VERY BITTERSWEET RE-READING IN 2021 ….
As the London production of HAMILTON goes on sale amid much fanfare, garnering extensive interest far beyond the usual circle of musical theatre enthusiasts, let’s take a look at some other recent or prospective transatlantic transfers.
Although it feels like they have been in the West End forever, The Lion King, Wicked and The Book Of Mormon all originated on Broadway -where they are still playing- as did more recent successful imports Beautiful, School Of Rock, Kinky Boots, Aladdin and Motown, while Jersey Boys is about to complete near enough decade-long runs on both sides of the Atlantic.
Not every show has fared as well as these however: Memphis won the 2010 Tony for Best Musical but struggled to fill the Shaftesbury for even a year despite excellent reviews and a much praised star turn from Beverley Knight.
The Drowsy Chaperone was even more of a disappointment, financially speaking. This quirky musical-within-a-musical had been an acclaimed hit on Broadway and arrived in London in 2007 with original star and co-creator Bob Martin as well as Queen of British Musical Theatre Elaine Paige, for once revealing her comedy chops as the permanently plastered title character. It had fabulous word-of-mouth, some terrific reviews…and it lasted two months. A notably lavish production, the show had clearly been expected to run -Lulu was reportedly lined up to take over as the chaperone after the first six months-, and in her book Memories, even Paige admits she had no idea why it failed.
Spring Awakening, an alt-rock take on the 1891 German expressionist drama about teen angst and suicide, was the talk of the 2006/7 Broadway season, winning eight Tony awards and launching many of its young cast, which included Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele, to stardom. In an usual move, the London production didn’t open in the West End but over at the Lyric Hammersmith for a limited run, where it proved a hot ticket. The London company included Aneurin Barnard and rising star Natasha J Barnes. The show transferred almost immediately to the West End’s Novello Theatre and folded after a mere two months. The advertising campaign may have been a contributory factor: the posters, featuring the enviously photogenic and attitude-y young cast, were everywhere but looked more like advertisements for a trendy vintage clothes shop than a stage musical. Plus the ticket prices in town may have been prohibitively high for the late teen crowd that would seem to be the core audience of this audacious, exciting piece. Even now when West End musical geeks talk about shows that didn’t make it, Spring Awakening is at the top of the list of “should-have-been hits”.
With Caroline, Or Change and Fela, the National hosted a pair of acclaimed New York musicals that probably wouldn’t have stood much of chance had they opened cold in the West End. The former had only actually lasted three months on Broadway despite an astonishing central performance by Tonya Pinkins -who reprised her role in London- as a disempowered black housemaid living through a time of seismic social and political change in 1960s America. Jeanine (Fun Home) Tesori’s eclectic score -with shades of blues, gospel, Motown, even Jewish klezmer music- is undeniably challenging, as was the spiky, politically potent book by Tony Kushner, whose Angels In America will be receiving a keenly anticipated all star revival at the National this spring. Intellectually and emotionally, Caroline, Or Change was very much an evening “on” -as opposed to a night off- but that didn’t stop it from winning the 2007 Olivier award for Best Musical, beating two other, rather more commercially obvious, Broadway imports in Avenue Q and Spamalot.
Fela was a rollicking, confrontational stage biography of Afrobeat pioneer and activist Fela Kuti that did such great business at the National for the winter of 2010/1 that it was brought back for a return season at Sadlers Wells the following year. As with Caroline, Or Change, the original Broadway star transferred with the production, and Sahr Ngaujah proved a force of nature as the eponymous Kuti.
In recent years, Once -based on the Irish indie film- enjoyed a decent London run to rival its New York success, while Legally Blonde was actually a bigger hit here than on Broadway, although that was undoubtedly much to do with the casting of audience favourite Sheridan Smith in the lead role of Elle Woods. On the other hand, Disney’s Newsies -a solid 2012 success in New York, based on a beloved but commercially disappointing live action film- was rumoured for a London outing that never materialised, even holding preliminary rounds of open auditions over here. Of course, it may still happen one day…after all, we were due to get Dreamgirls back in the early 80s when it was tearing up the Great White Way. That didn’t pan out at the time, but they’re sure here now.
