Brits on Broadway

What makes British theater work in the U.S.?

Seth Numrich in War Horse

The first time Sonia Friedman saw Jerusalem, Jez Butterworth’s raucous comedy about a charismatic Wiltshire drug dealer fighting eviction from his caravan, the award-winning British theatre producer emerged from the Royal Court Theatre thinking that it could never get from Sloane Square to Broadway.

On Sunday, Friedman will be among the nominees at the Beacon Theatre in Manhattan, with the US incarnation of Jerusalem up for six Tony Awards, including best play and best actor in a play, for the barnstorming performance Mark Rylance brought over from London.

It took a text message from Sir Tom Stoppard to persuade Friedman, who is also behind The Book of Mormon (the charmingly obscene favourite for best musical), that she should take Jerusalem to America. “You cannot call yourself a producer if you don’t transfer this play,” he wrote. The goading worked and in April she and three US producers opened the play in New York to rave reviews. The powerful New York Times critic Ben Brantley described it as “rousingly accessible”.

Also nominated for best play (and tipped by critics as the favourite owing to its sheer commercial success) as well as four other Tonys are the equine puppets of War Horse, a National Theatre production based on Michael Morpurgo’s children’s novel about a thoroughbred called Joey, pressed into service during the first world war. Marianne Elliott, who co-directed War Horse and has just revived Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings at the National, also had qualms about bringing a London production to the US. “We were very unsure an American audience would get the whole southern England thing, the resonance of the first world war that is still so strong in England – and the love of a horse,” she admits: “I mean, how many horses do you see in New York?”

Regardless of how many medallions Jerusalem and War Horse collect on Sunday, Broadway expects to hear more British accents in future. In the past three years, British imports have given Friedman three best revival Tonys: the 1960s French farce Boeing Boeing (2008), Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests (2009) and the musical La Cage aux Folles (2010). Transfers of other British productions, such as Yasmina Reza’s star-studded comedy God of Carnage and the animated projections of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George have also done well commercially and critically in that period.

Behind these transatlantic transfers lies a complex drama of economic realities, international investment, entrepreneurial risk-taking and a radical new commercial approach from British theatre’s subsidised sector.

Broadway has seen British invasions before. A generation ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats and The Phantom of the Opera created a model for elaborate musicals such as The Lion King, where the original show’s budget is made back by subsequent replica stagings from Las Vegas to Tokyo. The current influx of London productions looks very different, but similar business imperatives are at work. In uncertain times, says Annette Niemtzow, who produced Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon on Broadway. “Everyone tries to find as many outlets as possible for what they have. You’re constantly measuring what kind of multiple you can create for the play. Can it become a movie? Will it do well in the regionals?”

With Broadway budgets starting at $2m for even simpler plays, and increased risks in building a production from scratch, US investors are favouring familiar big-brand musicals, or shows that have proved their popularity off-Broadway or, increasingly, in London. Though the traffic moves both ways (Friedman has said The Book of Mormon should open in London next year, and Jersey Boys and Wicked have made good money in the West End), far more travels from the UK to the US as London has a huge cost advantage over Broadway. When budgeting for a New York transfer, Friedman explains that she typically converts the British costs into dollars and then multiplies by three to account for higher theatre rents, bigger marketing budgets and tougher demands from unions. In Jerusalem’s case, the production that had taken £350,000-£400,000 (about $600,000) to mount in London cost $3.1m in New York. (That is modest compared with War Horse, which cost a reported $6m in New York.)

US and UK producers stress that British theatre attracts American attention for artistic as well as financial reasons. Arts Council subsidies allow theatres from the Royal Shakespeare Company to the National to test risky new material with few of the pressures felt by a commercial West End theatre that must survive on ticket sales alone. “That means you can experiment, be bold, even be allowed to fail sometimes,” says Elliott. “We look for the most interesting choices, not the safest. I can’t tell you how liberating that is.” Kate Horton, the Royal Court’s executive director, is clear about where her priorities lie: “We’re not here to produce hits. We’re here to push tastes forward,” she says. Such innovation is welcome in the US where, as Nick Starr, the National’s executive director, notes, the philanthropists who help finance productions at many smaller New York theatres may have more dyed-in-the-wool tastes. “Those donors, however brilliant they are in New York, tend to be lagging rather than leading indicators,” he says tactfully.

Many of Broadway’s recent British hits came from four London theatres, none of them in the commercial West End: the National (War Horse), the Royal Court (Jerusalem); the Donmar Warehouse (Hamlet, Red and Frost/Nixon) and Southwark’s 180-seat Menier Chocolate Factory (La Cage aux Folles, A Little Night Music and Sunday in the Park with George). The bonds between these institutions and New York’s theatre elite are getting tighter. The Donmar has a “first look” deal with Arielle Tepper Madover, a US producer who says she pays something “in the low six figures” for privileged access to productions such as Jude Law’s Hamlet. Madover opted to transfer the play even after it earned so-so reviews in London. “I connected to Jude’s performance and I felt strongly about it,” she says.

But a more profound change has been the decision of a generation of entrepreneurial managers in the subsidised sector to act more like their commercial peers and to take a leading role in bringing their shows to Broadway. Traditionally, subsidised theatres with a hit would hand it to a commercial producer for a royalty and a share of any profits when the play transferred to the West End or on to Broadway. Now, many are deciding to take the risk themselves, to stay involved both creatively and financially.

