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Mark Shenton: Broadway basks in British plays, blockbusters and The Band’s Visit

A scene from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway. Photo: Manuel Harlan A scene from Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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It’s that time of year when Broadway’s critics are at their busiest (and, some might say, their most cranky). On consecutive nights, five shows are premiering in a row, starting this Sunday.

They are all doing so in a last-minute rush to be eligible for this year’s Tony Awards, nominations for which will be announced on May 1, before the gongs themselves are presented on June 10. Between mid-March and April 26, there have been 15 openings – with the preceding 10-and-a-half months yielding only 18 more openings between them.

That’s a seriously unbalanced timetable. But then it has been a seriously unbalanced season. The total tally of 33 openings includes four one-person shows, respectively featuring Michael Moore, Bruce Springsteen, John Leguizamo and John Lithgow, and two limited-season pop compilation shows: Home for the Holidays and Rocktopia.

The slate also features 17 plays, six that originated in London – the new plays 1984, The Children, Farinelli and the King and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, plus revivals of Angels in America and Travesties from the National and Menier respectively – and 10 musicals (three jukebox shows, four new, and three revivals). That’s considerably down on last year’s 45 new productions.

But if fewer shows are opening, that’s partly a sign of success. Broadway theatres have become increasingly gridlocked by successful shows with no signs of departing anytime soon.

Mark Shenton’s week: It’s Groundhog Day on Broadway as British imports pile up

At least two of this year’s new entries are likely to exacerbate this situation. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, even before the critics weigh in this Sunday, is breaking all house records at the Lyric Theatre on West 43rd Street, which has been entirely rebuilt to accommodate it.

As Variety reported: “Well, that didn’t take long. In only its third week of previews, Harry Potter has set a new record – by a wide margin – for the highest single-week gross reported by a non-musical in Broadway history,” topping $2 million in sales across eight performances.

Ditto Disney’s Frozen, which opened last month at the St James, set a house record there, grossing $2.3 million in the same week. Expect these figures to rise as the sale of more premium-priced tickets kicks in. Broadway’s cut-throat feast-or-famine economy means many of its other new shows will be left fighting for their slice of the pie.

Still, Broadway’s producers are proving remarkably proactive in giving audiences not just what they want but also what they didn’t know they wanted: hence the surprise hit of the year, The Band’s Visit. This transfer from Atlantic Theater is a quietly unassuming wonder of a folk musical that now looks like it will be one to beat for this year’s Tony for best musical, just as Once was in 2012. Genuinely original musicals such as this are the lifeblood of Broadway, constantly renewing it with unexpected delights.

But the joy of Frozen is that it delivers an expected delight in unexpected ways. Just as Disney reinvented the animated-movie-to-musical with its theatrically charged version of The Lion King (now the single most lucrative entertainment of all time, outgrossing Star Wars), it has given Frozen a spectacular musical makeover from the British director/designer team of Michael Grandage and Christopher Oram that honours the film while expanding it into three dimensions with great integrity.

Read our interview with Christopher Oram

Broadway is also very good at honouring its past, as this year’s exhilarating revivals of two of its greatest shows, Carousel and My Fair Lady, prove. It could be that they may split the classic musical audience by going head-to-head, but I hope they are both embraced equally.

Any Broadway season that can feature shows this good is doing something right. Just as the West End has played no small part in upping Broadway’s dramatic ante this year, with transfers from the Shakespeare’s Globe, Royal Court, Menier Chocolate Factory and National, not to mention Harry Potter, so Broadway regularly returns to the debt to London.

That’s led by Hamilton, with the coming months bringing us Fun Home (2015 Tony winner for best musical), opening at the Young Vic in June and Lincoln Center’s The King and I (2015 Tony winner for best musical revival), at the London Palladium in July.

As The Stage’s New York critic, I’m proud to be part of being able to celebrate, witness and report on this transatlantic traffic first-hand. I’ll be back there this summer for another trio of new musicals opening there in July and August.

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