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How to transfer a hit UK show to New York, America’s theatre capital

From two-handers spawned above London pubs and subsidised productions to West End commercial hits, there are many different routes a show can take to extend its life for a US audience. Mark Shenton investigates

The punchline of an old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall is: “Practise!” But how do you get a theatre show from the UK to New York?

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child [1], which crossed the Atlantic earlier this year, recently set the record for the highest-grossing week of any play in Broadway history, taking $2.34 million for the week ending November 25 at the Lyric Theatre. And, while the holy grail of a US transfer is often imagined to be Broadway, there are actually plenty of possible routes and destinations.

It was another London producer – James Seabright – who first took Harry Potter to New York with Potted Potter [2]– a cheeky two-man homage that played at Off-Broadway’s Little Shubert Theatre in 2012 – coincidently on the same street (but a couple of blocks down) from Cursed Child’s Broadway home.

Seabright has also recently transferred the Islington King’s Head version of Trainspotting Live [3] to a site-specific space in New York. Both shows undertook very different journeys to the US city, but, he says: “They had in common the desire to see how these successful UK productions might work for American audiences, which was happily shared by incredibly proactive co-producers who were not afraid to take risks.”

He explains: “Trainspotting was seen by New York-based producer Scott Griffin during its Edinburgh run last year. Having loved the show, he spent a lot of time finding the perfect space to convert into a grim 1980s Edinburgh heroin den, landing on a studio theatre on 8th Avenue. It has been transformed into an immersive performance space where we are co-producing the show.” The production is now in the 20th week of its run, so it is about to overtake the combined duration of its two seasons at The Vaults in London.

The cast of The Ferryman at Bernard B Jacobs Theatre, New York. Photo: Joan Marcus

Broadway does comes laden with extra prestige. Productions can win Tony Awards there, and investors who want to share in that cultural glory will be more eager to invest. Sometimes, it is a no-brainer: Jez Butterworth’s multiple award-winning play The Ferryman [4] recently transferred from the West End to Broadway’s Bernard B Jacobs Theatre and has recently announced a 20-week extension to its planned run, booking up to July 7, 2019. That’s rare in a town where most plays are now booked for 12-14 weeks only.

The Ferryman is joined this week by a transfer of the National Theatre’s production of Network to the Cort Theatre, opening on December 6, with Bryan Cranston reprising his award-winning performance.

Notably, the careers of the British producers on both The Ferryman and Network (Sonia Friedman and Caro Newling for The Ferryman, and a consortium of producers on Network, which include English actor turned film-maker and producer Patrick Myles, Soho Theatre’s resident producer David Luff, and Ros Povey, who helped develop it in the first place) were all nurtured in subsidised theatres. As much as Broadway is an aggressively commercial environment, many of its biggest play successes owe their lives to public subsidy in the UK.

Mark Shenton: What qualities make a producer stand out? [5]

Some shows end up on Broadway by a more circuitous route. Mischief Theatre’s The Play That Goes Wrong [6] began its life above an Islington pub in 2012. It’s become Broadway’s longest-running comedy. The challenge of taking it to New York was, first of all, the exponentially higher cost of producing there. Kenny Wax, who led its West End transfer, says that it was capitalised at £250,000 for the Duchess, but he in fact spent only £200,000. The Broadway budget, by contrast, was $4 million. This means raising money from more people who get billed as producers: “We have 17 producers. I’ve met 14 of them,” he says. “In London, it was just me and Mark Bentley.”

A scene from The Play That Goes Wrong. Photo: Alastair Muir

Wax says taking the show to New York was helped by two factors: winning an Olivier award (“It didn’t make much difference in London, but it was an endorsement of the show for New York audiences”) and probably even more significantly, getting New York Times’ chief critic Ben Brantley’s approval when he saw it in London. True to the cheekiness of the show, the actors tried to bribe him with a $5 bill, which he duly mentioned in his review. The Play That Goes Wrong is an example of a show organically growing into a Broadway production. But other producers aim for Broadway all along.

