Brits on Broadway: What makes British theater work in the U.S.?

Stories from the Financial Times. 
June 12 2011 8:15 AM

Brits on Broadway

What makes British theater work in the U.S.?

(Continued from Page 2)

Certainly the recipe for a successful transatlantic production appears as elusive as ever. Enron: The Musical, which first appeared at the Chichester Festival in summer 2009, opened at the Royal Court later that year at around the same time as Jerusalem, to huge success. Commercial producers who were wary of Jerusalem's regional English accents thought that a dramatisation of a US financial scandal would be a hit within a subway ride of Wall Street. They were badly wrong. The show opened on Broadway in April 2010 but died in front of New York audiences, ending after just one month, losing a reported $4m.

Annette Niemtzow says: "When a show is doing well in one place, investors are hungry for the next round, but there is no guarantee that it will travel." The mistake is to say, "It's from London, we'll just move it," says Arielle Tepper Madover. Even when a transfer succeeds, it may be received very differently. English audiences saw Frost/Nixon, based on a series of televised interviews the former US president Richard Nixon gave to the British interviewer David Frost about the Watergate scandal and his failed administration in 1977, as a play about the triumph of Frost, but in New York theatregoers treated it as a play about Nixon. Frank Langella won a Tony in 2007 for his portrayal of the president, but Michael Sheen, who played the ambitious interviewer, "was not even nominated, because nobody cared about David Frost," Niemtzow says: "We think we speak the same language but we don't have the same sociolect, the same points of reference."

Jerusalem has surprised many theatre veterans by overcoming this. "We kind of get what's at stake in fighting with the district council, but I don't think we really get it," Niemtzow says: "What's being appreciated is the quality of the language and the extraordinary performance by Mark Rylance." Paul Blackman, a former artistic director of the Battersea Arts Centre who has worked in New York for the past decade, believes the fact New York audiences have embraced such a "dense, textured, overtly English" production, played in unfamiliar accents, is an encouraging sign for ambitious British and American productions alike.

Rylance is a familiar face on Broadway, which often helps an unfamiliar script, but, as Sonia Friedman admits: "That doesn't necessarily mean that a brand new play about a bunch of merry Wiltshire guys is going to pay back its investment." Asked whether Jerusalem, which has just extended its run by four weeks to August, will recoup, she says: "It's well on its way."

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Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT's media editor.