Commercial ventures turn into subsidized fare

For Broadway hits, the path is usually pretty clear: First stop, New York success; next stop, the West End.

But while that route will never go out of style — tuner “Xanadu” heads that way in 2009 — a couple of other high-profile Gotham hits are finding London berths not in commercial incarnations but in subsidized theaters off the West End.

Tony- and Pulitzer-winning play “August: Osage County” will have an eight-week run at the National Theater beginning in November, while the 2007 Tony-sweeping musical “Spring Awakening” plays the Lyric Hammersmith for five weeks beginning in January.

Although the weakened dollar can complicate the American side of fund-raising for the West End, the jump to subsidized theaters (the U.K. equivalent of Stateside nonprofits) for “August” and “Spring” was as much guided by creative mandates as fiscal ones.

Chicago troupe Steppenwolf Theater Company preemed Tracy Letts’ epic family drama “August” in an original 2007 production that transferred to the Rialto last fall. The show’s National stint, in the London company’s 890-seat Lyttelton Theater, was the result of a push by the Steppenwolf.

“We were pretty aggressive about it,” Steppenwolf a.d. Martha Lavey says.

Steppenwolf work had played the National almost 20 years ago, when the Chi theater’s staging of “The Grapes of Wrath” ran there in 1989. Lavey says the notion of a resident theater, similar to Steppenwolf, presenting “August” across the Pond held enormous appeal.

Then there were considerations about the production itself. When “August” moved to the Rialto, the majority of the Steppenwolf cast, helmed by original director Anna D. Shapiro, went with it — and Lavey wanted the same to be true for London.

“We learned from commercial producers that, were ‘August’ to be in London, the way they could make that work financially would be with a British company,” Lavey says.

Even with the National run, a West End move remains a possibility — though not a certainty. “A transfer like that can be challenging if an eight-week run has absorbed all the interest in a show,” Lavey notes.

In the case of “Spring Awakening,” the discussion to bring that tuner to the Lyric Hammersmith’s 550-seat venue began back in 2006. At the time, the Steven Sater/Duncan Sheik tuner, which centers on repressed German teens grappling with sex and death, was still in the midst of its world preem at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater.

In the conversation struck up then by Stateside producer Tom Hulce and Lyric a.d. David Farr, both proved interested in giving “Spring” a British slant.

“We’re looking at taking a successful production and finding a way in which it sits in London,” Farr says. “We’re talking about subtleties here, but we in England have a different sense of suppression than Americans.”

Original “Spring” director Michael Mayer will stage the show with a group of young U.K. thesps still being cast. Brit producing org Act Prods. is on hand should box office spur a commercial transfer.

Like “August,” which picked up five Tonys on June 15, “Spring” swept the Tonys, nabbing eight trophies last year. But American awards and New York acclaim don’t necessarily translate in Blighty.

“It increases awareness, but it does not guarantee success,” Farr says. For instance, while “Hairspray” is doing well across the Pond, “The Producers” never caught fire.

Still, the subsidized theater stagings of both “August” and “Spring” spare U.S. backers many of the dollars-to-pounds headaches faced by the Gotham producers of “Xanadu,” the spoofy musical based on the infamous 1980 roller-disco flop.

These days, the weakened dollar means commercial producers need to pony up more coin for investments measured in pounds sterling.

Brit producers David Ian (“Grease”) and John Gore are co-producing the West End incarnation of “Xanadu” along with the New York team behind the Broadway version.

“When you’re raising money to finance something in London, you’re going to have to raise more to buy the same amount of pounds for your share,” U.S. producer Rob Ahrens says.

There are also commissions taken out by London’s ticket vending kiosks, not to mention the value added tax, to contend with — although production costs tend to be lower in London than in Gotham.

“Xanadu” aims to land in the West End in the spring or fall of next year, depending on the availability of a suitable theater. Ahrens says producers are hoping for a venue of 800-1,200 seats, larger than the 600-seat Helen Hayes where “Xanadu” is playing in New York.

The U.K. staging remains a risk, but if it works, there are benefits to maintaining a London production if the value of American currency slides further.

“If the dollar continues to depreciate, you’d rather have your money abroad,” Ahrens says.

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