Broadway may freeze U.K. imports

Economy could disrupt influx of productions

Will fewer prestige British productions be getting their passports stamped?

U.K. exports to Gotham like the hit revival of “The Seagull” or recent trans-Atlantic travelers such as”The History Boys” and “Frost/Nixon” have increasingly become a staple of Broadway seasons, not to mention awards roundups. But with the chilly wind of recession blowing on both sides of the Pond, some U.S. pundits have been speculating privately that the influx might dwindle.

That viewpoint is firmly rebutted by London producers. For proof, look no further than Phyllida Lloyd‘s hit Donmar Warehouse production of Friedrich Schiller’s thriller “Mary Stuart,” which will follow the limited run of fellow Brit transfer “Equus” into the Broadhurst.

Nor is it just the Donmar and its U.S. producers Arielle Tepper Madover and Debra Black who remain confident. Sonia Friedman, producer of half a dozen such exports in the past few years, shows no sign of slowing down.

“I haven’t worked in a recession before so I don’t know what’s ’round the corner,” says Friedman. “But I do think that although people may not be able to afford holidays, new cars and houses, theater will survive because people still want quality drama and entertainment.”

Friedman herself acknowledges that this is a generalization but immediately cites evidence.

“I have four shows running, and every single one is doing well,” she explains. “In London, ‘La Cage aux Folles’ is packing them in and ‘No Man’s Land’ is going to recoup this week. In New York, ‘The Seagull’ — a show I was strongly advised not to do because it was Chekhov on Broadway for only 14 weeks — is also about to recoup, and ‘Boeing-Boeing’ recouped some months ago and is chugging along happily.”

Friedman’s plans are equally robust. A West End revival of “A View From the Bridge” — co-produced with Kim Poster and starting previews at the end of January — is already selling well. Meanwhile, at the Old Vic, she’s co-producing the first major London revival of Brian Friel‘s “Dancing at Lughnasa” in spring, helmed by Anna Mackmin. If that’s a success, Friedman will take it to New York, a path she’s already negotiating for Matthew Warchus‘ smash-hit Old Vic staging of Alan Ayckbourn‘s tragicomic masterpiece “The Norman Conquests.”

“It will be an absolute test,” says Friedman. “I have no doubt at all that, as in London, audiences will come to it because it’s very funny, a top-quality production and a unique trilogy of plays that makes it true ‘event theater.’ If I have a concern, it’s about raising the investment.”

Friedman’s confidence is echoed by Diane Borger, associate producer at the Royal Court where “The Seagull” began.

“Pre- or post-credit crunch, London success is obviously important for the potential Broadway life of a show,” she says. “Whenever New York producers are over here they are on the lookout.”

Borger argues that although the commercial and critical success of “The Seagull” will help the Court with future transfers, it’s an unusual production for the company. Not only does it have an established star in Kristin Scott Thomas, it’s a translation of an already famous play, rather than a world premiere of a new work, something for which the venue is better known.

Like Friedman, Borger remains confident.

“I may come to regret saying this, but, in terms of our theater, I’m not too anxious,” offers Borger. “Our ticket prices are low — many of our seats cost less than a cinema ticket.”

With no box office figures ever released in London, evidence remains anecdotal, but previous recessions have shown that theater is one of the last things to be substantially hit. Even when they are desperate and short of cash, people want to be entertained.

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