle to bear during a cost-of-living crisis that seems set to cause problems throughout 2023.
The last few days have been dominated by press releases from Broadway telling us that The Piano Lesson, Beetlejuice, Funny Girl and Chicago have all created box office records over the holiday season. Going one better, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child not only broke the Lyric Theatre house record again but, in doing so, became the highest weekly grossing play in Broadway history.
In doing so, it grossed an impressive $2,671,191 (not far short of £2.25 million) for eight performances in the week ending on New Year’s Day. Stunningly, if this critic’s calculator is functioning properly, this means that the average ticket price for the theatre’s 1,622 seats was $206. Has nobody there noticed the cost-of-living crisis?
In addition, Hadestown has just become the longest-running show in the 100-year history of the Walter Kerr Theatre.
We British, being rather more modest, would never admit to such success, although there has to be a strong possibility that some of the biggest shows in the West End have also broken box office records.
Closer to home, a number of theatre companies are launching new initiatives to encourage and support those coming into the industry. The latest comes from the RSC, under the evocative title, 37 Plays and is intended to be “a nationwide search for the most exciting new voices of today”.
The corollary to legions of closure announcements is the opportunity for theatres large and small to introduce fresh work, whether this is a touring production coming into the West End, a new creation or revival.
At times, the West End in particular can seem very tired, featuring musicals that might have enjoyed record-breaking runs but have long since passed their sell by dates. Who knows what will be playing by the end of 2023 but, one hopes, that there will be much fresh, exciting work to encourage diverse audiences into playhouses, large and small.
Given the travails of the last three years, it seems remarkable that so many new theatres have been opening. The glitziest recent entrant into the market is Soho Place, run by the redoubtable Nica Burns and already inducing a vibrant programme that promises great hope for the future.
After three relatively rocky years, there also has to be hope that the Edinburgh International Festival and Fringe will both be back to something much closer to normal, with a full roster of acts attracting large audiences.
Many potential theatregoers may be put off by ticket prices that are quickly becoming unaffordable—and not just for Harry Potter. That is undoubtedly a concern, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that those willing to search around can find great bargains either through secondary sellers or regular discount deals.
On the plus side, the pandemic allowed theatres and practitioners an opportunity to branch out in new ways, utilising new funding models and creating digital output that should prove lucrative in the longer term. These initiatives should prove invaluable as they bed in.
One hopes that some of these encouraging signs will be enough to put a smile on your face but, failing that, a trip to the local theatre or a big production at a major venue should do so, helping you to forget life’s little problems for a couple of hours. Who could ask for anything more?