War Horse, which opened in London in 2007, has been the most successful production in the National’s history, making more than £2.5m a year, a significant level of profit for a subsidised theatre to earn from a show, according to Harbottle & Lewis, the entertainment law firm which advised on its New York transfer. When the Lincoln Center looked to bring the play to New York, the National decided for the first time to stay in as co-producer. Similarly, the Royal Court had never co-produced a Broadway transfer before Jerusalem, and in London is acting as lead producer for the first time on a transfer of Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning satire on race and class, from its Sloane Square theatre to the West End, raising 60 per cent of the budget from investors.

“Places like the National, the Royal Court and the Young Vic are thinking more and more like commercial producers, because we want to be in charge of our own destiny,” says Patrick McKenna, chairman of the Young Vic. Financial pressures are a spur, he says: “We also have to start thinking about how we’re going to create new funding sources as government grants start to slow down. We have to be less dependent on the state.”

Horton puts it another way, describing the Royal Court’s new business model as a way of figuratively repaying the state’s investment, keeping a share of the commercial profits of its hits to reinvest in future risky scripts. “The idea you have a non-profit mission doesn’t mean making money is a bad thing,” she says.

Though attitudes are changing, the chances of making money in theatre, a notoriously high-risk investment, are still slim. “They say only one in every 10 [plays] makes a proper recoupment. I think it’s probably one in every seven or eight these days,” says Friedman, who adds that she has made money on two-thirds of her plays. “The odds are stacked against you,” says Neil Adleman, head of theatre practice at Harbottle & Lewis, who reckons that less than half of all West End shows turn a profit. But when they do, they can provide significant, and rapid returns. “If you have a hit play, you can probably have your capital returned in 12 weeks, and, in the case of a smash hit, in another 12 weeks you could make a 50 per cent return,” he says.

London’s subsidised theatres display the same mix of greed and fear as any investor. The Royal Court limited its risk when it sent Jerusalem to Broadway. While it raised $500,000 towards the $3.1m production, the money is backstopped by other investors, giving it “no downside”, Horton says. The National similarly took up its rights to provide 30 per cent of War Horse’s New York budget but laid off most of it to investors who will hand half of any profits back to the theatre. Starr says it will take up its full rights to 37.5 per cent of a US tour due to start next year, and is thinking ahead to tours in Canada to Australia and to foreign language productions in Europe and Japan.

Friedman concedes that as subsidised theatres step up there will be less room for commercial producers but she claims this has an upside. “Either commercial producers will be frozen out or we have to up our game. I like the idea of upping our game.”

The biggest threat to this transatlantic production pipeline could come from Britain’s sluggish economy. West End attendances fell by 10 per cent and box-office revenues dropped by 6 per cent in the first quarter. “That’s a very dangerous set of numbers,” Niemtzow says. New York, by contrast, is booming, with box office grosses up 5.9 per cent in 2010 to a record $1.08bn.

With a 15 per cent cut to arts funding expected over the next three years, Friedman predicts that London’s subsidised stages, and the commercial theatres which increasingly depend on them, could start to see the impact. Kate Horton agrees. “Our ability to programme work on the scale of Jerusalem, Clybourne Park and Enron is called into question,” she says.

Nick Starr, for one, is wary of claiming that British theatre has hit upon a lasting new formula. “There is not a business model that says, ‘Have War Horse, exploit War Horse, repeat,’ ” he says: “War Horse might be one of those once in a generation things.”

Certainly the recipe for a successful transatlantic production appears as elusive as ever. Enron: The Musical, which first appeared at the Chichester Festival in summer 2009, opened at the Royal Court later that year at around the same time as Jerusalem, to huge success. Commercial producers who were wary of Jerusalem’s regional English accents thought that a dramatisation of a US financial scandal would be a hit within a subway ride of Wall Street. They were badly wrong. The show opened on Broadway in April 2010 but died in front of New York audiences, ending after just one month, losing a reported $4m.

Annette Niemtzow says: “When a show is doing well in one place, investors are hungry for the next round, but there is no guarantee that it will travel.” The mistake is to say, “It’s from London, we’ll just move it,” says Arielle Tepper Madover. Even when a transfer succeeds, it may be received very differently. English audiences saw Frost/Nixon, based on a series of televised interviews the former US president Richard Nixon gave to the British interviewer David Frost about the Watergate scandal and his failed administration in 1977, as a play about the triumph of Frost, but in New York theatregoers treated it as a play about Nixon. Frank Langella won a Tony in 2007 for his portrayal of the president, but Michael Sheen, who played the ambitious interviewer, “was not even nominated, because nobody cared about David Frost,” Niemtzow says: “We think we speak the same language but we don’t have the same sociolect, the same points of reference.”

Jerusalem has surprised many theatre veterans by overcoming this. “We kind of get what’s at stake in fighting with the district council, but I don’t think we really get it,” Niemtzow says: “What’s being appreciated is the quality of the language and the extraordinary performance by Mark Rylance.” Paul Blackman, a former artistic director of the Battersea Arts Centre who has worked in New York for the past decade, believes the fact New York audiences have embraced such a “dense, textured, overtly English” production, played in unfamiliar accents, is an encouraging sign for ambitious British and American productions alike.

Rylance is a familiar face on Broadway, which often helps an unfamiliar script, but, as Sonia Friedman admits: “That doesn’t necessarily mean that a brand new play about a bunch of merry Wiltshire guys is going to pay back its investment.” Asked whether Jerusalem, which has just extended its run by four weeks to August, will recoup, she says: “It’s well on its way.”

This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.