Before the phenomenon that is Hamilton arrives here this Autumn, the Broadway stage adaptation of An American In Paris arrives at the Dominion in March. Featuring the work of classical choreographer Christopher Wheedon, and with New York City Ballet’s Robert Fairchild and the Royal Ballet’s Leanne Cope reprising their Broadway performances in the roles immortalised on film by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, it will be interesting to see how Londoners take to this effortlessly classy, Gershwin-scored show. Such a dance-heavy, sophisticated piece would undoubtedly have sold out at, say, Sadlers Wells or the Peacock for a limited season, but the producers have taken the bold step of attempting to fill one of the largest houses in the West End for an open-ended run.
The casting process is just getting underway for the London production of Waitress, the Sara Bareilles musicalisation of an indie film about, guess what, a waitress trapped in a loveless marriage and a dead end job in a small town American diner. A solid success in New York, the show boasts a lovely, if not especially dynamic, score, a demanding central role -taken originally by Jessie Mueller who won a Tony for her Carole King in the Broadway staging of Beautiful- and a timely theme of female empowerment.
The two musicals which have received the most buzz so far in this Broadway season, and are consequently selling out on a regular basis, are Dear Evan Hansen and Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812. Both would seem likely candidates for a London transfer in the not-too-distant future: The Great Comet is a wildly imaginative, highly eccentric “electropop opera” based on a tiny section of War And Peace, for which the entire Imperial Theatre has been cleverly -and expensively- turned into a lavish pre-revolution Russian supper club with performance platforms and walkways all over the house, and huge swathes of audience onstage. It’s an exhilarating, slightly crazy immersive experience unlike anything else in the musical theatre canon, and a good fit for somewhere like the National in a future season.
Dear Evan Hansen is the biggest news of the current season -although there are still months to go before the Tony cut-off date- and is a very hot ticket indeed. Featuring a universally acclaimed central performance by Ben Platt, best known for the Pitch Perfect movie series, it’s a boldly contemporary, deeply moving look at adolescence, parenting, social media, bullying and the need to fit in. Often as hilarious as it is heartrending, the musical has a score by up-and-coming songwriting team Pasek and Paul, whose work is currently being heard in cinemas worldwide in the award-winning La La Land. Audiences and critics alike have embraced the show and Cameron Mackintosh is rumoured to be looking at it which means it could be on this side of the pond sooner rather than later. The staging is high-tech but not huge so it would be an excellent fit for the Noel Coward or the Gielgud.
It’s not entirely a one-way street of course: Matilda and Billy Elliot enjoyed hugely successful Broadway runs, and later this season Tim Minchin’s musical version of Groundhog Day -a complete sell out at the Old Vic last summer- arrives in New York, with the same leading man, Andy Karl, and British production team led by Matthew Warchus. Broadway will also see Charlie & The Chocolate Factory shortly, albeit in a drastically revised version from the one that just closed at Drury Lane.
Hamilton of course is the biggest news of all, and the ticket pre-sale is now on. The show already has a vociferous local fan base here, and there is additional demand for seats from the US as wealthy Americans realise that they have a better shot -pun intended- at getting tickets to the London production than either the New York or Chicago versions which are booked solid months in advance. A similar thing happened when the West End productions of Rent, Wicked and The Book Of Mormon went on sale, but Hamilton is more of a cultural juggernaut than any of those, and additionally the weak pound makes visiting London more appealing than ever. Unlike Lin-Manuel Miranda’s much loved other success, In The Heights which just concluded an extended run at Kings Cross in a smaller scale British production, Hamilton is arriving here in a replica of Thomas Kail’s magnificent, multi-award winning Broadway staging. By Autumn 2017 everybody will “want to be in the room where it happens.” Good luck with getting tickets!
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