Legit producers finding new product in U.K., Oz

Bob Hope and Bing Crosby had the right idea — the most interesting roads are in places like Morocco and Zanzibar.

The theater hasn’t gone that far afield (yet). But enterprising producers are pushing the boundaries of the road as we know it by going farther off the beaten track to find new product for Broadway.

With savvy producers combing the West End and even Australia for musical material — and importing Yank writers to give their shows an American sensibility before importing them to Broadway — the industry might have to add Leicester Square and Melbourne to its list of regional creative resources.

Of the three foreign-built (and American-retooled) musicals headed for Broadway this season, “Bombay Dreams” will have taken the most exotic route when it arrives next spring at the Broadway Theater.

Andrew Lloyd Webber, who produced the show at London’s Apollo Victoria Theater in spring 2002, virtually manufactured the tuner as well. Enchanted by film scores composed by A.R. Rahman for the spectacular Indian movie musicals churned out by Bollywood, Webber not only plucked the composer from his native turf to write the music, he also hired Indian and Anglo-Indian creative talent for the book and choreography.

But the first thing that Waxman Williams Entertainment and TGA did when they leased the property from Webber for an American production was to hire Broadway vet Thomas Meehan (who most recently put his hand to “The Producers” and “Hairspray”) to touch up the story — rather significantly, by some accounts.

Meehan, who shares billing with original librettist Meera Syal, added a couple of American characters to the story as a way of educating Yank audiences to the peculiarities of Bollywood movie-making, which involves a head-spinning mix of entertainment traditions.

American theatergoers who caught another foreign-grown show, “Taboo,” at the tiny Venue theater in London where the Boy George musical originated may not even recognize the show’s Americanized version when it opens at the Plymouth in November.

Although Charles Busch’s book is tagged an “adaptation” of the original libretto by Matt Davies, the American playwright (“Tale of the Allergist’s Wife”) says he has done “a complete overhaul” of the Brit scribe’s work.

“Some people think I’m doing a campy version, but it’s exactly the opposite,” says Busch, who made three trips to London at the behest of co-producer Rosie O’Donnell.

“The London version had a very sour, bitter, bitchy, queeny quality that Rosie didn’t respond to — and neither did I.”

After getting his orders from O’Donnell (“She said: ‘I want a show with a lot of heart’ “), he tossed out the fictional protagonist, a provincial youth named Billy who gets caught up in George’s decadent London set, and made George the centerpiece of his own story. The scribe also scuttled two “undeveloped and cliched” femme characters and wrote two new ones, the hero’s best friend and future biographer, and the woman he eventually married.

“Most of my work is with strong female characters” is how Busch explains the rationale for his major changes. “Contrary to all the gossip, this version is less campy, less male-centered, and more emotionally involving. It’s an American show now.”

Costs do pile up whenever a show is revamped for Broadway. But Ben Gannon and Robert Fox, producers of “The Boy From Oz,” the third (and, at $33 million, most costly) of the foreign musicals in transformation, factored in those freight charges right from the get-go.

Hoping for legs

“The show we created in Australia was the show we wanted for Australia,” Gannon says of the bio-tuner that goes into the Imperial in October starring Aussie actor Hugh Jackman as Oz entertainer Peter Allen, who died of AIDS in 1992. Although known in the U.S. as the (momentary) husband of Liza Minnelli and composer-star of the legendary Broadway flop, “Legs Diamond,” Allen is still beloved as a pop composer and performer in his homeland. Indeed, the show grossed $33 million in the two years that it ran in Australia, starting in Sydney and moving on to Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth.

“When I first conceived of doing this show, about nine years ago, I thought that ultimately we would take it to the U.S.,” Gannon says. “And I knew that when we finally got there, we would have to address the story from a different perspective.”

According to the producer, the original book (by Nick Enright) made the assumption that every Australian who bought a ticket already knew the details of Allen’s life — how he was born in the outback, invented himself as a performer, was discovered by Judy Garland in Hong Kong –and wanted the show to celebrate his return to Australia as a big international star.

Gannon speculated that Broadway audiences would become impatient with a show that lacked “an American sensibility.” They would want more about Liza and Judy and “Legs,” he thought, and would relish a taste of the flamboyant Allen style that sold out Radio City Music Hall for 15 consecutive concerts, a record at the time.

Consequently, that was the job that Martin Sherman (“Bent”), an American playwright who had never scripted a musical before, was hired to do.

“Martin has altered the perspective, so it’s more about someone who comes to New York, rather than someone who leaves Australia,” says Gannon. “The scenes between Peter and Judy and Peter and Liza and Judy have a complexity that they didn’t have in Australia.”

Although most of the scribbling was done in London, where Sherman, Jackman, and both producers were living at the time, Gannon staunchly stands by the show’s origins Down Under.

“It would be a nice thing, if this show is successful, to establish Australia as a place where something that would work for the American market could emanate from.”

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