Success iffy for West End/Broadway transfers
EmptySame language, different cultures. It's the conclusion Broadway producers often have reached when hit plays have been shipped from London to New York, either intact or in recast incarnations struck from the same template, only to suffer premature deaths at the U.S. boxoffice.
For every "The History Boys" there has been a "Coram Boy," for every "Frost/Nixon" a "Democracy," for every "Red" an "Enron."
Even star casting, that fail-safe of every Broadway investor, has proved unreliable.
Jude Law propelled last fall's "Hamlet" transfer to the biggest weekly grosses yielded by Shakespeare on Broadway, but when Daniel Radcliffe doffed his "Harry Potter" cloak to frolic naked with horses in 2008's "Equus" revival, the excitement in New York never quite matched the production's sellout West End business.
Rave reviews often are not enough to pay for transatlantic passage.
The regal smackdown last season between Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter in "Mary Stuart" had critics swooning, as did Tony-winning revivals of Alan Ayckbourn's Chekhovian triptych "The Norman Conquests" and, the season before, J.C. Sherriff's World War I trench drama "Journey's End." Acclaimed as they were, none of those ventures recouped its New York investment.
"Some of it is just that X factor; we don't know why something might work there and not here," says Bob Boyett, who with Sonia Friedman, Arielle Tepper Madover and Bill Kenwright is among the most prolific producers trafficking in London-to-New York transfers. "Just as you think you've learned something, you'll be proved wrong. Or, we're human, and we make the same mistakes again."
Boyett has a long-standing first-look deal with Britain's National Theatre. That arrangement has yielded transfers that clicked ("History Boys," "The Pillowman") and others that failed to catch commercial fire ("The Seafarer," "Coram Boy").
"It's an art, not a science," says Tepper, who has spearheaded transfers through her first-look deal with London's Donmar Warehouse that include current-season Tony nominees "Hamlet" and "Red." "Bringing something in from London is a better bet than if the show has never been done, but it's certainly not a sure thing."
The quick crash and burn of "Enron" adds a fascinating chapter to the hit-and-miss transfer annals. A smash in the West End following its Chichester Festival and Royal Court runs, Lucy Prebble's chronicle of the rise and fall of the Texas energy giant arrived as the hot play of the season. But the temperature cooled the minute previews began.
Just two weeks after opening, with mixed reviews, negligible advance sales and a meager Tony-nom showing in secondary categories, the $3.6 million production shuttered. The outcry in the British media accused New York critics of being dim, audiences of being shallow.
But there are other reasons behind the play's brutal demise.
U.K. audiences love to gloat while witnessing American bad behavior. But for Americans busy ducking the fallout of a culture of corporate chicanery, that inescapable reality represents a deeply unsexy entertainment option, no matter how many bells and whistles were attached to Rupert Goold's flashy production.
"The want-to-see factor wasn't there," admits Jeffrey Richards, the lead among 38 above-the-title producers. "People were inundated with what was happening today with Goldman Sachs. There was a palpable resistance to this particular story, which reflected the beginning of so many collapses that we've endured. People were hurt by Enron, Madoff, Lehman Brothers, Goldman Sachs, Wall Street. Being reminded of that is not the way you want to spend your entertainment dollar.
"That was a wild card I had not anticipated because I felt it was so theatrical and so enthralling, I went along for the ride," he adds. "I guess I wasn't the smartest guy in the room, to paraphrase the play."
The fate of "Enron" might have been sealed by the fact that New Yorkers had surpassed the saturation point on tales of corporate greed run amok.
London audiences tend to have a greater appetite for theatrical exposes of political or big-business corruption than their American counterparts, which has led to discrepancies in the staying power of certain plays by David Hare and Caryl Churchill on opposite sides of the Atlantic. Michael Frayn's "Democracy" is another example.
"One big difference in America is that we have so many more talking heads and television analysts that we process things to death when they're happening," says Boyett, also an "Enron" investor.
Comedy is another significant divider. Broad and farcical traditionally go down easier with Brits than with Yanks, the hit "Boeing-Boeing" revival being a notable recent exception. However, many producers indicate more intellectual adventurousness among theatergoers in the U.K.
"It's a gross generalization, but English audiences in a lot of ways are more sophisticated," Boyett says. "Their experience of theater is greater, their introduction to it comes earlier, and it's also available on a more reasonable basis, both in terms of access and the cost of going. Young people in England grow up with a much greater exposure to the theater and a wider concept of what it is."
Irrespective of the expanding range of discounts available, Broadway is considered an elite entertainment. For many New Yorkers, it never enters the leisure-time equation because of the prohibitive price and perceived difficulty of obtaining tickets. While West End prices also have climbed steeply during recent years, Brit theater generally offers wider diversity of pricing structures.
"It's also a lot less expensive to put up a show in London, so the numbers work differently," says Tepper, who estimates the same show can cost two to three times as much in New York. "And it's not just one thing, it's every line item."
Boyett adds that when he began bringing in Brit imports 10 years ago, a New York production could be mounted for $900,000-$1 million. It's now tough to do a show of the same scale for less than $2.5 million-$3 million, while in London it might cost $1.2 million or less.
There also are issues with the timing of transfers, often dictated by availability of cast and creative team, or with the right New York real estate.
Such plays as "Frost/Nixon," the recent "The Seagull" and the current "Red," a two-hander by John Logan about abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, made the crossing directly after acclaimed London runs, capitalizing on that momentum.
"Mary Stuart" took more than three years to reach New York, which cost the play some of its deserved heat. It also wound up in an unusually competitive season for top-tier drama. "Coram Boy," on the other hand, traveled perhaps too quickly to Broadway. Boyett concedes that while London audiences were familiar with the young-adult novel on which the show was based, it was an unknown quantity in New York. The most expensive nonmusical ever staged on Broadway, the $6 million transfer might have benefited from more meticulous marketing to prepare American audiences for the hybrid musical-drama and for a brand of period melodrama with which Brit audiences are more conversant.
Tom Stoppard's "Rock 'n' Roll" simply might have been a victim of unlucky timing. The play was a buzzed-about hit in London and came to New York hot on those heels to strong reviews. It appeared on track to recoup, but 2007's 19-day stagehands strike halted momentum, which it never quite regained.
Such unforeseen glitches can wreak havoc on limited engagements of 12-20 weeks (often capped by tight Equity transfer agreements) in which the financial structure is mapped out carefully, with scant leeway for an off week.
"It really is just as complicated as producing other shows because it has its own set of issues that you have to deal with," Tepper says. "For all we know, the critics could come in and say they liked it in London but it doesn't really work here. And with a straight play, you need the press."
Although Boyett says the strategy is more about finding the right New York home for a transfer than cushioning financial risk, he has teamed with nonprofit companies including Roundabout on "The 39 Steps" and "Sunday in the Park With George," the latter of which sprang from another first-look deal with off-West End hit incubator the Menier Chocolate Factory.
He also pacted with Lincoln Center Theater on "The Coast of Utopia" and the upcoming "War Horse" and with Manhattan Theatre Club on next season's "The Pitmen Painters," a play from "Billy Elliot" writer Lee Hall. Whatever the motivation, the partnership brings a New York subscriber base to assist in the audience-building phase.
A massive hit at the National and now a long-running West End smash, "War Horse" would seem a good bet for Broadway, and LCT's vast Vivian Beaumont stage an ideal fit for a big spectacle with life-size equine puppets. It also has the cachet of being developed as a Steven Spielberg screen property. On the other hand, like "Coram Boy" it's a kid-lit adaptation, and like "Journey's End" it takes as its backdrop World War I, a historical conflict that resonates more with Brits than Americans.