Future Tonys: Another West End invasion?

Exactly one-third of this year’s Tony nominations went to shows originating in London, and with a slew of new Gotham-bound productions either already booked or readying for take off, there’s no sign of a lessening of Brits on Broadway in the 2008-09 season.

The biggest London arrival is undoubtedly “Billy Elliot,” previewing at the Imperial Oct. 1 ahead of its Nov. 13 opening, 3½ years after its tumultuously received London opening. This is the most British of shows. The musical tale of a working-class lad following his dreams is resolutely tied to its political background of coal miners’ strikes in the 1980s that threatened Margaret Thatcher’s government. But the Australian success of “Billy Elliot” indicates the show can work away from its home turf.

Nonetheless, the principal creatives know that plenty of hits crossing the Atlantic in either direction have foundered on foreign shores. A degree of insurance, however, is provided by their past efforts: Helmer Stephen Daldry, set and costume designer Ian MacNeil, lighting designer Rick Fisher and sound designer Paul Arditti all worked on 1994’s audaciously re-imagined “An Inspector Calls” that bagged four Tonys.  

Audacity, indeed, rather than slavish fidelity to the original, would seem to be the key to successful screen-to-stage adaptations. That’s borne out not just by “Billy Elliot” but by another U.K. hit, “Brief Encounter.”

Although no dates are set for the U.S. incarnation of this immensely theatrical revamp of the 1945 Noel Coward/David Lean screen weepie, moves are afoot. Producers David Pugh and Dafydd Rogers and Kneehigh Theater Company have been snowed under with offers from Stateside producers. But Pugh and Rogers are intent upon teaming up with one of the majors, with a view to shepherding the project slowly into the American market.

Negotiations with Equity are about to get under way to take the Kneehigh company first to the West Coast in collaboration with a subscription house where, like the London original, “Brief Encounter” would play in a specially converted moviehouse. Success there would bolster the chances of the hoped-for Broadway transfer.

Pugh and Rogers are also busy with a potential transfer of “The God of Carnage.” The latest hit from seriocomic writer Yasmina Reza (“Art”) recouped in a record-breaking six weeks following ecstatic notices for the production by Matthew Warchus.

“Carnage,” in which two sets of smart parents spend 90 deliciously vicious minutes politely and hilariously impolitely fighting over the behavior of their children, featured a crackerjack Brit cast led by Ralph Fiennes. Rather than recast to lesser effect, Pugh and Rodgers closed the show at the end of its 14-week skedded run. But with U.S. actors queuing to play it, Robert Fox and Stuart Thompson have joined Pugh and Rogers to lead the producing team for a Broadway transfer to be announced imminently.

Pugh and Rogers’ 2007 moneymaker was the revival of “Equus,” which opens Sept. 25 at the Broadhurst following previews beginning Sept 5. Daniel Radcliffe and Richard Griffiths reprise their roles as the disturbed boy and his psychiatrist. Pugh and Rogers, however, have bowed out of this transfer: The Shuberts are now the show’s lead producers.

Six days later, on Oct. 1 at the Walter Kerr, another British import opens. Playing a fabulously self-absorbed actress-mother in “The Seagull,” Kristin Scott Thomas won an Olivier Award in Ian Rickson’s scintillating Chekhov revival. Sonia Friedman is bringing over almost all the original Royal Court cast.

Friedman has a history with the Royal Court, not only with last season’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” but also with 19-year-old Polly Stenham’s emotionally mature debut “That Face,” which has just finished a 10-week West End season after premiering at the 70-seat Royal Court Upstairs. Friedman is investigating every possible avenue for a Gotham transfer for the critically garlanded production, starring Lindsay Duncan as a mother sliding grandly off the rails and rising star Matt Smith as her son driven to the end of his tether.

Friedman’s sometime producing partner Howard Panter, chief exec and creative director of Ambassador Theater Group, reveals to Variety that he has at least two projects in development for Broadway.

Casting is under way for Trevor Nunn’s musical reworking of the Gershwin-Heyward opera “Porgy and Bess,” produced by Richard Frankel, Tom Viertel, Steven Baruch, Marc Routh and Panter. It shuttered early in May 2007 after six months, but Panter is buoyant about its New York chances, although no venue or dates have been set.

Even further into the future, he will produce a revival of Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella.” Casey Nicholaw (“The Drowsy Chaperone”) will helm what Panter describes as a new take on the show.

The other major production eyeing Broadway is “Dirty Dancing.” No definite Gotham plans have been made, but with the show inked in for lengthy sit-downs in Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles, the ambition to get to New York is clear.

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