You really notice uncomfortable theater seats when a show is this bad. Suffering through Thoroughly Modern Millie in London's Shaftesbury Theatre, my mind keeps coming back to the lack of legroom in the middle rows of the 92-year-old playhouse. The screaming colors of the Richard Morris and Dick Scanlan musical purple and orange skyscrapers, dancing typists in green tights do nothing to ease the discomfort. The show, an adaptation of the 1967 Julie Andrews film about an independent girl in 1920s New York City, is glitzy, but synthetic and charmless the songs aggressively brash, the desperation to provide an "event" palpable. The lead, Amanda Holden, is an appealing British TV actress, but lacks the charisma for the big stage. And yet this is one of the most-hyped West End shows of the year.
Is Theaterland really in so parlous a state? Judging by attendance, everything's fine: 12 million people went to a West End show last year, up from 8.5 million in 1980. But those figures don't tell the whole story. Many of those millions were drawn to old staples like Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, and the rocktacular musicals that have become a West End mainstay (Rod Stewart's Tonight's the Night has just joined long-runners like Queen's We Will Rock You, alone seen by over 750,000 people last year, and the Abba-infused Mamma Mia, attended by 676,000). Attendance is also boosted by tourism and big-name celebrities (Madonna, Matthew Perry) in often flimsy stage vehicles like last year's Up For Grabs or the recent Sexual Perversity in Chicago. But drama which has always been the soul of the West End has never been in worse shape.
Andre Ptaszynski, chief executive of the city's biggest theater group, Really Useful Theatres, estimates that if London's playgoers numbered 250,000 in 1970, the figure is probably closer to 180,000 now. This is at least in part because of the West End's inability to serve up high-quality new fare. "This is the worst autumn I can remember for plays," Ptaszynski says. "Traditionally, this is the time of year when you find really good product, but there's very little." And whereas the 1970s were rife with commercially bankable new writers from David Hare to Tom Stoppard a whole generation has gone missing in action, lost to the greener fields of TV and cinema.
If the theater is lacking in spirit, it is also sagging in body. A new report from the Theatres Trust, which keeps an eye on the physical state of British playhouses, says the West End is in need of emergency surgery. Of the 40 theaters it inspected, 40% need major structural or architectural restoration; 26% have inadequate legroom; 24% have no climate control; 60% have restricted-view seats; and 65% need more toilets. Only a transfusion of $415 million over the next 15 years, it says, can save the West End's aging commercial theaters from the wrecking ball. Ian Brown, artistic director of the West Yorkshire Playhouse, one of Britain's foremost regional venues, is outraged. "London theaters take a lot of money from producers, and very few are empty for long," he says. "Why haven't the owners been investing to improve the buildings?"
The West End's decline has been debated for almost as long as there has been a West End. "The theater will simply go on dying," the playwright John Osborne famously said, "as it has done for centuries." And London still manages to stage such outstanding fare as Ed Hall's all-male production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Terry Johnson's Hitchcock Blonde, which were both critical and commercial successes this summer. Jerry Springer: The Opera proved again that musicals can be great art as well as great spectacle. And even a cheesy musical can offer guilt-free pleasure: last year's Bombay Dreams, which cashed in on the craze for all things Indian, is a balmy, gorgeous evening and it's still packing them in.
But the shortage of compelling, innovative new material is a serious problem. Some 30 years ago, London's commercial theater was dominated by producers with taste and vision who promoted a generation of hip new playwrights. Michael Codron, for instance, presented Stoppard, Alan Ayckbourn, Michael Frayn and Alan Bennett. Those writers remain stars, but a similar-minded young producer stands little chance today: there are few bright young playwrights to choose from, and the high cost of staging plays discourages risk taking. Even producer Richard Jordan whom Codron calls "the young Michael Codron" finds it tough. To produce a play with half a dozen actors in a West End venue, Jordan, 29, would have to pay around $500,000 and that's not including the $16,000-$50,000 a week in theater rent. "If Harold Pinter started out today," Jordan grumbles, "it's unlikely he'd be in the West End." Charlotte Jones, one of the few young British playwrights to have had a West End hit with 2002's Humble Boy, says the high commercial stakes fueled a bout of writer's block when she set out to compose her next play, The Dark, scheduled for the off-West End Donmar Warehouse. "If there isn't new writing in the West End, it will die and the theater will go to ruin," she warns.