Is there such a thing as Stoppard fatigue?
Just last season, Gotham playgoers spent nine hours with the famously literate Tom Stoppard’s three-play cycle about 19th century Russian intellectuals, “The Coast of Utopia.” Now hot on its heels comes “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” a similarly erudite show that originated at London’s Royal Court and began Broadway previews at the Jacobs Theater Oct. 19.
But lead producers Sonia Friedman and Bob Boyett, encouraged by a strong advance of about $3 million, see the attention directed at the Tony-sweeping “Coast” as a help rather than a hindrance.
“Stoppard is aligned with the planets, certainly in the last two years,” says Boyett.
Like “Utopia,” “Rock ‘n’ Roll” also focuses on historically dense, potentially intimidating subject matter: the history of Czechoslovakian communism, as reflected through 30 years in the lives of a Czech dissident and a British scholar clinging to his country’s Communist Party. Plus, there are the obscure classic-rock references.
And whereas “Utopia” was produced under the somewhat more forgiving nonprofit auspices of Lincoln Center Theater, “Rock” is a commercial production capitalized, according to Boyett, at around $2.7 million. (LCT, however, is involved as an associate presenter.)
So it’s not a risk-free proposition. But there’s no denying Stoppard’s on a roll on both sides of the Atlantic.
Last season, “Utopia” was the play to beat — and no show did, as the epic took home seven Tonys. “Utopia” snowballed into an intelligentsia must-see, while press coverage over the production’s seven-month run ranged from rapturous reviews to suggested reading lists to devil’s-advocate testimonies of boredom with the whole shebang.
Simultaneously, “Rock ‘n’ Roll” was winning raves from the successful West End transfer of the original 2006 Court production. Friedman notes that the team behind the Brit incarnation of “Rock” was so certain the limited run at the Court couldn’t match demand that the commercial transfer was in the works, with Friedman attached, even before the Court engagement opened.
U.K. press praise offers a major marketing asset for the U.S. incarnation, essentially the same production with Trevor Nunn directing five of the Brit version’s original thesps, including Brian Cox, Rufus Sewell and Sinead Cusack.
“We have the advantage of the reaction from London,” Boyett says. “That’s been more of our emphasis in the advertising.” Pre-approval from across the Pond also makes the U.S. incarnation a bit less reliant on Gotham critics, although New York scribes seem likely to echo their Blighty counterparts. (The New York Times chief theater critic has already chimed in with a rave from London.)
“Rock” also is more of a known quantity compared with “Utopia,” which underwent fairly thorough revisions between its original 2002 production at the National and the LCT staging last season.
The play is only undergoing minor trims and edits, with a few potential changes being considered toward the end of the play, according to Boyett. The design of the show also remains consistent, although Friedman points out it’s been “Broadwayed” to fit the larger New York venue.
“Rock” can additionally benefit from the large membership base of LCT, which produces in association with its commercial partners and has offered “Rock” tickets to members.
“We were very happy to do that,” Boyett says. “They have such a loyal group.” LCT members, for instance, gobbled up tickets to daylong “marathons” of the “Utopia” trilogy, when Lincoln Center expected ticket buyers to be more cautious.
“For many people, ‘Coast of Utopia’ was a more accessible play than they expected,” Boyett says. “There are people who might have been intimidated by a Stoppard play who now think, ‘Well, I saw “Utopia” and I understood it.’ ”
And while a “coast of utopia” might seem an abstract concept to most people, everyone instantly recognizes rock ‘n’ roll. “Just with that title, you win,” Friedman says.
The music used throughout the play also heightens accessibility. Most theatergoers won’t recognize Syd Barrett’s “Golden Hair” or “The Universe Symphony and Melody” by dissident Czech band Plastic People of the Universe, but auds likely will be able to hum along to Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” the Rolling Stones’ “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” or U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
Still, even Stoppard understands it doesn’t hurt to have a little help with the complicated history of the play. “Tom said we’ve got to do something to re-create our London program,” Friedman says.
To that end, producers have bought extra pages in the Playbill in order to accommodate an eight-page section, compiled by Stoppard, that explains the context of the events of the play.
Due to Equity provisions involving actors from overseas, “Rock” can run for a maximum of 30 weeks, with an initial limited engagement planned for 22-26 weeks. Producers are marketing mainly to habitual playgoers, including the group of interested ticket buyers who have purchased tickets for Boyett’s trans-Atlantic transfers of Royal National Theater shows such as “The History Boys” and “Jumpers.”
While the “Rock ‘n’ Roll” team remains confident that interest in Stoppard is at a high right now, they do acknowledge there could potentially be too much of a good thing.
“There was a moment when we thought about coming in with ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ last season,” Friedman says. “But when we saw what ‘Coast of Utopia’ was shaping into, we knew we had to give it some space.”