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

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June 12 2011 8:15 AM

Brits on Broadway

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

Article from Financial Times
Seth Numrich in War Horse
Seth Numrich in War Horse

The first time Sonia Friedman saw Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth's raucous comedy about a charismatic Wiltshire drug dealer fighting eviction from his caravan, the award-winning British theatre producer emerged from the Royal Court Theatre thinking that it could never get from Sloane Square to Broadway.

On Sunday, Friedman will be among the nominees at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan, with the US incarnation of Jerusalem up for six Tony Awards, including best play and best actor in a play, for the barnstorming performance Mark Rylance brought over from London.

It took a text message from Sir Tom Stoppard to persuade Friedman, who is also behind The Book of Mormon (the charmingly obscene favourite for best musical), that she should take Jerusalem to America. "You cannot call yourself a producer if you don't transfer this play," he wrote. The goading worked and in April she and three US producers opened the play in New York to rave reviews. The powerful New York Times critic Ben Brantley described it as "rousingly accessible".

Also nominated for best play (and tipped by critics as the favourite owing to its sheer commercial success) as well as four other Tonys are the equine puppets of War Horse, a National Theatre production based on Michael Morpurgo's children's novel about a thoroughbred called Joey, pressed into service during the first world war. Marianne Elliott, who co-directed War Horse and has just revived Alan Ayckbourn's Season's Greetings at the National, also had qualms about bringing a London production to the US. "We were very unsure an American audience would get the whole southern England thing, the resonance of the first world war that is still so strong in England – and the love of a horse," she admits: "I mean, how many horses do you see in New York?"

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Regardless of how many medallions Jerusalem and War Horse collect on Sunday, Broadway expects to hear more British accents in future. In the past three years, British imports have given Friedman three best revival Tonys: the 1960s French farce Boeing Boeing (2008), Ayckbourn's trilogy The Norman Conquests (2009) and the musical La Cage aux Folles (2010). Transfers of other British productions, such as Yasmina Reza's star-studded comedy God of Carnage and the animated projections of Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George have also done well commercially and critically in that period.

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Behind these transatlantic transfers lies a complex drama of economic realities, international investment, entrepreneurial risk-taking and a radical new commercial approach from British theatre's subsidised sector.

Broadway has seen British invasions before. A generation ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats and The Phantom of the Opera created a model for elaborate musicals such as The Lion King, where the original show's budget is made back by subsequent replica stagings from Las Vegas to Tokyo. The current influx of London productions looks very different, but similar business imperatives are at work. In uncertain times, says Annette Niemtzow, who produced Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon on Broadway. "Everyone tries to find as many outlets as possible for what they have. You're constantly measuring what kind of multiple you can create for the play. Can it become a movie? Will it do well in the regionals?"

With Broadway budgets starting at $2m for even simpler plays, and increased risks in building a production from scratch, US investors are favouring familiar big-brand musicals, or shows that have proved their popularity off-Broadway or, increasingly, in London. Though the traffic moves both ways (Friedman has said The Book of Mormon should open in London next year, and Jersey Boys and Wicked have made good money in the West End), far more travels from the UK to the US as London has a huge cost advantage over Broadway. When budgeting for a New York transfer, Friedman explains that she typically converts the British costs into dollars and then multiplies by three to account for higher theatre rents, bigger marketing budgets and tougher demands from unions. In Jerusalem's case, the production that had taken £350,000-£400,000 (about $600,000) to mount in London cost $3.1m in New York. (That is modest compared with War Horse, which cost a reported $6m in New York.)

US and UK producers stress that British theatre attracts American attention for artistic as well as financial reasons. Arts Council subsidies allow theatres from the Royal Shakespeare Company to the National to test risky new material with few of the pressures felt by a commercial West End theatre that must survive on ticket sales alone. "That means you can experiment, be bold, even be allowed to fail sometimes," says Elliott. "We look for the most interesting choices, not the safest. I can't tell you how liberating that is." Kate Horton, the Royal Court's executive director, is clear about where her priorities lie: "We're not here to produce hits. We're here to push tastes forward," she says. Such innovation is welcome in the US where, as Nick Starr, the National's executive director, notes, the philanthropists who help finance productions at many smaller New York theatres may have more dyed-in-the-wool tastes. "Those donors, however brilliant they are in New York, tend to be lagging rather than leading indicators," he says tactfully.

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