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Since I grew up in suburban Massachusetts, attending professional theatrical productions was a rare treat. I have always been jealous of kids who grew up in or around New York City – the ones who talked constantly of all the Broadway productions to which their parents had taken them. For me, a professional production would be a birthday present, a big ordeal; thus, my expertise and interest in all things Broadway comes primarily from soundtracks and video clips, in addition to the occasional show. Once I moved to Boston for school, I was able to see more professional pieces, mainly when Broadway tours made their way through the city. But for someone who claims to thrive on everything theatre related, I really have not done as well as I should. So when I decided to study abroad in London, the other theatrical capital of the world, I promised myself I would make the most of the trip and see as much theatre in the West End as I possibly could!
Often, Broadway and the West End are mentioned within the same breath, twins across the Atlantic. Both London and New York are known for their theatre scenes and proudly promote the quality of their productions. The city centers are filled with theatres, posters, and flashing lights; dark nights are lit up by the marquees of the musicals and plays. Productions start in one city and make their way to the other, well-known actors are routinely seen in both locations, and soundtracks are made from each cast. The two are incredibly comparable, but having experienced both, I can accurately say that theatre life in London and New York each has its own personality.
New York is so incredibly fast paced and Broadway is quite condensed. All the theatres are in the same place, which creates a sort of theatrical community. Every other person on the street is a working actor, a wannabe actor, or a theatre supporter. There is a sense of camaraderie in the Big Apple: everyone is in it together, or at least against it together. London is just as busy, but less condensed. The West End refers to a much larger area, so there are only a few theatres on each street. You cannot simply stroll from theatre to theatre unless you have a good amount of time to spare, so its best to know where exactly you are going. Theatre is prevalent, but it’s spread out. If this were a competition, I would give Broadway a point here.
Another difference: it’s quite a bit easier to explore the West End on a budget, since there are student prices or rush tickets offered at most, if not all, theatres. In New York, a select few lucky individuals win the ticket lottery and can purchase tickets at a reduced rate, but the odds of being chosen are almost as unlikely as winning the actual lottery! In my time in London, I was only turned away once, because the entire performance was sold out, not because there were no student prices available. At most, I paid twenty five pounds for a ticket in the West End. This all being said, I do not mean to sound critical of New York. Alternatively, I see the two cities as different theatrical experiences. Seeing a Broadway production is a treat; it is something you splurge on and something you cherish. The West End is more about theatre for everyone and making productions more accessible. It’s a hard choice, but I’d say this one goes to the West End.
Besides those major differences, there are smaller, less substantial variations. Programs do not come free in London. You have to pay 4-6 pounds, which, added to the price of the ticket, seems high, just to know the cast list! The programs are much more detailed, with pictures and bios, but I was disappointed not to be able to collect programs of the shows I attended while there. One for New York. Also, actors seem a bit more humble in London, only taking a single bow, compared to the three encores, multiple bows, and guaranteed standing ovation in New York. Have to give that one to London.
Really, each city has its strengths and weaknesses, but I think their similarities are more important than their differences. Both are vibrant and exciting cities that offer the best theatrical productions in the world and a visit to either is an amazing opportunity. As promised, I was a frequent visitor to the West End over these past few months, seeing a total of thirteen productions. I feel so blessed to have been given the opportunity to see so much theatre, and I now appreciate how important it is to see theatre whenever given the chance. Whether it be Broadway or West End productions, touring companies or community theatre pieces, theatre is such an incredible way to stay connected to the world. From now on, I am going to see as much as I can, anything and everything, whenever possible! And I recommend everyone do the same.
If interested, I chronicled my adventures through the West End, reviewing every production I saw. My critiques and commentary can be found here.