When the play is no longer the thing

Tuners taking over West End

A correction was made to this article on July 26, 2006.

Twenty-seven West End theaters are at present offering light comedies and musical shows, of which perhaps a dozen are good of their kind. The number of new plays with a claim to serious discussion is three.”

That attack on London’s commercial theater was made by the doyen of British critics, Kenneth Tynan, in 1954. What’s changed?

Disregarding the temporary double-whammy of World Cup football fever and the sudden late arrival of a seriously hot summer that sent numbers down by an estimated 25%, the patient appears to be in overall good health with audiences rising year on year. But producer Sonia Friedman diagnoses a problem.

“Audience numbers are great, but that’s due to a record number of musicals,” says Friedman. “From my selfish perspective, theater land may be healthy, play land is not.”

A record 25 tuners are set to be in the West End by Christmas, some of them in playhouses. “It’s worrying,” Friedman says. “I wonder if the climate just isn’t going to be conducive to drama. I feel a little like musicals are driving us out of business.”

Friedman, however, is far from closing up shop. As of mid-July she has six plays on the go: “Donkeys’ Years,” “Eh Joe,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll” and “On the Third Day” (a B.O. dud despite winning a reality TV search for a debut playwright), as well as “Bent” in pre-production and “Faith Healer” on Broadway. Another eight are in the works, four of which she hopes will land by the end of 2006-07. Of that slate, only two are new plays.

All the British plays on Broadway this summer — “The Lieutenant of Inishmore,” “Shining City,” “Faith Healer,” “The History Boys” — were road-tested at the publicly subsidized Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Court, the Almeida and the National Theater, respectively. Opening cold in the commercial sector is much tougher.

Friedman argues that to open a new play in the West End you need at least four or five weeks’ advance to get through previews to the point where reviews kick in: “Without that, there’s no hope. How do you get that advance? By preselling through editorial and advertising, encouraging everyone involved to talk about the play in order to encourage people to take a risk upfront.”

The danger is that critics see that as hype. “So they come in knowing probably too much about the work with preconceived ideas,” says Friedman. “Sometimes, when it turns out to be not what they expected, you wind up damaged. That’s depressing because I don’t know a way around it, unless you cast someone like Madonna.” Not so farfetched. Friedman famously did so in “Up for Grabs” in 2002.

The producers most associated with star-casting are Out of the Blue Prods., aka Clare Lawrence and Anna Waterhouse, whose current show, Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love,” features movie names Juliette Lewis and Martin Henderson. Impressively, none of their productions thus far has lost money. But do they not feel responsible for the rash of screen actors flaunting stage chops?

“All seven shows we have produced in the last five years have had movie stars, so we do feel culpable to an extent,” says Waterhouse, “but we have never once cast anyone who couldn’t do it. And all our plays have been by Americans — Kenneth Lonergan, Neil LaBute, David Mamet and Sam Shepard — so using American actors has been the right decision.”

Lawrence, however, argues that the bubble has burst: “It’s no longer exciting for an audience just to see a movie star onstage. They’ve seen five or six, only some of whom have been good. Producers are going to have to work a lot harder now.”

Even if their future projects come together — LaBute directing his “Fat Pig,” the U.K. premiere of Richard Greenberg’s “The American Plan” and the first U.K. revival of Lanford Wilson’s “Burn This” — neither of these women believes you can make a living as a play producer.

“You need hit after hit,” says Waterhouse. “You can do that if you make the kind of decisions we don’t want to make, like going out on the road regularly, or going for names you don’t like but know will work with regional audiences. People want good work, critics support it, and audience figures reflect it. Look at ‘Don Carlos’ and ‘Mary Stuart’ — difficult plays. If you said 18th-century Schiller would pack them in, people would laugh. But those were fantastic translations and beautiful productions, and they made the money. It can happen.”

Both of those surprise hits were produced by Matthew Byam Shaw, who ushered them into town after runs at Sheffield Crucible and the Donmar Warehouse, both subsidized theaters. Byam Shaw believes there’s less than a 1-in-10 chance of successfully bringing in a show cold: “I could have done it with Charlotte Jones’ ‘Humble Boy,’ but we knew the National could nurture it and deliver it properly first. We’re doing the same with her next one, ‘The Lightning Play,’ which opens at the Almeida.”

Caro Newling, one of the triumvirate at Neal Street Prods. with Sam Mendes and Beth Key-Pugh, is equally positive about collaboration: “Producers should stop punishing themselves over subsidized theaters taking work away from them. There is a natural magnetism for writers to write within subsidy. Look at Alan Bennett writing for the National.”

She believes commercial producers are not given enough credit for playing the long game: “Plays are commissioned and developed over years, a hidden process but one which lead to productions at places like the Donmar or the Old Vic. Then they can be taken into the West End.”

After five notably successful years as a producer, Byam Shaw has a guiding principle: “I’m bored to death of predictability in theater. At the same time, I look for a play with plot. The Schillers worked because they are great stories for grown-ups. There is no doubt about the appeal of telling a successful story with a cliffhanger at the interval to make you look forward to coming back from the bar.”

And the future? “I used to deny the idea of price resistance. Not anymore,” says the producer. “We have to find a way of not pricing people out of coming. It’s vastly too expensive. It makes the business vaguely embarrassing.”

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