When Groundhog Day played a short season at the Old Vic in the summer of 2016, it was specifically a try-out for Broadway, and bypassed a commercial transfer to the West End. Executive producer Andre Ptaszynski says they were nervous of delaying its move to New York: “It was such an American show from such an iconic American film, we knew that taking it to Broadway after winning an award or two and running a year in the West End wouldn’t go down well there.” He also points out that not only is the profit potential so much higher in the US, but there are also the touring possibilities. He adds: “In Britain, you have a touring circuit between nine and 20 theatres – depending on how big your show is – of really good dates. America has 200 markets.” Unfortunately, in the case of Groundhog Day [7], the gamble didn’t pay off – the show didn’t take off and closed quickly, losing most of its $17.5million capitalisation.

Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada in Hadestown at National Theatre, London. Photo: Helen Maybanks

Right now Hadestown [8] is following a similar trajectory: it is being staged at the National Theatre ahead of a Broadway transfer in 2019. It has been in development for five years and has had previous outings at Off-Broadway’s New York Theatre Workshop and at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre. At every stage, changes have been made – director Rachel Chavkin told the Guardian. “There’s a pathological hunger for improvement.” More changes are anticipated before it finally reaches Broadway, with Chavkin saying: “The work is so fucking far from being done. I would only ever say that if I thought the work was extraordinary. It’s not worth revising crap, you know?” So London – even the National Theatre – is sometimes simply a staging post en route to Broadway.

Read our interview with Hadestown star Patrick Page [9]

Then, there are the shows that, because of their staging demands or other artistic considerations, forgo a Broadway transfer and find another route to get to New York.

Good Chance Theatre’s The Jungle (which triumphantly moved from the Young Vic to the West End’s Playhouse) transfers this week to Brooklyn’s St Ann’s Warehouse, where the National’s People, Places and Things [10] also moved in 2017. Yerma [11] – another Young Vic originated show – transferred earlier this year to Park Avenue Armory.

For David Lan, former artistic director of the Young Vic, who has overseen the transfers to New York of around 10 shows from his tenure, “it’s about matching the show to the venue”. He adds: “If you have a success in London, it’s usually because you’ve managed to bring the right elements together, and you’ve got to put in the work to be sure you’re not compromising it. Whether you recreate it in a Broadway house, at St Ann’s or at Brooklyn Academy of Music, you want to be presenting it to an audience who are seeing it for the first time as strongly and authentically as when it was first produced.”

Ben Turner and Jonathan Nyati in The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Ben Turner and Jonathan Nyati in The Jungle at the Playhouse Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

But New York transfers are not just the prerogative of the big players like Sonia Friedman, the National or the Young Vic – smaller companies also have an annual chance to showcase their work in New York through the annual Brits Off-Broadway season at 59E59 Theaters. Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph regularly sends its latest Alan Ayckbourn there and earlier this year David Byrne – artistic director of the progressive New Diorama Theatre [12] – took his production of Secret Life of Humans [13] there. How did it come about? “They approached us!”, says Byrne. “They bring a programming team to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and do a lot of scouting – we were not even aware they’d seen it and then they emailed us to discuss it.”

Read our interview with New Diorama’s David Byrne [12]

The venue offered what he calls “a very heavily subsidised deal”, covering theatre rental at a hugely reduced rate and providing marketing and administrative support for working visas. However, the New Diorama still had to raise around £100,000 to transport the set and to pay and accommodate the actors during the run. But it paid off – not just literally in recouping those expenses, but in terms of raising the company’s profile (getting a review in the New York Times) and forging new transatlantic contacts and relationships.

The New Diorama supports a lot of emerging companies, and appearing in New York is now another opportunity it can help broker for them. “We had such a good time doing it,” he adds. “There is nowhere like it for making work.”

The Jungle is at St Ann’s Warehouse, New York [14], until January 27. Hadestown is at the National Theatre, London [15], until January 26