Tony Awards 2015: 'Curious Incident' Continues Love Affair Between Broadway and Britain's National Theatre

Curious Incident Alex Sharp H 2015
Joan Marcus

Curious Incident Alex Sharp H 2015

New York is fertile terrain for London stage imports, and the best play win for the hit drama marks the fourth victory in that category since 2000 for an NT production, out of a total 49 Tonys dating back to 1968.

It's no secret that the Broadway community is packed to the gills with Anglophiles. This year's Tony Awards race offers further proof with the strong presence of such London transfers as Skylight, The Audience, Wolf Hall Parts One & Two and, most notably, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

The five wins for that latter drama — adapted by Simon Stephens from the best-selling novel by Mark Haddon — include best play, direction (Marianne Elliott), lead actor (Alex Sharp), scenic design (Bunny Christie and Finn Ross) and lighting (Paule Constable). They represent a continuation of the long-running transatlantic love affair between Broadway and the National Theatre of Great Britain.

"New York City, you have been quite, quite exceptional," said playwright Stephens, accepting the big prize.

Since the production opened on Oct. 15 to rapturous reviews, it has gone on to become one of the major hits of the 2014-15 season; it landed on the year-end top 10 lists of several major publications, including The Hollywood Reporter, and has grossed more than $30 million to date, recouping its initial $4.75 million investment a little over three months into the run.

The play is a pressure-cooker domestic drama that doubles as a detective story, about a 15-year-old boy with behavioral difficulties who sets out to solve the mystery of a neighbor's dead dog and discovers the truth behind unanswered questions about his absent mother.

The best play win for Curious Incident marks the seventh time that an NT production has taken that honor, and the fourth since 2000, underscoring the vital role that the British government-subsidized arts institution plays in the development of bold new work.

"It's been a great source of pride for the National to have the company's work seen in North America over the years," the National's U.S.-based producer Tim Levy tells The Hollywood Reporter. "The American theatrical community has been so welcoming and supportive of our work, which has meant a great deal to us."

"A great advantage of having our work playing in the U.S., overseen by Tim in our NT America office, is that it allows us to meaningfully engage year-round with the extraordinary theater-makers working in New York and around the country," adds Rufus Norris, who stepped into the role of NT director this year, following in the footsteps of Laurence Olivier, Peter Hall, Trevor Nunn, Richard Eyre and Nicholas Hytner

The National first won the best play Tony in 1968 for Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. It followed in 1980 with Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus and in 1990 with Frank Galati's adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, co-produced with Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

A decade later in 2000, the National production of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen won best play, followed by Alan Bennett's The History Boys in 2006 and Nick Stafford's War Horse in 2011, which also scored co-director Elliott her first Tony.

Including this year's Curious Incident haul, NT productions have won 49 Tonys across various categories, including acting prizes for James Corden in One Man, Two Guvnors (2012), Richard Griffiths in The History Boys (2006), Judi Dench in Amy's View (1999), Audra McDonald in Carousel (1994) and Ian McKellen in Amadeus (1981). The company also won revival Tonys in 1994 for Carousel and in 1995 for An Inspector Calls, which garnered directing honors, respectively, for Hytner and Stephen Daldry.

While some American theater industryites tend to grumble about the British colonization of Broadway and the Anglo domination of its biggest annual awards night, it's hard to argue with the commercial and critical success of so many English imports. Over the past four decades, NT productions alone have generated an astonishing 77 Tony nominations.

Perhaps sensitive to perceptions of disproportionate Brit-love on Broadway, Levy underlines the unique contribution that American actors make to NT transfers like Curious Incident, talking up the remarkable U.S. acting talent pool, while Norris also points out that the exchange is a two-way street. The new NT director is currently working with American playwrights Stephen Adly Guirgis and Wallace Shawn on upcoming productions, and hopes to do more collaborations with American artists and theater companies in the coming years.

In addition to the National, several other key Brit companies have also contributed to keep the Union Jack flying high on Broadway.

Represented this year with costume design winner Wolf Hall, the Royal Shakespeare Company has found formidable Stateside success throughout its 54-year history, nowhere more so than with the blockbuster Les Miserables, which ran for 16 years in its original 1987 transfer, grossing a massive $406 million, not counting return engagements. Other notable hits have included Marat/Sade, The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Les Liaisons Dangereuses and 2013's Matilda, which is still going strong on Broadway, with grosses approaching $127 million.

Though London's Donmar Warehouse is a considerably younger institution, operating since 1977, the company has also racked up significant successes in New York over the years, including producing the original incarnation of the Roundabout Theatre Company's smash Cabaret revival, starring this year's Tony Awards co-host Alan Cumming.

Other Donmar transfers have included The Blue Room with Nicole Kidman; the Tony-winning 2000 revival of Stoppard's The Real Thing, starring Stephen Dillane and Jennifer Ehle; 2003 best play winner Take Me Out (co-produced with New York's Public Theater); Frost/Nixon, with Frank Langella and Michael Sheen; Mary Stuart, with Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter; Hamlet, with Jude Law and Gugu Mbatha-Raw; and John Logan's Red, which scored Tony wins for best play, director Michael Grandage and featured actor Eddie Redmayne.

The transatlantic flow of Tony contenders will continue in the 2015-16 season, starting in the fall with the arrival of the commercially produced West End hit King Charles III and The Color Purple, a scaled-down reworking of the 2005 Broadway musical from director John Doyle and the Menier Chocolate Factory. That small but creatively enterprising London venue has steered well-received revivals of Sunday in the Park With George, A Little Night Music and La Cage aux Folles to New York in recent years.

Also notable, the Dec. 6 opening at the Winter Garden Theatre of School of Rock — The Musical heralds the return to Broadway of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Really Useful Group, which along with fellow Brit theater heavyweight Cameron Mackintosh, revolutionized the concept of the global stage blockbuster with a string of smash hits that has included Jesus Christ Superstar, Cats, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera. The latter show is now in its 28th year on Broadway, while Lloyd Webber's company is expected to announce a transfer soon of this year's London revival of Cats, which ran for 18 years in New York its first time around.

Of course, Curious Incident can't compare with those commercial juggernauts, or probably even with its National Theatre stablemate War Horse, which grossed a whopping $75 million in its two-year Broadway run. But Stephens' play nonetheless exemplifies a type of British import that has become a successful staple of every Broadway season and every Tony ceremony — smart, sophisticated entertainment that straddles the divide between snob hit and popular success.

The tidy handful of 2015 Tonys appears sure to add new commercial vigor to the play's open-ended run at Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theatre, where business has rarely dipped below a healthy 85 percent capacity. The wins will also add marketing luster when the production embarks on its North American tour, scheduled to launch in Oct. 2016.