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Mark Shenton: West End’s love affair with Broadway is a marriage of equals

Curtain Up runs from February 9 to August 31 at the Victoria and Albert Museum Curtain Up runs from February 9 to August 31 at the Victoria and Albert Museum
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Hand to God has just begun previews in the West End prior to an official opening on February 15 with an all-new British cast, after closing on Broadway last month, while the Young Vic’s A View from the Bridge transferred the other way to Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, where it runs to February 21 with most of its original London cast reprising their performances there.

Next up from Broadway is the arrival of Disney’s Aladdin, still running at Broadway’s New Amsterdam; while American Psycho that originated at London’s Almeida has just gone into rehearsal for a Broadway production that will begin performances on Broadway on March 24, prior to an official opening on April 20, directed by Almeida artistic director Rupert Goold, whose Almeida production of King Charles III has also just finished a Broadway run.

The traffic is most definitely two-way between the two world capitals of English speaking theatre; as of today, and excluding the aforementioned current or imminent transfers, there are 10 titles playing simultaneously in both cities – Broadway hits Beautiful, The Book of Mormon, Jersey Boys, Kinky Boots, The Lion King and Wicked have all established West End residencies, while Broadway has the inevitable The Phantom of the Opera (its longest-running show of all time), the two RSC-originated shows Les Miserables and Matilda the Musical and the NT-originated The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

This week a brand-new exhibition has opened at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, running to August 31 and then transferring to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Centre from October 19, continuing that tradition of sharing the best with both worlds.

Presented in partnership with the Society of London Theatre as part of its year-long programme of activity to mark this year’s 40th anniversary of the Olivier Awards, it shows just how crucial each city is to the other from a theatrical point of view; the very first Olivier for best musical in 1976 went to the import of A Chorus Line, while last year’s winner of the Tony Award for best new play was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which took the Olivier in the same category in 2013 after it first opened at the National.

Both shows are vividly represented in the exhibition: A Chorus Line by a display of some of the original hats and ballet barre located down a mirrored corridor, just like a dance studio, while Curious Incident provides the exhibition’s coup de theatre that it would be a spoiler to reveal.

Between those two bookends, there’s also costumes (from The Lion King and The Producers to Helen Mirren’s regal dress as Her Majesty the Queen for The Audience), set models (including for Matilda, and a triple bill of shows first seen at the National, Arcadia, An Inspector Calls and Carousel, before transferring to Broadway), and production posters, programmes and other memorabilia.

Among the latter is Penelope Keith’s original award from the first London awards ceremony in 1976, won for comedy performance of the year for her appearance in Michael Frayn’s Donkey’s Years, and resembles a Grecian urn that might come in use posthumously as somewhere to store one’s ashes in. In a bizarre anomaly, Keith was also nominated in the same year for the same performance in the actress of the year in a new play, losing that one to Peggy Ashcroft for a play at the RSC. The comedy performance category has long gone, but overall the Olivier Awards, as they are now called, have expanded dramatically from 12 categories originally to 27 today.

I was riveted by a display on the original production of Evita which included a private letter, sent by director Hal Prince after his first hearing of the score, to Andrew Lloyd Webber (and Tim Rice, added as an afterthought in brackets), saying he did not like the reference to Lauren Bacall in the song Rainbow High: “I’m their saviour, that’s what they call me/ So Lauren Bacall me, anything goes.” Here’s a clear case of a director who wasn’t listened to, since that reference remains in the show to this day. Intriguingly, too, the production budget summaries for both the West End and Broadway productions are shown side by side: the original 1978 London production was budgeted at £481,823; whereas the Broadway transfer a year later was budgeted at $1.561m.

That demonstrates in black and white just how much more expensive a show routinely is to put on Broadway, a fact that remains to this day, than in the West End. The exhibition also highlights other differences, large and small; we have 52 houses that are designated as belonging to the West End, against Broadway’s 42; 13 million people attended Broadway shows in 2014, against 14.5 million in the West End. Broadway audiences get programmes (called playbills) for free; but they don’t have a tradition of selling ice-creams in the interval there.

As someone who has a foot, so to speak, in both London and New York with a home in each city, I love them both. This exhibition confirms how valuable each is to the other. But even more jolting was to hear the V&A theatre collection’s director Geoffrey Marsh tell how 13 Covent Garden theatres were nearly lost during the 80s when a plan was devised to run a new highway through the heart of the area; luckily that never came to pass but the West End has undergone instead an unparalleled renaissance (though some theatres could still do with improvement). Broadway, too, is a very different place to the slightly sleazy, downtrodden one I first visited as an undergraduate in 1983; the area has been transformed into a giant tourist friendly playground. The theatre has played its own part in that resurgence – and long may it continue.

Read our interview with the exhibition’s curator Tom Piper
Read our archive feature about the exhibition