Richard Jordan: Broadway, predictable? It’s taking more risks than the West End
Is Broadway currently more buoyant than the West End? It’s a question posed every year in the post-Tony Awards analysis. Though some Broadway pundits felt there was a predictability about the 2019 winners, I believe there is more risk taking happening on Broadway at the moment, particularly in relation to drama.
That’s not to say the West End is languishing – look at new works such as Misty, Nine Night and Emilia, which have all recently pushed commercial boundaries. However, there is often one intrinsic difference between the two marketplaces. In the West End, shows have frequently come up successfully through the subsidised sector and then transferred; on Broadway, a number are opening cold without a season or tryout.
For a show making the leap to Broadway after a successful subsidised and West End engagement, it’s not always as simple as transferring a ready-made show. When it opens on Broadway there are often significant changes to the cast. A set of rave reviews from a run elsewhere will give a show an advanced buzz, but a number of these productions will be playing much bigger theatres on Broadway and will quickly need to connect with a mainstream commercial audience to stand any chance of survival.
Past success in London will not a guarantee a hit in New York. Despite strong notices and a successful run at the National Theatre, Coram Boy’s 2007 transfer to Broadway lasted only a month. Three years later, Elling, which had excellent reviews for its Bush Theatre and West End runs, opened on Broadway recast with Brendan Fraser and Denis O’Hare and a new director in Doug Hughes, though the lead producers were the same. It played nine performances.
Most recently in this past season, King Lear with Glenda Jackson – who won last year’s best actress Tony for Three Tall Women – reprised her performance in the title role that had earned her raves reviews in 2016 at the Old Vic, although now in a new production directed by Sam Gold, got its Broadway run pulled early.
Producers’ decisions to open cold on Broadway, without first doing a not-for-profit run, are partly down to the lack of opportunity. The main stage of New York’s Lincoln Center – perhaps the closest equivalent to London’s subsidised National Theatre – has been occupied for more than a year with its revival of My Fair Lady. So, it’s often down to Broadway’s commercial producers to pick up the slack and take risks with challenging new works.
Take Tony-nominated Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus, a new play, and Broadway playwriting debut, by performance artist Taylor Mac. In the UK, such a play would have first appeared in one of the smaller subsidised houses. Mac would have been considered an unlikely candidate for a major West End opening without a run elsewhere first – even with Nathan Lane in the cast.
Gary is a marmite play and, as a concept, inherently uncommercial. It was a brave and commendable decision from its producers to open on Broadway without a prior run – one that reflects a growing economic confidence in Broadway.
When it comes to bold, challenging works Gary isn’t alone. A few doors down, Hillary and Clinton received its main-stage Broadway premiere starring Laurie Metcalf and John Lithgow.
This past season showed Broadway’s commercial producers are looking to support a new generation of main-stage writers and build their familiarity with a wider audience. This is still limited by opportunities, but as Broadway evolves it is looking to learn lessons from its glory days – when its commercial stages allowed audiences to discover some of America’s greatest playwrights.
What if this was the other way around with a New York to London transfer? Even a commercial Broadway hit may not find itself heading directly into the West End, but instead to one of our subsidised houses, possibly for a fixed season and maybe eventually from there to the West End.
This past season has seen a vibrant mix of ambitious commercial shows on Broadway, which have been able to sustain a foothold. I hope it will encourage commercial producers’ confidence to continue doing so.
Richard Jordan is a producer and regular columnist for The Stage. Read his latest column every Thursday at thestage.co.uk/author/richard-jordan
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