National Theater guides growth of 2011 Tony winner

As last year’s Tonys sensation “War Horse” is the latest to point up, a high-profile round of kudos love can help a show become an international brand. With the National Theater now in the midst of the worldwide rollout of its popular equine tale, the increasing benefits and rising demands that can come with global growth provide a case study in the economics of such success.

After bowing at London’s National Theater and transferring to the West End — where “War Horse” is in its third year — the show bowed in Gotham at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. The open-ended run scored six Tonys, including a special kudo for puppet design.

Those two productions have been joined by a sitdown staging in Toronto produced with the Mirvishes. Meanwhile, demand for a U.S. tour, currently in rehearsal and produced with Bob Boyett and NETworks, has proven so strong that an additional performance has already been added to the opening week in Boise, Idaho, in June.

Another production opens in Melbourne in December, before touring Australia, South Asia and China. And 2013 will see not only a U.K. tour, but also the show’s first non-English-language production (the first in the National’s history) kicking off in Berlin.

All of this represents a boon to the not-for-profit National’s coffers. The West End production alone, produced solely by the National, yields £3.5 million ($5.5 million) per year, which is plowed back into the organization. This more than covers the theater’s progressive three-year cut in annual support from government funding arm Arts Council England.

Yet the growth of “War Horse” as a brand brings with it increased workload — hence a newly employed, dedicated team of 12, with expertise in fields including marketing and production management, all overseen by National exec director Nick Starr.

“The show’s box office appeal, certainly in London, is like that of a musical, but its costs are like a big play,” Starr says.

That’s a typical British understatement: The show has a cast of 35. “But the stars are the puppets,” Starr insists. “Although we are paying people well — certainly at the upper level of what you might be paying for this kind of work — we’re not paying star rates.”

In total, he reckons the cost for a North American production is around $6 million (compared with a mid-scale tuner like “Spring Awakening,” which reportedly cost roughly $8 million).

As expected, the original creatives are also benefiting from the success. In London, 35% of the operating surplus is split by those in the royalties pool. Since the show is so personnel-heavy — two directors, two puppet creators, two composers and a huge design team — there are 15 individuals in the pool, a figure that would be high even if it were a tuner. But with the show playing at 99% capacity, their individual rate of remuneration is more than healthy.

Despite the National’s position as sole producer in London, European production is being licensed to producing company Stage Entertainment, due to the divide in continental Europe between arthouse theater and the commercial sector, a situation that is very different from the way things operate in the U.K.

“Stage Entertainment owns theaters there and knows how best to produce there,” Starr says. “They take the risk, but they’re very keen for our involvement.”

The National doesn’t have a stake in the recent movie version profits — the deal was made between Steven Spielberg and Michael Morpurgo, author of the book on which the play is based. And there was no concern the pic would cannibalize sales from the stage version — movie adaptations of tuners including “Chicago,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Mamma Mia!” have proven a boon to their stage progenitors.

“In London, the advance went from £4 million to £8 million between last autumn to this January, when the film opened,” Starr says.

The sheer scale of the show’s success might lead a casual observer to believe that “War Horse” was a surefire hit. Yet this was a relatively forgotten early-’80s book in which the central character doesn’t speak. Prior to the show’s debut, the initial limited 2007 run was only 50% sold. Still, by opening night, after a mere 10 previews, it was clear the National had a hit on its hands.

And it’s a hit, says Starr, that could only happen with an organization well enough funded to keep its developing shows from being rushed to the stage in hopes of a quick payoff.

“It’s about having enough things in development so that you’re not picking winners until they’ve proven themselves,” he says. “You never know what will finally come through.”

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