Yankees gamble in Old Blighty

Can 'Wicked' and 'Spamalot' replicate their Stateside bonanzas?

Sometimes they love Gotham, sometimes they hate Gotham — who knows, with the Brits.

Two hit Broadway musicals are being readied for transfer to London’s West End, where a third tuner has just opened to mixed notices, and everyone involved is putting on a happy face. But if producers of the U.K. editions of “Avenue Q” (which bowed June 28 at the Noel Coward), “Wicked” (opening Sept. 27 at the Apollo Victoria) and “Monty Python’s Spamalot” (preeming Oct. 16 at the Palace) seem a bit giddy at the prospect of breaking into a lucrative new market, nobody is taking success for granted.

As bitter experience has proved, popular Stateside shows that sail into the West End with all flags flying can be shot down by finicky Brit auds. “Rent” and “Contact” didn’t click, and even a blockbuster like “The Producers” performed below expectations.

Not that the British always read the runes correctly. “Forty Years On” and other plays by super-scribe Alan Bennett were long blanked out of the U.S. market as being “too British” for American sensibilities. There was some trepidation, then, about bringing in “The History Boys,” which was ecstatically received and won six Tonys, including the top prize. So go figure.

“You have to go into every single market as if you were learning that market for the first time,” says Michael McCabe, marketing director and one of the London producers of “Wicked.”

Careful research, he says, can turn up surprising audience differences, even for a show with near-universal appeal. In the case of “Wicked,” it was determined there was wide recognition of both “The Wizard of Oz,” the original tale by L. Frank Baum, and the classic MGM movie. But talking with audiences in the U.K. and Australia also revealed expectations about the material that varied sharply from those of American auds.

“People here are really into witches and wizards,” McCabe says. “The legends of Merlin and Narnia are part of our DNA, not to mention the whole Harry Potter phenomenon.

“Oz itself was a very nice reference, a strong comfort factor,” he goes on. “But what really excited people about ‘Wicked’ was the idea of the untold story of Oz, the idea of telling this story that they already knew in a totally different way, from the point of view of the witches.”

Forewarned, producer David Stone made the decision to overhaul both the show’s tagline and its advertising graphics. “The original tag — ‘So Much Happened Before Dorothy Dropped In’ — worked in America,” Stone says, because American auds wanted a broader view of the original story about the little girl from Kansas. For the Brits, who anticipated a sexier backstory, the tagline became “The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz.”

Even the poster art became more suggestive.

“It’s like alternate universes,” Stone says. “Here, the image is a two-dimensional illustration. In London, it is three-dimensional. The girls are in the same position, but their faces are contoured and a little more adult.”

“Avenue Q,” the plucky little puppet musical that snatched the Tony from “Wicked” but had its hands slapped in Las Vegas, would seem to have no such cultural tradition to share with London auds. Or does it?

“We’re very nervous about London,” producer Robyn Goodman admitted before to the tuner’s West End opening. “So we bet on the person who knows that market best — Cameron Mackintosh.” The London producer, she says, was able to assure the nervous Yanks that the two elements they feared were too “foreign” for the Brits — the uppity puppets and the cocky American humor — actually were close to English hearts.

“The English don’t have the same puppet phobia that we have here,” Goodman says. “The thing we always hated the most here was when people defined us as a dirty puppet show. In England, there is a long tradition with panto and puppets. Cameron is actually leading his advertising with the puppets.”

Mackintosh also convinced his American partners that his countrymen would not only enjoy the show’s “dirty” humor, they might even relate to its racy elements more than Stateside audiences.

“We think of the British as uptight, but they’re really not,” says Goodman. “Their humor is much raunchier than ours, much more open. They are much more easygoing about sex and toilet humor. Puppets making love — they scream with delight at things like that.”

The British reviewers, at best, ended up giggling at such antics, with the jury still out on auds there.

Curiously, the Broadway show that came straight from that subversive British comedy tradition — “Monty Python’s Spamalot” — is the one most likely to go through some changes before its London opening.

“The aim is to reclaim the show,” says Crispin Ollington, who is overseeing the marketing. “There is a heritage here of Python. People have an emotional investment in Python. It would be insulting to present them with something that would make them say, ‘That’s not Python!’ ”

Which puts the producers of a huge Broadway hit in the odd position of playing down the fact that it is a huge Broadway hit.

Instead of selling “Spamalot” as “a big brash Broadway show,” Ollington is positioning the $10 million show as “great British comedy in the classic tradition.” The show’s $4 million advance (as of mid-June), he says, is coming from people keen to see “the Monty Python show,” regardless of where the musical originated. Once that core market is satisfied, he says, “People will start coming to see ‘Spamalot.'”

Producer Bill Haber admits it could be a dicey proposition, selling the Brits a show made in America from British material.

“With Monty Python, the show already comes with a very specific British genetic imprint,” he says. And in accordance with British Equity regs, the cast (with the exception of Christopher Siebert) is entirely British, with Tim Curry reprising his role of King Arthur from Broadway. “They all grew up with Monty Python — and they speak ‘English.’ They have a specific British sensibility that has already made it into the show.”

Just to be on the safe side, a fully British producing and management team (“all very Monty Python-attuned”) has been up and operating for six months alongside the American production team that moved en masse into the Palace Theater offices.

But the ace in the hole, according to Haber, is Eric Idle, the original Python member who wrote the book and lyrics for “Spamalot.” In anticipation of the show’s fall opening, Idle moved back to London in the spring to make “adjustments” to the script, a process expected to accelerate when director Mike Nichols arrives in town.

Right now, no one is predicting what comic inspiration Idle might be drawing from being back home. But Ollington predicts British audiences might find the show “more deprecating and slightly more eccentric.” In which case, they can send it right back to Gotham.

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