Friedman imports trilogy, despite the odds

With four of her London productions in the running for a collective 13 Olivier Awards and two Broadway transfers likely to figure in the Tony race for play revival, Sonia Friedman might be forgiven for slowing down. But the Brit producer’s slate tells another story.

In addition to prepping the New York move of Matthew Warchus’ glowingly received revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s “The Norman Conquests,” Friedman is readying Anna Mackmin’s staging of Brian Friel’s “Dancing at Lughnasa” at the Old Vic; Roger Michell’s new take on “Rope” at the Almeida; and a Broadway production, with Roundabout and Bill Haber, of Patrick Marber’s “After Miss Julie,” with Mark Brokaw directing a cast headed by Sienna Miller.

In the face of recession, Friedman, 43, is passionate yet realistic, and still surprisingly bullish.

“Theater has always been high risk,” she says. “That will never change. I don’t think audiences are going to dwindle, but I think investors will. I’m already experiencing it. Less money to invest will mean less theater. And flops will flop a lot quicker.”

Friedman’s latest Rialto-bound project, “The Norman Conquests,” is proof of her nerve. This is not one comedy, but three full-length plays, all set simultaneously in three different rooms over the same weekend. While Ayckbourn is beloved by Brit audiences, he has an erratic track record Stateside, and the trilogy has not a single star name to decorate its marquee. Which makes it legitimate to wonder if, in the current climate, is Friedman borderline insane?

“Comedy always works in New York if it’s good,” she counters. “And this isn’t good, it’s great. I didn’t produce the show in London, but if American audiences experience what I experienced when I saw it at the Old Vic then we’ll be absolutely fine.”

As insurance, Friedman is remounting the production in its entirety with the six-strong ensemble playing in-the-round at the newly reconfigured Circle in the Square Theater.

“Of course it’s nerve-wracking, but it’s an event and it’s well priced,” Friedman says. “In London, the trilogy days with all three plays sold out first and we’re doing more of them in New York. If you book early, you can see all three plays for $170. Of course, you don’t have to see all three but when people watch one, they immediately want to see the others to see what happens next.”

If New York auds respond as strongly as Londoners to the trilogy, it’s possible that, come Tony time, Friedman will be competing against herself with both “The Seagull” and “The Norman Conquests” up for play revival honors.

While Friedman’s immediate pipeline of projects is extensive enough, the full list of properties to which she holds the rights is roughly four times longer. Chief among them is her current hit West End transfer of the Menier Chocolate Factory production of “La Cage aux Folles,” which she’s “very, very keen” to take to Broadway, largely to showcase Douglas Hodge in his star-making turn as drag hausfrau Albin.

“There’ll be a nervousness because the recent Broadway revival wasn’t a success,” admits Friedman. “But every American I’ve spoken to who has seen this one with Doug says it’s exciting and different enough to work.”

Friedman’s bulging developmental pipeline includes:

n A joint effort with Harvey Weinstein on a musical version of “Shakespeare in Love”;

n An adaptation of “All About Eve” by Christopher Hampton;

n Two productions directed by Richard Eyre: Ibsen’s “Ghosts,” starring Kim Cattrall skedded for 2010, and Feydeau’s classic French farce “A Flea in Her Ear”;

n A revival of Ayckbourn’s comedy about amateur dramatics, “A Chorus of Disapproval”;

n The first major revival of Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” helmed by David Leveaux;

n David Harrower’s new adaptation of classic British pic “The Third Man,” directed by David Grindley;

n Terry Johnson’s staging of Ben Travers’ 1920s English farce “Rookery Nook,” at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

“It’s always terrifying doing this job because you never know whether an audience will respond or not,” Friedman says. But her fears likely have been eased by the impressive haul of Olivier nominations earned by “La Cage aux Folles,” “That Face,” “No Man’s Land” and “Maria Friedman — Re-Arranged,” all of which she produced in London last season. Those 13 nods put her on equal footing with awards magnet the Donmar Warehouse.

Repping further reassurance, Friedman’s Gotham transfers in the past two seasons, of “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “The Seagull” and “Boeing-Boeing” all recouped. Indeed, of the eight productions she has taken to Broadway, her only flop was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “The Woman in White,” the one musical on the list.

Her successes on both sides of the pond give Friedman a useful vantage point to observe differences between the two towns’ theater landscapes.

“It’s hard to define, but there’s a sense that in New York anything is possible,” she says. “You could go in there with something not overtly commercial — like Chekhov’s ‘The Seagull’ on Broadway for a 14-week season — and have a huge success.”

“Unlike London, it’s an incredible word-of-mouth town,” adds Friedman. “If something takes off on Broadway, you see that reflected in the box office within days. Every show has its window, its moment to be huge. It’s not about whether a big star is in it, it’s about the whole event.”

In London, she argues, it’s much harder to get noticed.

“That’s partly because there the commercial West End is in competition with places like the National, which receives government subsidy,” she says. “In New York you don’t have that.”

But regardless of the pros and cons on either side of the Atlantic, Friedman predicts a tough road ahead for the legit biz, calling for aggressive strategies.

“By the fall there’ll be a lot of dark theaters, especially in New York. And in the West End we need big stars, big names, big titles, big ideas and big, fun entertainment.

“I’d like to think that every one of my future shows will go ahead, but they’re not capitalized yet,” Friedman says. “More risky ones may fall by the wayside, but I still believe good, strong ideas will get backing.”

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