Delaying a transfer – “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread”
Broadway imports have often kept the West End alive, and in recent years have given London a refreshing wave of new musicals. Over the past year, celebrated hits such as Once and The Book of Mormon have made the transition, often within a year of opening on Broadway and winning handfuls of Tony Awards. It is often remarked that the level of success is never guaranteed, and history has a long list of shows that have someone been lost in translation somewhere over the Atlantic, and have failed to have the same level of impact with British audiences.
The 2014 Olivier nominations have thrown up an interesting selection for Best New Musical, which includes two winners of the corresponding Tony Award, alongside a Tony Award Best Musical nominee, and a new British musical. It will certainly be interesting to see The Book of Mormon, Once, The Scottsboro Boys and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory go head to head for the highest honor in UK theatre, and it really is anyone’s guess as to who will come out on top.
After last season’s largely commercial imports, it has been interesting to see a new wave of Broadway musicals finally making their way across the pond. The most prolific opening of recent weeks has been at the off-West End venue, The St James Theatre in Victoria. Seating a modest 330 audience members, and situated off the beaten track, it was maybe not the obvious choice for the London premiere of Urinetown, which opened officially on 11 March 2014 – over 12 years since opening at Henry Miller’s Theatre on Broadway, where it ran for just under 1,000 performances.
Directed by Jamie Lloyd, the brand new production presented Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis’ satirical musical in a fresh and original way, and felt completely different to the (much loved) original Broadway version. It’s apparently a production that Lloyd has earmarked for many years, and its journey to the London stage, where it has received unanimously positive notices, may act as a cautionary tale to future producers. Obviously we will never know if the 12-year gap between the New York and London productions aided the ultimate success of the UK transfer, but I can’t help but feel that it has.
Many producers rush too quickly into transferring shows between continents. Success in one country by no means equates to similar success elsewhere. I can’t help feel that if the original Broadway production of Urinetown had made it to London back in 2002/3, it may not have been met with the same positive reception. In this instance the fates clearly aligned for the better – a strong creative team alongside a fantastically talented ensemble cast (led by the incomparable Jenna Russell) combined with the freshness of the St James Theatre has resulted in something quite special, which we all hope will go on to enjoy a second life elsewhere.
David Yazbek’s 2005 musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels has had a similarly lengthy road to the West End, and it just opened at the Savoy Theatre on 1 April 2014. Again, this will be a brand new production, directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Thanks to developments around the world, including a successful production in Sydney, this classy musical (based on the 1988 film of the same name) seems tighter and more focused than the original Broadway production. Some careful trimming of the score and book, teamed with some clean direction by Mitchell has give a new air to this little gem, despite its lacking in star performances. If only Norbert Leo Butz was here to revive his Tony Award nominated performance as Freddy Benson…
The 2010 Tony Award winning Best New Musical Memphis also opens in the West End this autumn at the seemingly ill-fated Shaftesbury Theatre. Despite a healthy run of almost three years on Broadway, the skeptics are already asking if the show can hope to enjoy the same level of success. The “Queen of British Soul” Beverley Knight leads the cast as Felicia, straight off the back of her successful engagement at the Adelphi Theatre in The Bodyguard which has proved much more popular than the original run with Heather Headley. The subject matter of the show and original score may well deter British audiences, but the intention to try and recreate the show’s Broadway success is certainly apparent. Perhaps the delay to the stage has allowed producers and the creative team time to establish key changes in order to make this somewhat tricky show translate to a new audience.
Whilst the commercial West End may offer a riskier home for these late transfers, the versatility of the London fringe seems like an ideal home for UK musical premieres. Following on from their hugely successful 2013 production of Maury Yeston’s Titanic, The Southwark Playhouse is set to mount the London premiere of 2008 Tony Award Winning musical In the Heights. This seems to be producing at its most sensible. Few would risk the show in a large West End house due to its content, language and context that don’t relate directly to London audiences, but in the intimate fringe venue, director Luke Shepherd is well placed to mount an exciting and vibrant production.
The success of Titanic last year was a prime example of astute programming and producing. The show is remembered on Broadway for its large scale production values and over the top effects, but in the hands of director Thom Southerland was allowed to focus entirely on the beautiful score and Peter Stone’s wide ranging yet focused book. This efficient and economical production allowed the work to transfer to London without the same level of risk – reinventing the show for a specific home and context, rather than simply transporting a production directly from one place to another.
John Bucchino and Harvey Feirstein’s 2008 musical A Catered Affair is also set for a London fringe premiere – this time at the recently formed London Theatre Workshop in West London. The company, who declare themselves to be dedicated to the ‘re-imagination of musical theatre,’ will no doubt offer an intimate look at this musical comedy, in a way that would otherwise be impossible to do on a larger commercial scale.
With Newises, Kinky Boots and Motown all already lined up in the wings to arrive in London, I can’t help but think that the longer the better. The journey to the West End is certainly no easy one, but in the cases outlined above, it seems to have been all for the best.
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