The new Broadway season is about to start, and it's likely some of this year's biggest hits -- or biggest flops -- will be from London. Trying out shows before they hit Broadway goes back a long way, and the West End is an ideal backdrop for fostering new productions.
Before all those great plays by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams or comedies by Neil Simon made it to Broadway, they tried out in front of paying audiences in New Haven, Conn., or Boston or Philadelphia.
"A producer would read a script and say, 'OK, I'm going to produce this play,' and they would put together the company and they would take it on the road," says Jeremy Gerard, theater reporter and critic for Bloomberg News. "That's where they worked out the kinks."
It was a costly and risky method to develop plays, and decades ago, producers abandoned it. Instead, they started looking at regional theaters and off-Broadway and, most especially, London.
"There's always been a pipeline, I think, with plays coming to New York from London," Gerard says. "Producers believe that American theatergoers love British accents -- even if they're replaced with American casts."
This year will be no exception. In short order, several British imports will be landing on this side of the Atlantic: The Pitmen Painters, Brief Encounter and, in a particularly risky commercial gamble, La Bete, a short-lived Broadway flop from the 1990s. It's set in 17th century France, written in rhyming couplets, and stars Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce in a pair of juicy comic roles.
Flopping In London: A Shorter Way To Fall
Sonia Friedman has produced plays on both sides of the Atlantic and is the lead producer on La Bete. She says there's a reason London is such a fertile proving ground for plays. There's a loyal theater-going audience, and ticket prices are affordable. Most important, it costs about a third as much to mount a play over there as on Broadway.
"An average-sized play that will run in London for, say, 14, 16 weeks, would normally cost between 350,000 and 500,000 pounds sterling," she says. "That very same production, if you were to mount it on Broadway, would probably cost between $2.5 million and $3.5 million."
Weekly running costs are three to four times more expensive in New York. Friedman attributes much of the difference to labor, but there are other factors. To lure Broadway audiences to spend $125 a ticket, you've got to pay a lot for advertising.
"Just a simple commercial TV ad in New York is three times the amount of my marketing budget for the whole of the London run," she says.
International Herald Tribune critic Matt Wolf -- an American who's lived in London for 26 years -- says lower production costs in the West End lead to more experimentation, but there's a reason producers want to take the leap to Broadway.
"You often hear people saying, if they have a London hit, they'll often say, 'Gosh, I wish that had been a Broadway hit,' because that rare time out in New York, when you absolutely go hell-for-leather with a production and it pays back, you can make proper money," Wolf says. "[In] London, you don't lose as much, but you also don't earn as much."
Success Is Still No Guarantee
That financial incentive has led Friedman to try something new with La Bete.
"I put together something that's never been done before, which is sort of a global capitalization, global budget for both West End and Broadway," she says. "We thought, why wait? Given that, if this was going to be a success -- and you always set out on a show assuming it will be -- we would be transferring it to Broadway, so let's just make the decision to do it and to do it all as one and not wait to read the reviews."
La Bete's London run has sold out -- despite mixed reviews -- and the Broadway run begins Sept. 23 with some money already in the bank. Friedman's not the only innovator; a couple of American producers have developed first-look relationships with some of London's most prestigious nonprofit institutions. Bob Boyett's deal is with the National Theatre.
"I provide them with a sum of money on an annual basis, and that money is used however they wish for development of new products," he says. "And, in return for that, I have an option to transfer the productions from the National here to New York and to North America."
Sometimes, Boyett's arrangement with the National has been wildly successful -- his transfer of The History Boys in 2006 mopped up at the Tony Awards -- but the next year, Coram Boy was a 30-performance disaster. Success in London does not necessarily ensure success in New York, Wolf says.
"Last season, there was a multimillion dollar flop with Enron, which had been a great success in London," he points out. "I don't think that anyone guessed that it would fail in New York quite so quickly. It only lasted a couple of weeks."
Boyett lost money on Enron, too. This season, he's bringing two shows over from the National. One of them is The Pitmen Painters, a London hit based on a real story of miners in northern England who became celebrated artists.
"It was a fascinating concept for men that are in the dark all day long, working in mines, how they saw the outside world; the way they saw color, the way they saw contrast," Boyett says.
Whether or not The Pitmen Painters is lost in translation on Broadway remains to be seen. But Boyett doesn't see the London pipeline shutting down anytime soon.
"You're just in an atmosphere where you can develop without as great a risk," he says. "And, you can take more chances." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.