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Hand to Mouth: the financial tightrope of musical theatre

In the far off olden days, before on-demand TV, boxed sets, Netflix and hundreds of freeview channels, families would often go to the theatre for entertainment. Of course, the cinema was also popular, but live theatre attracted huge audiences and thriving amateur theatrical societies were to be found in most small towns.

Today, many of those societies have disappeared or are struggling to survive. Audiences have shrunk, members (especially men) are harder to recruit, and production costs have gone through the roof.

Soaring costs

This last issue, the cost of putting on a show, is a critical one, as smaller audiences mean lower ticket sales and reduced income. The danger is that eventually ticket sales don’t cover the costs, and the society is forced to cut back on performances, which makes it even harder to find new members. It’s a spiral that many never recover from.

In Spring 2017, AOS staged the musical Annie for six performances, running Tuesday to Saturday evening, with an additional matinee performance on Saturday afternoon. The rights to stage the show for those six performances, plus the hire of the theatre, cost us £12,500. At an average audience ticket price of £14.50, this means that we needed to sell over 850 tickets just to cover those initial costs.

Hire of the musical scores cost over £1,000, while costumes, lighting, sound and scenery cost another £7,000. In total, and after being extremely careful with every penny spent, Annie cost just under £28,000 to stage. This means that we needed to sell over 1,900 tickets just to break even on the show. That’s a tall order for a small market town in rural England in the twenty-first century.

Selling out

If every performance was completely sold out, our seating capacity of over 2,500 for the week would mean we’d be in profit for the show, but that’s very hard to achieve these days. This means that any loss on a show has to be borne by the members, which means increasing the show fees we have to charge the cast, and that makes it harder to recruit the new members we need.

This is the tightrope we walk today – trying to manage costs, while filling the theatre, and attracting new members. And we do this for two major shows each year. It can be stressful, to say the least, and it’s only something we do as a hobby, so it’s a good thing that we love musical theatre enough to keep balancing along that tightrope for year after year, determined to keep musical theatre alive in Abingdon. Just don’t look down!

How we choose our shows – it’s not as easy as you might think

When new members join a musical theatre society, full of wide-eyed enthusiasm and ideas, they often ask the same question.

“Why are we doing Oklahoma! None of my friends have heard of it. Why don’t we do Wicked, or that new production of Frozen – we’d pack the audience in for those.”

At this point, the members of the society’s committee generally sigh and then gently explain the reality of amateur theatre to the innocent new member.

It’s restricted!

First, at any time, the range of shows available to amateurs is limited. If a professional production is being staged, or even being considered, the show will usually be restricted. For Abingdon, the problem is often greater, because we’re considered to be within the gravitational pull of London. This means that, if a professional producer is even heard whistling the overture of a particular show, it’s likely to be restricted. The same show may be available for an amateur production in Yorkshire, but in Abingdon it will be off the table.

Some shows are never released for amateur performance, even when they’re not being performed on the professional stage. These are the crown jewel shows, like Phantom of the Opera or Les Miserables, that aren’t generally keen on amateur interpretations. The rights holders will usually laugh scornfully if a society is silly enough to even enquire about them. Oddly, there’s often a children’s version of these shows that will be available for school productions.

A happy chorus

Another important consideration when selecting a show is the range of roles involved and the opportunity for the chorus to be on stage. There may be a great ‘box office’ show available, but if the cast involves four people for most of the show, it would not be a popular choice for the thirty members in the chorus. For a society like AOS, the members’ show fee is a vital part of the show income, so the bigger the cast the better. A show with a cast of four people will cost almost as much to stage as a show with 50 people, and this makes it an unlikely choice.

Will it fly?

Finally, it can be difficult to stage some shows on a budget. For example, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang would be a lovely show to perform (if it was available for amateur performance), but the audience would rightly expect to see the car on stage. And at some point, they would also expect to see it fly. This can be magical on the West End stage, and even professional touring productions will have the necessary equipment, but for an amateur society it would add thousands to the show budget and so rule it out.

It’s not that there aren’t shows available. Amateur societies are constantly being contacted by rights holders offering amazing deals on shows that no one has ever heard about. Then it’s our turn to laugh scornfully. But in general, it’s the rule of supply and demand, with all the power in the hands of the rights holders.

Now, put on your cowboy hat and let’s get on with rehearsing Oklahoma!