American musicals find path to West End tricky

NEW YORK — For many American tuners that have conquered Broadway, London calls.

In the case of current Rialto musicals such as “Hairspray,” “Jersey Boys,” “Grey Gardens” and “Spring Awakening” — all planning imminent trans-Atlantic hops — the appeal of London is easy to understand. Like Broadway, the West End is a healthy theater market fueled by seasonal influxes of tourists.

But U.S. producers can’t forget that London is another country. The weak dollar is just one aspect underscoring the fact that the rules aren’t necessarily the same on the other side of the Pond.

“We go with no assurances of how our show will do there,” says Michael David, one of the producers of Tony-winning Rialto hit “Jersey Boys,” which will be opening at the Prince Edward Theater in March. “We have to have appropriate recognition that the market there is not our own.”

Some aspects of the West End are similar to the Rialto. Desirable real estate, for instance, is as difficult to come by in London as it is in Gotham.

“We talked about doing London a couple of years ago, but we couldn’t find the right theater for the show,” says Margo Lion, producer of “Hairspray,” set to begin perfs at the Shaftesbury in October.

“They certainly have as many musicals on the West End as you do in New York,” adds Jeffrey Richards, producer of this year’s top Tony winner, “Spring Awakening,” which is just beginning to map out plans for London. “It’s difficult to secure a theater for a play there, not unlike here.”

Richards produced the 2005 Broadway revival of “Glengarry Glen Ross” and is involved in a London incarnation, which plans to begin a run in mid-October starring Jonathan Pryce and Aiden Gillen. He also produced the recently shuttered Rialto revival of “Talk Radio,” which also may turn up on the West End.

Richards is among the Stateside producers who find that staging a show on the West End is not always less costly, thanks to the weak dollar.

“It’s slightly cheaper,” says Thomas Viertel, a producer involved in “Hairspray,” of mounting tuners in Blighty, “but it’s not the howling bargain it once was.”

David estimates it will cost about the same to capitalize the U.K. version of “Jersey Boys” as it did the U.S. original — around $7.5 million.

In terms of drawing in auds, West End B.O. doesn’t get the same sizable bump from local legit awards as Broadway does from the Tonys. And an ocean away, a Tony is far less meaningful.

“As a producer, I’d much rather be doing a show that can be billed as a Tony winner than one that can’t,” says Adam Spiegel of the U.K. arm of European production org Stage Entertainment, producer of “Hairspray” on the West End and the 2008 U.K. tour of “High School Musical.” “Tonys enhance credibility, but I don’t think it makes single ticket buyers in London say, ‘Oh, I must go see that.’ People want it to pass a test in the local press.”

Both “Hairspray” and “Gardens,” which aims for a West End berth during the 2007-08 season (with Tony-winning star Christine Ebersole reprising her lead role), have the advantage of recent or upcoming movie tie-ins.

The pic adaptation of “Hairspray” hit theaters this month, and all that studio-backed publicity helps give the property a boost in prominence that legit producers expect will fan enthusiasm in London for the stage version.

“The movie is bringing the brand back to public consciousness in a way we could never afford,” Viertel says.

Meanwhile, the original 1975 doc on which “Gardens” is based was recently released on DVD in the U.K. “There’s a lot of excitement and awareness of the piece right now,” says Michael Rosenberg of East of Doheny, the U.S. production company backing “Gardens.”

In all cases, producers of American tuners are well aware of creative elements that might not play the same with Brit auds as they do with U.S. theatergoers.

“We’ve had conversations about what the term ‘Jersey’ means to the English,” says David of “Jersey Boys,” the biotuner about the Four Seasons. “We have a considerable amount of consciousness-raising to do before we get there.”

The “Hairspray” team notes the show’s 1960s civil rights theme is given a particularly American historical context while “Gardens” producers know the connection of its lead characters to the Kennedys likely won’t have the same frisson abroad as it does Stateside.

Still, backers of Rialto successes remain bullish about their shows’ universal appeal and their prospects on the West End.

As Spiegel notes of “Hairspray’s” U.K. potential, “There’s always room in London for a musical comedy.”

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