From West End to Broadway
By William Mendelowitz
'Audiences that put their money into this ticket are guaranteed a return on a show' says Lyn Gardner in The Guardian.
'Lucid to the point of simple-mindedness' says Ben Brantley in The New York Times.
It might surprise you to find out that both these are quotations about the same show. When Enron opened in the West End at the beginning of 2010, hyperbole was rife - this just had to be a shoe in on Broadway. And yet, when it opened in New York on the 27 April of that year, it was only to last until the 9 May. Ben Brantley's review might have a lot to answer for, as it is said that the NY Times can spell life or death for Broadway shows. Michael Billington suggests that its failure to win Tony Award nominations was the 'kiss of death'. Both things may be true, but Enron shows how success on one side of the Atlantic does not mean success on the other.
There is more than award nominations and reviews to major transfers though. The transaction of productions between London and New York means that audiences should get the best of both worlds. Let's take a look at some of the success stories and not-so-success-stories of the past few years, and see if we come up with a winning combination.
From West End to Broadway
It has been a long time since we sent a real humdinger of a musical over, maybe even not since Sir Cameron Mackintosh and Lord Lloyd Webber dominated with the likes of Les Mis and Phantom. Big Show audiences have changed on both sides of the Atlantic, and our exports tend to be plays nowadays. Broadway audiences like good British Drama, with one current musical exception below. More often than not, our successes in the US have to do with British quirks, the Royal Family prominent among them.
Helen Mirren reprised her role as the Queen for the third time overall, and the second time in this play, at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre in March this year. The Royal Family, and especially the Queen, has a massive fan base in the US. Audiences there are obsessed with our monarchy; witness the clamorous reception both Princes William and Harry have received in recent years.
The Queen maintains a more rarefied state, and it is for that reason that The Audience is proving so popular on Broadway. Variety reported that the average price paid per ticket was $153. $153. Per ticket! And that was only for the previews. Timed to perfection, three Tony award nominations were announced for the play, one of them for Dame Helen herself. And sales continue at the pace set by the previews. Definitely a hit.
Matilda the Musical
Another quintessentially British show, this time a musical. The rave reviews that garnered its run at the RSC and the West End have been wholly mirrored by critics in New York. They are wowed by the charm and talent of the British cast, the children especially. 'The most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain', declares our friend Mr. Brantley. Scooping no less than 5 Tony awards, one of them shared between the four Matildas, this British gem continues to enthral its audiences on Broadway and in the West End. Perhaps its winning ingredient has been the child casting. They have been universally praised for their talent and charm, without the usual 'brattish' or 'shrill' criticisms that often get directed at young casts. It is worth pointing out that back here in London, that two of the girls playing Baby Louise in Gypsy are graduates of Matilda. The show has turned into a talent factory in the best way possible and clearly Broadway audiences are loving it as much as we are.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The National Theatre's standout production is, like Matilda, now playing on both sides of the Atlantic and hits on the same winning combination that appeals to both audiences. Nominated for 6 Tony awards this year, including Best Play, Curious has achieved the triumvirate: rave reviews ('Be prepared to have all your emotional and sensory buttons pushed, including a few you may have not known existed', says Ben Brantley), awards buzz, and is performing to packed houses. BroadwayWorld.com reports an average 90% capacity across the last 20 weeks, which is no mean feat on Broadway. Curious also showcases some of the best of British stage design, which has recently been in the press here, so can justifiably be declared one of the best British theatre exports of the last few years.
Wolf Hall Parts 1 and 2
A contrast now. You might think that the RSC's Wolf Hall would enthral US audiences, what with their obsession with British monarchy just as The Audience does. It has proved far more divisive however, and is only playing to an average 68% capacity, and critics are split between effusive praise (from the New York Times, oddly enough) and 'beautiful but boring' in the New York Post. It could be the two parts - combined length running at close to 5+ hours - or the absence of the star casting which The Audience enjoys, but Wolf Hall is definitely creating less of a stir on Broadway than it did here.
From Broadway to the West End
The movement from the US to the UK shows quite a different story. It might say something about American audiences that far fewer plays than musicals transfer from Broadway to the West End. We do love the idea of big Broadway shows, so more often than not it is the musicals which fit the bill. But us Brits are fickle - do we also perhaps like to consider ourselves a tad more refined than our American cousins? There have been several high profile transfers over the last few years; Mormon, Beautiful and Memphis to name a few. Off-Broadway to Fringe transfers have also ended up in the West End. Forbidden Broadway enjoyed at run at the Vaudeville last year and brought the shows sharp tongue and witty judgement to bear on our crop of shows. The fact remains though that part of us remains devoted to the gliz, glamour and over-the-top-ness of many Broadway shows.
The Book of Mormon
What can we say, other than London went Mormon-crazy in 2013, so much so that the actual Mormon Church in the UK took over most of the advertising space in Leicester Square tube for several weeks. It won 9 Tonys in the US and continued to win here, picking up 4 Oliviers. Its unashamedly irreverent humour continues to have audiences splitting their sides, sometimes in spite of themselves.
Fresh from New York and riding high with 4 Tonys, Memphis landed in the West End in October last year. Nominated for 8 Oliviers, winning 2, it earned four- and five-star reviews, and Beverley Knight has been wowing audiences since. Yet it's closing this October, almost exactly a year since it opened and after a far shorter run than in New York, where it was on for three years. Rumours abound about a UK tour in the works, but compare this with Mormon: both award winners, both critical successes, both have astonishingly good audience reactions. But while Mormon carries on and on, Memphis leaves the Shaftesbury with us wanting more. There may be a too-much-of-a-good-thing factor, but I suspect that a Broadway transfer's endurance in London says a great deal about the difference between our audiences. Where Mormon appeals to the huge comedy fan base that Trey Parker and Matt Stone built with South Park, perhaps Memphis's subject matter is too specific a taste to enjoy a long run in London.
In the West End
Disney are rumoured to be bringing this sell-out success to London. Particularly eager to see if they bring James Monroe Igleharts award-winning turn as the Genie with them
Finding Neverland. With a book and music & lyrics by all-British dream team James Graham and Gary Barlow, the story of J.M Barrie and how Peter Pan came to be is a dead cert in London.
Yes, I know this is already confirmed, but just wanted to reiterate how excited we all should be that London is getting Kinky.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch
This had a short and sweet run in the West End back in 2000, but having now been revived on Broadway with the indomitable Neil Patrick Harris (All Hail NPH) we have our fingers crossed that some bright spark might put him on a plane to come give us his cross-dressing best over here.
What wonderful irony it would be if this were to be a smash hit on in New York. The Kinks were banned from the USA during their glory years of 1965-69. We hope the Americans have forgiven them since.
Shakespeare in Love
Stoppard's love letter to theatre did wonderfully here. Having cleaned up at the Oscars as a film, surely this stage version will have Broadway enthralled.
There are so many more - I've barely scratched the surface. If there is a trend to be found, it is surely that Broadway loves British drama, and we love Big Broadway Shows. But audiences are fickle, and Matilda in particular shows that British musicals are alive and kicking, literally so, in the case of Bend It Like Beckham. We'll have to wait as see to see if our wish list becomes reality...