Producers face transatlantic translation

LONDON — “It’s different here.”

So says the sign on the wall in the London office for DreamWorks Theatrical and Neal Street Prods.’ latest staging of “Shrek the Musical.”

It’s only partly a joke. There’s a lot at stake for the West End incarnation of the tuner which, after a rocky Seattle tryout, opened with much fanfare on Broadway in 2008 but didn’t run much more than year.

The success of the retooled, rescaled U.S. road version has undoubtedly lifted producers‘ confidence, but the move into London’s prestigious 2,206-seat Theater Royal Drury Lane ahead of its June 14 opening has focused attention on its fresh perspective for British audiences. It also highlights producers’ clear recognition of the fact that the West End — which has seen U.S. hits such as “The Drowsy Chaperone” and “Hair” flop with Brit auds — is not just another legit berth.

“We always felt the U.K. sensibility would be a very good match for the show, not least because of its humor,” says Neal Street topper Caro Newling. “But although it would be misleading to say we’ve entirely changed the story and its meaning, we have made changes, especially to the way we’ve marketed it.”

It helps that the tuner’s producer alongside DreamWorks is London-based Neal Street. Speaking on the eve of the first preview, May 6, Newling posited that the relative longevity of the entire creative teamwill help to appeal to this distinct market.

Atypically for a long-gestated, grand-scale tuner, there have been no “departures for creative differences,” the sole personnel change being the addition of co-helmer Rob Ashford, who came onboard after Seattle. Newling also stresses that the show’s British PR company the Corner Shop and marketing shingle AKA have benefitted from a two-year lead time for their work on “Shrek.”

Beyond the budget difference between the two productions — producing a show on Broadway routinely costs around three times as much as London — the defining change when crossing the Atlantic is London’s ticketing system. Clint Bond, who has masterminded the show’s marketing in both countries, underscores the difference.

“On Broadway, each house has just one ticketing relationship, either with Telecharge or Ticketmaster,” he says. “In the West End you form multiple relationships — it’s like having multiple storefronts putting out your message about the show.”

He pinpoints the primacy of those relationships with ticket agents, whether major players like Seetickets (which, in this case, has the majority of the house) or websites like Lastminute.com, all of whom have separate ducat allocations.

“You set up partnerships with each of them and they all have email communication, they all have Web stores, selling agents, some have magazine communications, specific mailings,” Bond adds. “And different ticket agencies have stronger contacts with certain parts of the market.”

West End promotion, he argues, is also very different from a Gotham campaign in terms of the balance between print and TV.

U.S. print campaigns, for instance, are dominated by the New York Times, and the main focus is otherwise on TV. But London’s crowd of competing newspapers makes the city a different marketplace.

“Here you can identify and target very specifically within your wider audience, depending on the paper,” Bond says. “When and what type of presence you have in different papers is a major decision.”

By contrast, the combination of the BBC ban on advertising, high ad rates elsewhere and the absence of regional TV rules out U.K. tube campaigns almost completely.

The show’s online presence has been considerably ramped up via partnerships with entertainment sites that don’t usually play in the legit space. Thus far, a video of the four leads joking around in the recording session for the number “I’m a Believer” has, at last count, had 380,497 documented hits via the show’s website, Facebook, YouTube, as a podcast and on TwitVid — and that number doesn’t include untracked hits from forwarded links.

Much of that interest can be attributed to the high-profile casting of Amanda Holden, a judge on TV ratings sensation “Britain’s Got Talent,” as Princess Fiona. But after the first preview, co-star Nigel Harman (TV’s “EastEnders”) got a lot of the attention as the villainous Lord Farquaad.

The size difference between the U.S. and the U.K. also has big impact on promo relationships. By necessity in the U.S. partnerships tend to be more regional whereas in the far smaller U.K. the reach can be national.

“We did a big push last holiday season with (Brit supermarket chain) Tesco, with a national contest in their Christmas gifts guide,” Bond says. “On Broadway it would probably have been in four or five states.”

Within the show itself, changes have been largely tonal rather than radical, although DreamWorks’ Bill Damaschke points to a re-ordering of the first act to improve the storytelling and a reworking of the opening.

“It was a late-breaking idea in Chicago, too late to put it in,” he says.

Plus, there’s the dragon. “It’s now a giant 40-foot puppet operated by four puppeteers, with a great new song,” he adds. “And it will fly over the audience in the finale.”

Damaschke hopes the breadth of British legit life will play to his show’s advantage.

“There’s something about just the amount of work that gets produced here,” he notes. “In New York, theater is very rarefied and very expensive. I’m amazed by the diversity of the audience here.”

The current positioning of the show within the West End landscape certainly bodes well: the first four previews were sell-outs. It’s very early days, but it’s nonetheless a good indication the “Shrek” collaborators have taken the sign in their office to heart.

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