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The West End vs Broadway

Amelia writes about her recent trip to Broadway and compares the theatre experience across the pond to the West End.

The West End is to London, what Broadway is to New York. And the West End is to me, what oxygen is to a human. Apologies if this is a little bias.

After taking a solo trip to New York this Summer, I was eager to delve into what makes Broadway so special. Having only caught an off-Broadway production of Bat Out of Hell during my first visit in 2019, I made sure to book in for as many Broadway shows as I could fit in 6 days this time. While in attendance of my first show, Chicago, it dawned on me just how different the New York vibes are to London, and what you should expect from an American audience. 

The obvious start point is Playbills. A cute little paper copy of the cast and crew list, and other vital information sandwiched between 5 pages of ads. Each side. Whilst you’re looking at a spend of between £7-15 for a programme in the UK, the Playbills are a good way to encourage the audience to learn more about the production and who’s actually in it. When there’s an understudy or swing performing, you also get an insert in the Playbill to notify you of the change. Equally most programmes, when purchased, will have an insert when you’re in London, but unless you read the cast list, sometimes this information isn’t as obvious to UK audiences. The British programmes are much nicer and sturdier than a standard playbill however and look as though they’ve had a lot more care put into them. As someone with two full storage boxes of programmes from West End and regional theatre, it does make you wonder how much I’ve spent over the years in comparison to a frequent attendee of Broadway. But I guess if you marry it up with my health bill, then we might be equal.

Once you get handed the Playbill, an usher will take you to your seat – what a novelty! I’ve been to some theatres so many times that I could probably usher other people around them, but it’s typically just a ‘all the way to the left, and down to the front row’ from our Front of House teams. Not that this is a reflection of the staff we have in the UK, but the unfamiliarity of American ushers taking you to your seat just makes you feel rather important. I’m sure this unique feature would wear off if it happened every time, but I think it’s a nice touch. 

Perhaps the reason it’s easier to sort Playbills and take patrons to their seats, is because of the difference in theatre layout. In London, a typical West End theatre will have stalls, a dress circle, and an upper circle; with some even having 4 tiers. Each show I saw on Broadway felt a lot more rounded and there were only ever two tiers – the orchestra and mezzanine. The capacity for Broadway is around 600-1500, with some reaching the near 2000 mark! Our little Arts Theatre, that has previously housed mega shows like Six, Bonnie and Clydeand Choir of Man, only holds 350, whereas the Palladium has capacity for nearly 2300. The West End seems more varied with capacity levels, as each theatre is incredibly unique. While each venue I went to in New York felt individual and characteristic, the set up of the audience typically was the same. Furthermore, there is a distinct lack of foyer space in US theatres compared with ours. Maybe that’s because the British love a wine bar and a place to hangout before taking their seats, but upon scanning your tickets in New York, it feels as if your already sat down. The merch stands typically are at the back of the seating, whereas some West End theatres even have their own designated room for merchandise.

My first interaction with an American audience member was shortly after I’d taken my seat for Chicago. Looking around at others impeccably dressed, with their glasses of wine, I wondered whether it would be a more civilised audience to what I’m used to. I mean sure, I’m normally the first one up at the curtain call, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t kick start a standing ovation! I politely asked the person next to me whether it was normal over here to stand and clap at the end of a show, and she so elegantly responded ‘well if they deserve it, then of course’. As an avid overthinker, I did then proceed to spend the majority of the show questioning what made it deserving of people moving some muscles and showing their appreciation, only to find that the audience was already on their feet before the bow music had even begun. 

Scratch that, we were applauding and shouting actors making their initial entrance on stage, let alone when they’d finished. It dawned on me that maybe my next-door neighbour was more of a sophisticated theatregoer and in fact was also not aware of the appreciation everyone must show throughout the whole production. This phenomenon only continued throughout my holiday, and I was pretty into it by the end – except I was trying to cheer when ensemble member number 4 was entering, and subsequently realised it was kind of reserved for the more principal actors. The only time this really happens in London is at a cast change or closing night. I can’t help but feel like this makes it more special – a minute long standing ovation for the ensemble of & Juliet closing night is an atmosphere I’ll never forget. 

Finally, humour. I think we can all agree when I say that British humour is vastly different to American, and in my opinion, it’s much better. Although it premiered in the US, the Book of Mormon has humour that plays incredibly well to UK audiences, and it has charmed us now for just over a decade. Having seen the show both regionally and in London, I was interested to see if the laughs would be the same across the pond. Initially when I sat down and the person next to me turned his friend and said, ‘gosh I hope this isn’t homophobic’, I was immediately on Whatsapp to the family trying to figure out if he was joking or not. Feeling slightly uncomfortable, I sat fidgeting in my seat during ‘Turn It Off’, waiting for the line ‘my hetero side just won’ *cue actor banging on his chest like King Kong*, because it’s one of my favourite lines and makes me giggle every time. The sigh of relief I let out when the guys next to me both then proceeded to bang their own chests like King Kong, could’ve blown away the Rockefeller.

Having been a massive fan of & Juliet in London since its premiere, I relished in seeing it in New York as I await a UK tour announcement. The humour didn’t go down quite as well, and it was interesting to see that different scenes got bigger laughs and vice versa. As someone who has seen the show more than 10 times, I am familiar with the script and comedic lines that are guaranteed to get the London lot laughing. As some scenes were cut or changed, it’s hard to know what impact they would’ve made over in the US, or if they just don’t have ‘Vaseline’ over there – if you know, you know. 

In conclusion, I think it’s fair to say that each city has its own value and uniqueness that they bring to the table. Although you can get a different flare in a plethora of theatres across London’s West End, the difference on Broadway is an even bigger stretch. As a solo traveller to both, each venue I’ve visited has had amazing crew and Front of House teams, and I’ve never felt unsafe. You could be in any theatre across the globe, and you’ll never be alone.

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