Watching musicals The Prince of Egypt and Pretty Woman over the last week, one incontrovertible fact was underlined: for the entertainment industry, a known quantity is the stuff of life. That, at least, is the plan…
Compare those West End arrivals, about which more anon, with the announcement of the early closure of the Broadway transfer of The Inheritance.
In London, the theatrical two-parter by Matthew Lopez, a playwright unknown to UK audiences, was an unquestioned hit, yielding (mostly) rhapsodic reviews and selling out its Young Vic debut before moving to the West End for a much-lauded run that scooped shelf loads of awards.
A New York transfer seemed, to industry outsiders, inevitable. But the producers who clubbed together to do it – 47 of them – took a huge risk and not only because, generally speaking, Broadway costs are four times higher than London ones. Thus the seven hours/two evenings of drama with 22 actors (including children and silent ensemble) pushed the Broadway budget to a reported $9.5 million.
In London, its shock of the new was mitigated by casting Vanessa Redgrave and the fact it was a re-imagining of a revered English classic, EM Forster’s Howards End. Even for ticket buyers who’d neither read it nor seen either the Merchant Ivory film with, not coincidentally, Vanessa Redgrave, or the recent four-part BBC television version, the connection will have acted as a form of reassurance.
Without ticket-magnet Redgrave, in the harsh light of commercial Broadway with plays largely attended by a greyer, more conservative crowd thanks largely to prices – a ticket to both parts cost around $300 – the show reverted to being a dangerously unknown quantity. And stumbled. For the week preceding the announced closure, the production took $345,984, 52% of its financial capacity. That’s highly unlikely to have covered weekly running costs, let alone made inroads into its capitalisation, thus making closure sadly inevitable.
The need for familiarity is scarcely confined to theatre. Of the 46 movies that have taken in excess of $1 billion, all but four are based on a previously existing property or franchise. And in 2019’s global box-office, every single one of the top 10 films was either a sequel, a remake or a franchise instalment. (Since you asked: Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Frozen II, Spider-Man: Far from Home, Captain Marvel, Joker, Toy Story 4, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Aladdin, Jumanji: The Next Level.)
Theatreland, meanwhile, is less good at sequels. There are notable exceptions, not least the current Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the ridiculously enjoyable musical & Juliet, which just cleaned up at the WhatsOnStage awards. But the prosecution calls the lamentable Bring Back Birdie, the sequel Bye Bye Birdie never needed (opened March 5, 1981, closed March 7, 1981) and, notoriously, Love Never Dies, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s much-vaunted 2010 musical which was, he initially declared, not a sequel to Phantom of the Opera. Pardon? No, he preferred it described as a second story with these characters.
In my book, that’s pretty close to the definition of a sequel, but whatever it was, it was less than successful. Despite reworking it after nine months, it never caught fire at the box office and, after a total of 18 months, it closed.
Although not a sequel, The Prince of Egypt is, of course, a stage version of a known quantity: the $218.6-million-grossing DreamWorks animated film. I was scarcely alone in being deeply underwhelmed by the po-faced bombast of the book and the expensive, enervating staging that proves it takes more than hydraulics to lift a show. But, and I can’t quite believe I am saying this, at least it had a degree of theatrical ambition. Ironically for that Exodus story, the more slavish of this month’s new screen-to-stage musicals is Pretty Woman.
The cynicism of the latter is frankly depressing. Leaving aside the story’s horribly dated sexual politics, the only attempt at anything new is Bryan Adams’ inanely generic soft-rock score with its opening number Welcome to Hollywood. That’s the level of invention.
Through no fault of the hard-working cast, almost everything else is a leaden, line-by-line, move-by-move retread of the movie minus the mega-wattage of Julia Roberts. So much so that Bob Harms, doubling as the hotel manager and our narrator, stoops to warning us that the heroine’s famous polka-dot dress is blue rather than the brown of the original.
Not every stage musical of a movie has to have the sophisticated emotional wrench of Billy Elliot or the riotous wit of The Producers, but if you’re going to make a known quantity theatrical, is it too much to make it afresh?
Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict