In a sea of modern shows, are 'classic' musicals just not cutting it anymore?

The new West End revival of Show Boat - which transferred from the Sheffield Crucible a month ago - posted an early closing notice earlier this week cutting its run in half meaning it would close late August instead of next January; despite the fact the show received countless 5-star reviews (including one from myself coming soon), it unfortunately failed to bring in a wide audience of theatregoers.

In fact, it's reported that the audience is only about a third full on most weeknights which is clearly not the best business for a major West End theatre, but it's in no way a testament to this classic show. While the show itself is around 90 years old, it still retains a certain degree of charm and heart and this exquisite revival demonstrates that perfectly. So I began to wonder: what is it about the classic musical that doesn't ring as well with the modern theatre-going audience?

Before we start, I think it's important to note that most theatregoers in London aren't regulars at all: they're tourists. Tourism is what the London theatre scene strives on and to attract a good amount of tourism, a show needs to have a strong advertising campaign at hand. It's undeniable that Show Boat has been plastered across London ever since the transfer was announced - and the campaign itself is hardly boring or unattractive - so what is it that turns tourists away? Are they not looking at ad campaigns anymore, and if they're not, why not? I think a certain degree of this is not just where the advertising is but how the publicity is used. If you think about the way The Book of Mormon is sold to audiences, anyone even considering going to see the show knows it's controversial, silly and lots of fun. While shows like Show Boat and other "classic" feeling shows in the West End like Mrs Henderson Presents and Lend Me a Tenor a few years back use their advertising campaigns to highlight the quality of the show as a piece of art and don't play their strongest cards: talking about what you can take away from it.

It's also evident that people who go to the theatre in this day and age are very much looking for something big and crazy because we've been teased with it. Whether it's right or wrong, Cameron Mackintosh and many other producers have offered us the likings of a flying helicopter on stage (Miss Saigon), moving boats and bridges (Phantom) and animals brought to life by puppetry (The Lion King) and this high level of theatre art and special effects has become the norm to most as that's the theatre that they're most familiar with. For a regular theatregoer, this isn't necessarily a selling point, but if you're a tourist going to see a show as an attraction, you are naturally going to want to part your big lump sums of money on productions that you know will make you question what is possible to be done on a stage: these classic shows just can't offer those spectacles.

This then raises the argument as to whether or not commerical theatre in the West End and on Broadway has any room for pieces of literary and musical art. Proof really is in the pudding when it comes to plays like The End of Longing that can simply fly in to the Playhouse earlier this year despite the fact it is total tripe, while shows like X and Escaped Alone start and end their runs at off-West End venue The Royal Court because they know they won't survive in the West End. By this very logic then: is it safe to say that we have outgrown the classic musical, or is it just that tourism has started to overpower those who are passionate about regularly going to the theatre? Some shows are coming into town that are creatively "daring" and then finding success, though - like People, Places and Things which came in from the National earlier this year and Funny Girl which came in from the Menier - but they have the ability to sell themselves on the talent they have at hand. This isn't to say that the stars of Show Boat aren't incredible whatsoever and while Denise Gough is a relatively unknown actress in general pop culture, it's no secret that her performance is what makes the show so mindblowing and of course, Smith's name is above the title in Funny Girl.

Whether we like it or not, there simply aren't enough of us in the London theatre community these days to keep shows like Show Boat afloat. Whilst they are prime examples of excellence in theatre and performance, they just aren't what tourists seem to be going for these days. However, we can do one of two things about it: either complain that people who aren't overly interested in theatre don't see the potential in seeing a revival of the first musical ever written at the New London Theatre, or we take this as a lesson and try our best as a community to show the general public that this kind of theatre is just as good as the likes of Kinky Boots.

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