Broadway banks on ‘Boys’ life

Brit hit hopes to translate its success to Yank auds

In the British play “The History Boys,” characters hash out an essential question: Can an intellectual exercise be valuable in its own right or must it have a commercial purpose?

It’s a question the play itself might soon face.

After an award-studded run at London’s National Theater, “Boys” arrives on Broadway April 23 at the Broadhurst with the original British cast, the pedigree of two of the U.K.’s great theater minds — and the daunting weight of expectation.

With recent Brit import “Festen” harpooned by critics and sputtering at the box office, “Boys” is Broadway’s next great hope from across the Pond.

This verbally dexterous, Big Idea show about a group of quippy teenagers challenged by a maverick educator is taking chances that could yield one of the year’s unlikeliest hits — or biggest disappointments.

And with Fox Searchlight reportedly releasing a film version not long after the 20-week legit engagement ends, the stakes get even higher, with the film’s fate colored by the popularity of the show.

Both versions are written by noted English playwright Alan Bennett and directed by Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National.

For Hytner, the chance to direct a Broadway version, co-produced by the National with Bob Boyett and Bill Haber (who last week reupped their first-look deal to import National shows), represents a glittering opportunity, especially after shooting the movie.

“I can’t think of any other instance where someone got the chance to capture onscreen what he did onstage — and then gets to go back to doing it onstage,” Hytner tells Variety.

The material offers potential for both mediums.

In these Bushian times of No Child Left Behind, and as city governments around the country overhaul public-school systems, “History Boys” feels in tune with the education-wars zeitgeist.

But with its British schoolboy banter and dense references to the Western canon, it is also persuasively, sometimes elusively, British. A drama that worries whether educators should gear curricula toward the admission boards of elite universities or toward lofty goals of human enrichment could strike U.S. auds as the equivalent of fretting over whether one’s Prada shoes are too tight.

Hytner waves aside concerns about resonance: The preoccupation with lost values, he says, is universal.

“Of course American audiences will relate to it,” Hytner says. “It’s a lament for the way that in some respects our cultural roots are shallower now.” Besides, he adds, “Do you know how many (movies and TV shows) about American teenagers we get in England?”

Subject matter isn’t Hytner’s boldest bet. In an act of either savvy staging or stubbornness, Hytner insisted on keeping the original cast intact for Broadway. In fact, the group has barely breathed apart since the show opened its mostly sold-out British run in the spring of 2004.

Last summer, Hytner pulled relative unknowns like Samuel Anderson, James Corden and Sacha Dhawan from the British stage to shoot the film, then took them on the road to Australia, Hong Kong and New Zealand before bringing them to Broadway.

“In 25 years, I’ve not seen anything like this cast. They’re like a jazz ensemble,” Hytner says. “There was no way Alan or I would want to go ahead (to Gotham) under any other circumstance.”

Of course, Broadway history doesn’t always suggest good results for imported casts. In 1999, British import “The Weir” kept its cast together and struggled at the box office.

And the English-school setting may seem familiar to some Americans, thanks to the Harry Potter series (as will the play’s lead, Richard Griffiths, who plays Harry’s uncle Vernon in the films). But other Yanks may find the milieu alien, with the play assuming a familiarity with the structure and rules of the system glossed over in the fantasy world of “Potter.”

And the financial realities of a limited run (because of strict Equity rules concerning the Brit cast, the show can’t extend beyond the scheduled 20 weeks) could make profitability tricky even if the play resonates. “I’d call it very high-risk,” says the Shubert Organization’s Gerald Schoenfeld. “It’s a wonderful show, but it’s a very expensive proposition for a very limited period of time with limited upside.”

Then again, recent Broadway attempts to rework Brit hits with an American cast have struggled — both “Festen” and another play lauded in its original staging at the National, “Democracy,” were perceived as disappointments Stateside. If nothing else, the wholesale importing of a cast from London seems wise by counterexample.

Hytner is no stranger to shaking up American auds: He was the director behind the startlingly strong film version of that quintessentially American play “The Crucible.”

If any writer-director duo can move fluidly between the terrain of film and stage, this one can. Hytner and Bennett paired on another improbable theater-film combo, the mid-’90s end-of-the-empire tale “The Madness of King George,” a hit on both stage and screen that won Helen Mirren an actress prize at Cannes.

Hytner says directing the same work in both mediums can enhance both versions. “A few times with the play (of “History Boys”), I stop and think, ‘I wish we could have done that in front of the camera.’ ” But then, he says, he just goes ahead and makes the tweaks onstage.

For the director, the play, with its themes of idealism and intellectualism, fit with his larger ambitions.

Already in his tenure at the National, Hytner has taken several steps to democratize the sometimes rarified institution. He initiated a much-publicized £10 ($17.92) promotion to make theater accessible to wider auds and has brought in unlikely auteurs like musician Damon Albarn, of the bands Blur and Gorillaz, to write for the stage.

“When I leave, I want to make sure there’s a generation of gifted younger playwrights who want to write plays for a big public theater, for a big public stage,” he says of his larger goals — echoing “History Boys'” theme of art for art’s sake. He pauses, then adds,”I don’t think I’ve done that yet.”