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Howard Sherman: Don’t knock transatlantic transfers – good theatre benefits us all

Jake Gyllenhaal in A Life at Public Theater, New York
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Two weeks ago, when considering a spate of closings and announcements of new productions on Broadway for this column, I intentionally made no distinction between US and UK productions. However, with so many shows announced, a fair amount of US social media chatter has been around what some see as a preponderance of UK shows opening here.

It is certainly possible to say that roughly a quarter of all the Broadway shows announced have at least one, if not both, feet planted in UK soil. But to those who wield this ‘fact’ to suggest US artists are getting short shrift, I say – with the appropriate eye roll – “Oh, please.”

Let’s dissect this, shall we?

The already-open Sea Wall/A Life are one-acts written by British authors and with a British director. One of the actors is English, the other American. The latter is part of the producing team. This production started at a US subsidised company. Should we calculate how much of this production is British?

My Name Is Lucy Barton premiered at the Bridge Theatre under Nicholas Hytner’s direction. But its sole actor, Laura Linney, and its author, Elizabeth Strout, are American.

My Name Is Lucy Barton starring Laura Linney – review at Bridge Theatre, London – ‘utterly riveting’

What about Betrayal, which opened last night? British cast, British author, British director – so the pedigree there is obvious. Yet The Height of the Storm, while in a British production, is by a French author. The author of The Lehman Trilogy is Italian.

Conor McPherson is Irish, The Girl from the North Country is set in the US, the show debuted at London’s Old Vic, and the score is by an indelibly American songwriter, Bob Dylan. There’s a mix for you.

Must I go on? I’ll just say that the other shows in this category would include Derren Brown: Secret, Tina, The Inheritance, A Christmas Carol, Six, Company, Caroline, Or Change and Dreamgirls

My position is that it isn’t worth keeping score in this way. After all, Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner, and Tom Eyen and Henry Krieger are all Americans and their shows coming to Broadway this season are rooted in American culture. Dreamgirls is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, an American.

OK, I’ll stop.

But the point is that claims about which nation is dominant in artistic work aren’t terribly productive. After all, there has been a reasonably free exchange of stage work between our countries dating back a century. This is driven in large part because we share a common language and there’s nothing more reassuring to a producer than a show that has already been well received elsewhere.

Perhaps, if someone was keeping score, we might find that the West End sees more US musicals, while Broadway brings in more UK plays. For now, we’ll leave it as anecdotal, because what value is there in actually running a tally, over five, 10 or 25 years?

At a time when both the US and the UK are facing political calls for nationalism, for limitations on immigration, on tighter borders to people and trade, the theatre community benefits no one by stoking divisions in the arts.

If British productions were actually preventing American productions from getting on to Broadway, and the other way around with the West End, then there might be a basis for rivalry and quantitative analysis. But just as producers may like transporting successful productions across the Atlantic, that’s no guarantee of success on the other side. After all, Enron was a big London hit that failed to ignite on Broadway. Years ago, Wit was a long-running Off-Broadway hit that didn’t catch on in the West End.

Look at the people calling for us to focus first on the needs of our respective countries alone, who see the spectre of what they define as globalism as something to be feared. Then look at the state that has put us in. Let’s stamp out provincialism, boosterism and protectionism. Let’s tell theatre fans to move past it. Let’s just hope that good theatre reaches across borders, let alone passport controls and walls, particularly because it sets the right example far beyond our venues.

As for the age-old debate over whether London or New York is the theatre capital of the world? It’s the epitome of asserting primacy where there need be none. I suggest you ask that of someone in the Chicago theatre community, to name one example. Trust me, the answer won’t be one of the choices you offered. Indeed, you might want to duck.

Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. Read his latest column every Friday at thestage.co.uk/author/howard_sherman/

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