The National Theatre’s production of One Man Two Guvnors tonight becomes its latest transfer to Broadway, joining War Horse which is already running there. Meanwhile, next Monday Ghost - the Musical, which also originated in London (by way of an out-of-town try-out in Manchester), also opens on Broadway, directed by Matthew Warchus, whose Olivier Award sweeping RSC production of Matilda the Musical is lining up for a Broadway transfer next year.
So that’s two shows for Britain’s subsidised theatre against one from its commercial sector; and while both End of the Rainbow and Evita that have already opened this season there were also commercial entries, it’s striking that their personnel includes so many talents nurtured by the subsidised theatre, including the directors of both, Terry Johnson and Michael Grandage.
In fact, the most welcome shout-out at the Oliviers last Sunday was playwright Dennis Kelly’s tribute, in collecting the best musical award for Matilda with its composer Tim Minchin, for the importance of our subsidised theatre.
And it’s also a striking fact, as Michael Billington noted in a blog for The Guardian on Monday, just how poorly the commercial sector fared overall in those awards, with only three awards in the total tally for work that originated there: to Derren Brown’s Svengali for best entertainment, Sheridan Smith for best performance in a supporting role in Trevor Nunn’s production of Flare Path and Nigel Harman for best supporting performance in a musical, for his turn in Shrek. And he says, “Three awards is not much of a tally and, if the evening proves anything, it is the consistent failure of the West End to create, rather than merely showcase, exciting work.”
But then that’s not really its job: the job of commercial theatre is to fill seats. And if that means producing Thriller Live or We Will Rock You to do so, then it is succeeding. Success for the commercial theatre is measured, ultimately, at one place and one place only: the box office. It may, from time to time, produce a show that is artistically worthwhile, too, but money leads the art in the West End, not the other way around.
But I’m also struck by another comment Billington makes in his piece on the Oliviers, and how, in his words, “they have become part of standard showbiz razzmatazz.” He goes on to say that this “in itself, shows just how much the West End has chosen to model itself on Broadway: the less it has to shout about, creatively, the more noise it feels obliged to make.”
Yes, a lot of noise is made in the West End by those with the least to shout about, like Rock of Ages or We Will Rock You. But if that’s what (some of) the public wants, producers are filling a need — and a couple of West End theatres. Over a decade ago, as Sondheim turned 70, Frank Rich did an interview with Stephen Sondheim in the New York Times in which the composer complained, “You have two kinds of shows on Broadway — revivals and the same kind of musicals over and over again, all spectacles. You get your tickets for The Lion King a year in advance, and essentially a family comes as if to a picnic, and they pass on to their children the idea that that’s what the theater is — a spectacular musical you see once a year, a stage version of a movie. It has nothing to do with theater at all. It has to do with seeing what is familiar. We live in a recycled culture.”
Rock of Ages and We Will Rock You, of course, recycle old pop songs. But it doesn’t have to be all like that; and while Once, now running on Broadway, may be a stage version of a modest indie-movie, it is also something genuinely bracing and new that expands and enlarges it into the 3D world of living theatre. It’s interesting, too, that its main creative team — adaptor Enda Walsh, director John Tiffany, choreographer Steven Hoggett and designer Bob Crowley — are all from this side of the Atlantic, and owe their careers to the subsidised arts.