London falls for a loverly ‘Lady’

Mackintosh firms up West End transfer

“My Fair Lady” has been dancing all night — and most days — to raves from the British critics, with several calling Trevor Nunn’s Royal National Theater revival, backed by Cameron Mackintosh, the fairest of all “Ladies.”

“This is still one of the great musicals, dazzling, sophisticated, funny, sharp and generous — and it gets a production to match,” enthused John Peter in the Sunday Times.

“It’s glorious,” read the headline to Michael Coveney’s overnight review in the March 16 Daily Mail. “You’ll want to dance all night.”

The prevailing encomia were music to the ears of Mackintosh, who four days after the Lyttelton Theater premiere had confirmed plans for the staging to transfer intact, starting July 21, to the Theater Royal, Drury Lane — home, for 5-1/2 years, to this show’s original London staging.

Some 72 hours after that, the Drury Lane box office looked set to take $4 million or thereabouts in a single day, March 22 — the first day that tickets for the transfer were put on sale. Back at the National, the raves mattered to the box office nary at all, since the show was virtually sold out before it opened, with a $3.3 million advance.

“The response has been phenomenal,” Mackintosh told Variety March 22, adding that “everything had been in place and ready for a transfer” prior to opening — “if the show deserved it.”

Stars Jonathan Pryce and Martine McCutcheon have signed for nine months in a 2,250-seat West End venue almost three times as large as the production’s National home. The top ticket will be £37.50, or $54, just a bit pricier than the Lyttelton top.

At capacity at Drury Lane, the production can take just north of $500,000 a week, precipitating speedy recoupment for the $1.78 million transfer. (The show’s total capitalization, the National Theater stand included, is in the region of $3.55 million — less than half, says Mackintosh, what the same piece might have cost had it been mounted commercially from scratch.)

Still, some wondered whether the state-funded National should be functioning as a de facto tryout house for the West End. “My Fair Lady” marks the third NT show in recent months, following “Life x 3” and “Noises Off,” to announce a speedy commercial transfer that was all but confirmed before critics had even arrived.

“I’ve always felt this is one of the greatest musicals,” says Mackintosh, “and it should be done at the National Theater in line with ‘Carousel’ and ‘Oklahoma!’ ” — both of which Mackintosh then took to the West End. The difference is that the producer actively co-produced this show from its inception as opposed to backing the Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals indirectly through his Mackintosh Foundation.

“To be honest, the National could never afford to do ‘My Fair Lady’ on its own,” says the producer, making the added point that revivals aren’t generally the moneymakers that a smash new musical can be. (As the man behind “Les Miz,” “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” presumably he knows whereof he speaks.)

New versions of extant shows “can be very profitable,” says Mackintosh, “but they don’t end up being gigantic money-spinners.” “Carousel” didn’t pay back during its West End run at the Shaftesbury, while “Oklahoma!” did at the Lyceum but ran for only five months. (It was displaced, as expected, by “The Lion King.”)

On the other hand, revivals can be safer commercial bets, especially amid a musical climate that has become increasingly problematic for new works. Mackintosh’s Olivier Award-winning “Martin Guerre” lost some $7 million during its 20-month run at the Prince Edward Theater, while his current “Witches of Eastwick” — newly transferred to the Prince of Wales — has yet to make a dent toward paying back costs that have risen to about $8 million. (The transfer of “Witches” from a larger theater to a smaller one is itself adding $1.5 million or so to that musical’s overall bill.)

That may help explain the producer’s renewed interest in revivals, with the Nunn-directed “Oklahoma!” back on course for a $6 million Broadway opening next spring, probably at the Gershwin, and “My Fair Lady” poised, the producer hopes, to see out possibly three West End casts.

The first, according to critical consensus, will be hard to match. Pryce’s Higgins, said Coveney, repped “a major performance by a major actor,” but most papers focused on McCutcheon, a newcomer to musicals if not to the British media given the 24-year-old’s status both as a soap opera celebrity and pop star.

Her much-publicized bout of flu only intensified interest in the opening, with critics on alert March 15 throughout the day that the press night might have to be postponed if McCutcheon’s understudy, Alexandra Jay, went on, as she had at the final preview.

That could have been tricky, since the NT would have had trouble clawing back tickets to offer the press for future perfs. The production, too, opened during the year’s busiest spate of openings so far, with a dizzying 11 shows bowing between March 13 and 23.

In the end, the first night proceeded normally, although McCutcheon has subsequently been out since March 19 and isn’t expected back until the end of the month, if then. At the same time, some astute press maneuvering succeeded in making a semi-star out of 18-year-old Jay, with few NT theatergoers demanding refunds or exchanges — except, says Mackintosh, “for the odd Martine fan that has never heard of ‘My Fair Lady’ and can’t believe the show could go on without her.”

With her, the critics were crowing.

“EastEnders girl belongs up West,” read the headline to Robert Gore-Langton’s review in the Daily Express. McCutcheon, said the critic, “can act, she can sing, and she looks a million dollars.”

“She never loses the sweet, dreamy quality of a girl who thinks she’s looking for status but actually hankers for respect and love,” said the Times’ Benedict Nightingale. The production surrounding her, Nightingale went on, “isn’t just luvverly — it’s luvverlier than anyone dared hope.”

“There is not a single duff performance,” noted the Daily Telegraph’s Charles Spencer, singling out McCutcheon for “scoring the kind of success of which theatrical legends are made.”

Michael Billington in the Guardian was among the few to fault the stars. In his view, Pryce and McCutcheon lacked “the embattled ecstasy” that Alec McCowen and Diana Rigg brought to the same roles in a decades-old revival of “Pygmalion.”

McCutcheon’s Eliza, said John Gross in the Sunday Telegraph, “is personable … (and) highly efficient, but there is something synthetic about it.”

But overall, the notices were little short of ecstatic, and have inevitably incited talk of a leap across the pond. Mackintosh puts March 2003 as the earliest possible date for a New York transfer, which ideally would boast three or four of the current London leads, just as the show’s first Drury Lane production in 1958 allowed in the major Broadway players. (He dismissed as “gossip and hearsay” talk of Britney Spears and Audra McDonald as eventual Broadway Elizas.)

It’s worth noting, too, that Mackintosh produced this show’s previous West End revival at the Adelphi in 1979, with Tony Britton and Liz Robertson as Higgins and Eliza: “Tony was great but very much in the role of Rex, (whereas) Jonathan Pryce has become a Higgins in his own right — which is a very difficult thing.”

Not that this “Fair Lady” is necessarily the 54-year-old producer’s last. “I’ve put my marker down to do it once more,” he says, “when I’m 80.”

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