Will hippies and heavy metal hit West End?

'Rock of Ages,' 'Hair' could make London transfer

For the current crop of Broadway shows, the fast track to London seems to have slowed a bit in the wake of the global economic downturn.

Fewer producers than usual will cop to trans-Atlantic ambitions for alums of the 2008-09 season. “Wary” appears to be the watchword as they assess a show’s chances in the U.K., often the next logical step after Stateside success.

Part of the seeming slowdown can be attributed to the fact that the most-likely transfer candidates are big-selling Tony winners — but this year, top tuner “Billy Elliot” and new play “God of Carnage” have already checked London off their lists: “Billy” originated on the West End in 2005 and is still playing at the Victoria Palace, while “Carnage” had a hit run there in 2008 toplined by Ralph Fiennes and Janet McTeer.

Last year also saw a U.K. production of “West Side Story,” which throws doubt on whether there’s a place on the West End for the current Broadway incarnation so soon after the previous staging.

For other hopefuls, the recent West End run of “Spring Awakening” made clear that sometimes a New York hit fails to draw crowds abroad. The well-reviewed London production of Tony-winning “Spring” originated at the Lyric Hammersmith and went on to a West End transfer at the Novello — where traditional West End theatergoers never turned out in sufficient numbers for a show sometimes perceived in Blighty as pitched solely at teens.

Still, some Rialto productions are looking like they’ll make the jump. “Shrek the Musical,” for instance, not only can benefit in London from the global popularity of the DreamWorks Animation movie franchise, but DreamWorks Theatricals co-produces the show with London-based Neal Street Prods.

“We would like to take ‘Shrek the Musical’ to the West End,” says Bill Damaschke, prexy of DreamWorks Theatricals and co-prexy of production for DreamWorks Animation. “We know there is a huge fanbase for ‘Shrek’ in the U.K., and the response from the British media to the show on Broadway has been great.”

Nonetheless, “Shrek” producers say no London plans have been confirmed at this time.

Issues of trans-Atlantic translation always loom large in producers’ mind, with even the producers of current juggernaut “Billy Elliot” worrying the show would come off as “too British” for Broadway auds.

A similar debate is under way among producers and creatives of “Hair,” in anticipation of taking the Tony-winning revival to London, where the tuner’s first Blighty staging had a multiyear run that began in 1968.

“What part of its American-ness should stay intact?” asks Oskar Eustis, a.d. of the Public Theater, one of the show’s producers. “And what should be more organic to Britain? There isn’t an obvious answer.”

With such decisions remaining to be made and a U.S. national tour in the offing, no timeline for a potential West End run has been set.

“Rock of Ages,” the hair-metal jukebox tuner crammed with 1980s rock songs that were big hits in the U.S., might initially seem an unlikely candidate for London. Nonetheless, “Rock” producers also are laying plans. The music, they reason, has a global reach that may come as a surprise to Americans.

But it’s not just American music that sets the stage for the tuner’s potential overseas success. Producer Matthew Weaver, recently in London with his partner Carl Levin to explore Blighty possibilities, reports that when rock group Europe’s tune “The Final Countdown” — a song featured in “Rock” — played in a London club, “People went ballistic.” An upcoming New Line film adaptation, aiming for production next year, should also help boost the property’s visibility.

Levin and Weaver are also encouraged by the long-running London success of other rock-based shows, including Greek-island Abba musical “Mamma Mia!” and post-apocalypse Queen tuner “We Will Rock You.”

The producers, who were mostly stage tyros when they brought “Rock” to Broadway, plan to find a local co-producer to help them navigate the London legit world.

They’ve been told by interested observers that even if not all the music is familiar to Londoners, the tongue-in-cheek tuner could still resonate with Brit auds.

“Everyone says the self-deprecating humor will really play over there,” Weaver notes.

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