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Richard Jordan: Broadway’s season of homegrown new musicals is uninspiring, but are things worse in the West End?

Christiani Pitts in a scene from King Kong, due to open on Broadway next month Christiani Pitts in a scene from King Kong, due to open on Broadway next month
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If you are a canny independent producer with a new commercial musical up your sleeve, maybe this is the year to put it on. Broadway musical offerings this season seem unlikely to match past years, when shows such as Hamilton, Dear Evan Hansen, The Book of Mormon and Avenue Q proved to be ground-breaking critical and commercial hits. Meanwhile, over in the West End, this is the year of revivals and Broadway transfers.

The Broadway producers of Tootsie undoubtedly breathed a big sigh of relief when Moulin Rouge – after a successful try-out in Boston – delayed its Broadway premiere to next season. Its producers were already represented on Broadway this season by King Kong and therefore chose not to compete against themselves.

Nonetheless, had Moulin Rouge made the jump to Broadway, it may well have cleaned up at the Tony Awards against what, to date, does not feel a particularly interesting line-up of new musicals.

King Kong is no sure-fire hit. After running in Melbourne, where it received mixed reviews, ahead of the Broadway transfer several key members of the show’s creative team were cleared out – including director, choreographer and book writer – though they did keep the ape on… The show’s spectacle should make it a popular tourist ticket. But the lessons of another New York icon, Spider-Man, in his musical Turn off the Dark, should be well-heeded. That show frequently turned in impressive weekly grosses, but the enormous weekly break-even figure ultimately proved their undoing.

Of the season’s other new musicals, Beetlejuice is a familiar title, but actually how familiar to an audience in 2018? Try asking someone at random if they can tell you the story. The Prom is so far making little noise; Head Over Heels is desperately hanging on; Pretty Woman is selling tickets but received lacklustre reviews, and Gettin’ the Band Back Together has already disbanded. There’s at least some hope that The Temptations getting a reunion in Ain’t Too Proud and the Cher musical may work.

It’s therefore understandable that producers are looking in a different direction. More attractive is the prospect of new, smaller shows with strong artistic chops and manageable costs; shows that could quickly land on Broadway and snatch the big awards. It’s no surprise that the UK transfer Girl From The North County – now a hit Off-Broadway at New York’s Public Theater – and Anaïs Mitchell’s musical Hadestown are both hopping to head to the Great White Way before the Tony deadline.

Producers are looking in a different direction. More attractive is the prospect of new, smaller shows with strong artistic chops and manageable costs; shows that could quickly land on Broadway and snatch the big awards.

Hadestown, which began life at New York Theater Workshop, has already made a tactical manoeuvre of a stop en route at London’s National Theatre this December. That’s smart producing. If its limited UK season is well reviewed – and against a smaller number of new West End musicals this year that could lead to Olivier nominations – this will help gain it considerable attention on the other side of the Atlantic even before a Broadway transfer.

But longer term, if these two shows do make it onto Broadway, the next question is whether the runs would be sustainable. These are not necessarily musicals that guarantee the all-important repeat audience business needed for a long-running hit. That was once what made many musicals an attractive investment prospect. But we’re at a time in commercial theatre, and certainly on Broadway, where winning a Tony might have become as much of an incentive for today’s investor – who now wants to be credited as producer – as turning a profit.

Forbes recently reported that the multi-award-winning Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! grossed $126 million. Yet, after it claimed by the time of closure in August that its investors received a profit return of only 5% – one might fairly ask if a business even really exists any longer, or if we should start calling show investment “cash donations for prizes” instead?

Hello, Dolly! starring Bette Midler – review at Shubert Theatre, New York – ‘sumptuous’

Which brings us back to Tootsie. After its Chicago try-out earlier this month, theatre pundits declared it the Tony frontrunner. This feels too early to call, but is understandable when compared to many other musicals in this Broadway season.

However, catching an early Chicago preview, I am not convinced it’s the slam-dunk that many are claiming it to be. Having updated its setting from the original 1982 movie to today, it tries too hard to become the first post-#MeToo musical to afford lead character Michael (once he’s disguised as a woman) some killer lines about gender equality.

The intrinsic problem remains the same as the movie: despite a stellar lead performance by Santino Fontana you do not empathise with his character and can’t help but think of all the people he ultimately lets down and who get no redemption. This is a fault with the book, which by the adaptation’s end still leaves him coming across as being self-centred and unlikeable. It’s a similar problem with Max Von Horn, the musical’s fictional predatory director who, for all his unsavoury behaviour, does not nearly get the comeuppance he deserves. This all makes it particularly frustrating within a musical that wants to position itself as raising awareness of these urgent issues.

Of course, there’s time to fix things ahead of opening on Broadway. However, real care is needed that Tootsie does not become crippled by a weight of expectation as this season’s musical saviour. A show arriving that’s overhyped can be equally as challenging as the one that arrives with nothing seeking to be discovered. Nonetheless, for now, Broadway is holding its own in both producing and securing investment for its new home-grown musical product.

Should we be worried about the state of things in the UK? With all the Broadway transfers announced – and despite last year’s hit Everybody’s Talking About Jamie demonstrating a real audience hunger for well-made new British musicals – opportunities for British composers and lyricists on our West End Stages seem to have diminished in 2018.

This feels especially pertinent when considering that during our awards season there may be only two new British-made musicals nominated: Tina!, a compilation musical of the hits of Tina Turner, and, if it’s any good, an affectionate tribute to Only Fools and Horses, a sitcom which first hit our screens in 1981. This is troubling, especially when, even in a blander Broadway season for new musicals, the West End still seems to be left lagging behind.

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