West End Musicals Crowding Out Straight Drama

Unprecedented numbers of showgoers are flocking to London's West End theater district, thanks to hit musicals starring celebrities like Ashlee Simpson and Ewan McGregor. It's a winning formula to lure TV watchers: ticket sales hit $940 million in 2007, up 18 percent from 2006.

Yet critics fear that the same shows drawing the crowds are sidelining straight dramas. Drama represented just 22 percent of last year's West End takings and saw a 2 percent increase in revenues, indicating that economics may spell an end to London's great theatrical traditions. "We've got to find ways of making the costs realistic so that plays can thrive," says Dominic Cooke, the Royal Court Theatre's artistic director. "But when you're asking people to pay $120 a ticket, they want to know they can have a good time. Often new plays can't guarantee that."

Producers may not mind trading plays for star-studded cash cows, but the country's leading classical thespians do—and they're starting to sound off. Last month director Sir Jonathan Miller slammed West Enders for having "an obsession with celebrity," and Kevin Spacey (now artistic director of the Old Vic) has said that Britain must build the next generation of theatergoers: "If we don't, we'll lose them all to TV." The irony is, it's more likely to be Spacey's screen-icon status, not his soliloquies, that draw in the kids.