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The ups and downs of transatlantic exchanges…

On Monday, I was toasting the British victories at this year’s Tony Awards here, though it’s an interesting fact that they were each in American work, whether it was in the Donmar Warehouse offering the world premiere production of John Logan’s Red that then transferred to its current Broadway run; or the coals-to-Newcastle transfers of the Menier’s productions of La Cage Aux Folles and A Little Night Music.

Creatively, this could mean that London is now so enthralled to American work that it makes no difference anymore: are we simply being used as a cheap try-out house for Broadway success? And although we may see it first, is Broadway reaping the longer-term benefits while London theatregoers only get a try-out taster?

John Logan’s Tony Best Play award winning Red, as I’ve previously pointed out here, only played a nine-week run at the 250 seater Donmar; on Broadway, it will have played a 15-week season in an 800 seat theatre. That means that, while just 18,000 people can have seen it at the Donmar (including, no doubt, the myriad American producers who came sniffing around to see it), nearly five times as many people will have had the opportunity to see it on Broadway.

And there’s another difference, too: the Donmar run is partly achieved with the investment of British public money; Broadway is a collection of purely commercial interests. So the latter reap the benefits of the subsidy of British taxpayers, who don’t, in fact, get the opportunity to see the work that results unless they’re especially fast to book at the Donmar before it inevitably sells out there, or jump on a plane to New York after it does.

In fact, the Donmar also receives a direct private subsidy from Broadway itself: Broadway producer Arielle Tepper Madover puts a lot of money into it, partly as an investment of her own into securing Broadway transfer rights for Donmar shows (of which Red was the fourth she has now exercised it on). So the Donmar benefits on both sides: before any show moves, and of course even more so if one does.

But the Donmar programmes its shows for its London audience first, and any subsequent Broadway transfer is merely incidental (though I’d wager it was always on the cards for a show like Red, with its American playwright and American subject matter, and indeed I suspect it plays even more resonantly there than it did at home). Likewise the Menier’s reinventions of Broadway musicals are taking a fresh look at those shows - in the case of La Cage, a mere five years after the show was last revived on Broadway - that offer new perspectives on their own past glories. And at a far cheaper price: their reduced aesthetic - and far smaller orchestras - come cheaper. It’s a win-win all around when they go back to Broadway (except, perhaps, for those who want to hear A Little Night Music in all its orchestral glory).

But there are signs that perhaps we are merely becoming a global theatrical community. Starbucks tastes the same in New York as it does in London; and so does the theatre - the occasional blip of a transfer like Coram Boy or Enron to Broadway notwithstanding, where some of the flavour that made them hits in London seems to have dissipated en route. As David Cote wrote in yesterday’s Guardian, “What do we really mean when we talk about British versus American work? Is [Catherine] Zeta-Jones’s win for A Little Night Music> a feather in the UK’s cap? The film siren belongs as much to Hollywood as to Swansea. [Douglas] Hodge is a delight in La Cage, but surely its success has something to do with the local actors - including TV star Kelsey Grammer - who occupy the other dressing rooms? American producers become attached to English productions and then groom them for the Great White Way; that collaboration surely alters the chemistry. In the end, one must admit that these national distinctions (fun though they are to tally) are meaningless. No two theatre scenes enjoy the same level of commercial and artistic interdependence as Britain’s and America’s.”

Good theatre, like a good meal, is all in the preparation; and London offers a place to prepare where the same ingredients come cheaper, and there’s a more sympathetic theatrical environment that the cut-and-thrust of Broadway where the polarisation between smash hit and utter failure is far greater. There’s not as much middle ground there as here. You can, of course, fail big in London, too - as witness the fast flop of the new production of The Fantasticks that opened last Wednesday, and has already posted a closing notice to end on June 26. In my post-opening night [tweet] (http://twitter.com/shentonstage) soon after the curtain came down, I wrote, “The original off-Bway production of The Fantasticks ran for 42 years - the West End one will be lucky to run 4 weeks.”

And Broadway has been spared the embarrassment, I’m sure, of Paradise Found, which Hal Prince and Susan Stroman opened last month at the Menier Chocolate Factory with an all-American company that surely must have thought themselves New York bound; but after the London reviews, is unlikely to ever head there now.

On the other hand, a show like La Bete, beginning performances at the West End’s Comedy Theatre on June 26, has already booked its Broadway berth: it will transfer to the Music Box in September. Let’s just hope the West End welcomes it first….

2 Comments

Mark there are over 300 million people in the US and 70 Million people in the UK , I'm not great at maths but I think this is roughly the same proportion of seats for RED in the US vs. seats for RED in the UK. As for the British taxpayer subsidising a Broadway play well get over it, the fact is that the Donmar is probably receiving a significant amount of dosh from the Broadway engagement and so that money is the payback to a subsidized theatre from a commercial transfer. Also, with the Donmar "brand" making its way around the world what with Piaf in Buenos Aries and The Creditors in Brooklyn - which helps to make the Donmar a destination for theatrelovers from all over the world, which brings people to London , which brings in money to the British economy. Are American producers using London as a springboard and testing ground for work to be produced elsewhere? Of course the answer is yes. But, so what? But is Sonia Friedman making money on both sides of the Atlantic? Sure. Are the commerical producers of All My Sons in the West End paying money to the National Theatre for the use of its creative team? ( I don't know the answer to that one.) When the Donmar produces a play such as RED - everyone wins, the theatre, the creatives involved, broadway producers and most important of all - the audience. Why complain about it?

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I think it was Cameron Mackintosh who said back in the 80's that "Broadway was just another stop on the world tour", which at the time was greeted with some anger from the US critics.
Art centres are cyclical, Vienna, Paris, London, New York have all been places where musical theatre has centred itself. Its economics, and to some extent how open the society is that generates good art in the theatre.
London will have another cycle, maybe when the work is generated by Directors and Writers not from the Oxbridge set, that once were the new guard and now are simply doing the same s**t different play.

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