LONDON — The high-profile Andrew Lloyd Webber-David Zippel tuner “The Woman In White” won’t be the first West End musical out of the starting gate this fall. That honor goes to the local preem of “Bat Boy: The Musical,” which opens Sept. 8 at the Shaftesbury Theater with an unusual director and first-time London producer attached. (Previews start Aug. 18.)
“I’m kind of surprised myself,” says helmer Mark Wing-Davey of having been chosen to direct the Laurence O’Keefe/Keythe Farley/Brian Flemming musical, staged by Scott Schwartz Off Broadway in 2001. Wing-Davey is the British actor-turned-director who has made a name for himself with the likes of Caryl Churchill and Craig Lucas (as well as the Liev Schreiber “Henry V”), all of which would seem worlds away from “Bat Boy’s” provenance in, uh, the Weekly World News.
“It is a set of challenges,” acknowledges Wing-Davey, who lives in London despite his visibility in the U.S. “To some extent, working in the not-for-profit theater, which I do invariably, it’s quite a shock for me coming into this — to field so many opinions and keep one’s feet on the ground.”
On the other hand, the mainstream heat should prepare Wing-Davey for another unlikely project from him: the stage preem, to open in Sydney, Australia, of the movie “Dirty Dancing.” After that, it’s back to more familiar ground, with a December production at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., of “The Provok’d Wife,” the 17th-century comedy by Sir John Vanbrugh.
Those who may have rolled their eyes at “Bat Boy’s” Off Broadway facetiousness will be pleased to hear of Wing-Davey’s take. “We’re trying desperately not to wink at the audience and say it’s funny; the show may have some kind of smart-ass values, in a good way, but at the same time it’s the simple story of a childlike outsider who succeeds and then comes to a sticky end.”
Still, why risk “Bat Boy” commercially in Britain, a country famously hostile to contempo American musicals? Producer Michael Alden, a West End newcomer, speaks of being cheered by reviews for the show’s just-finished tryout at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, albeit in a venue about one-tenth the size of the 1,300-seat Shaftesbury. (Tuner led the U.K. Sunday Times critics’ pick of the week in the July 11 edition of its influential Culture magazine.)
“My feeling is I’m OK if I’m in (a reader’s) top three choices” of things to see, says Alden, 48, who has worked of late primarily in film. (He was an associate producer on “The Hours.”). “They’re going to see ‘The Producers’ and I want them to, and they’re going to see ‘Mary Poppins.’ And I want them to see ‘Bat Boy.’ ”
The London production, Alden promises, will be bigger than the New York one, which was among the shows to never recover fully from 9/11. Off Broadway, the musical had a cast of 10 and two understudies; in London it has a company of 14, including four onstage swings: Deven May, from the New York venture, is onboard for London, this go-round minus the (fake) British accent that was deemed inappropriate for a British public.
The West End cost is roughly double the Off Broadway capitalization of $1.4 million: “This is twice as big all the way down the line,” says Alden. “I want it to be an event.”
But Wing-Davey expresses bemusement at launching a sequence of London musicals that includes, opening exactly a week after “Bat Boy,” the Trevor Nunn-helmed “The Woman In White.”
“I’m not sure it’s a lineup I would have chosen to be one of the high-kickers in,” says the director, deadpan. “I just think, there we are. Good luck to everyone else.”