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Wary Theater Rivalry Between London and New York Gives Way to a Boom in Crossovers

Ink Play West End London
Alastair Muir/REX/Shutterstock

Give or take a little tectonic shift, the distance between London and New York still stands at 3,465 miles. Arguably, though, the two theater capitals have never been closer.

It’s not just the nine productions playing in duplicate in both locations — believed to be the most ever — with three more expected in the next 18 months. Over the past 10 years, the number of transatlantic transfers has soared, with Broadway musicals landing in London almost as regularly as airplanes, and British actors routinely treading the Big Apple’s boards. There’s also more cooperation, and more co-productions, between the two countries than ever.

The crossover shows up more prominently every awards season. Brits have a strong presence at this year’s Tonys, with “The Ferryman,” “Ink” and “Network” all up for major awards. Last year, several Tony categories were close to being all-British affairs. Meanwhile, American musicals ruled the roost at the recent Olivier Awards in London, with one homegrown tuner outflanked by “Fun Home,” “Come From Away” and “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical.”

All this cross-fertilization has a long history. Paul Robeson and Alberta Hunter rode “Show Boat” to London in 1928, and Cameron Mackintosh’s mega-musicals stormed the U.S. in the mid-’80s. But even a decade ago, it took a very big hit to make the trip. Today the flow is far stronger, because wary competition has been replaced by willing collaboration, industry insiders say.

“It has definitely evolved,” says Neal Street Prods.’ Caro Newling, who set up Sam Mendes’ The Bridge Project in 2009 to bring British and American actors together on a series of Shakespeare plays. “I don’t think, 15 years ago, it was a given that the two cultures could collaborate seamlessly. But now there’s a whole generation that has grown up with the idea of working together in this way.”

Newling has just orchestrated a major transatlantic co-production, hooking up London’s National Theatre with New York’s Park Avenue Armory on “The Lehman Trilogy,” about the original Lehman brothers and their financial dealings. Such producing partnerships are now par for the course — arguably out of necessity. As in film and television, the costs of commercial production are forcing theater producers to think globally from the word go. Properties have to build profit over years in multiple markets.

“You’re looking at the long game,” says “Come From Away” producer Randy Adams. “You better love every project you do, because it will be with you for years.”

In 2013, four years before it landed on Broadway, Adams brought two British co-producers, Joseph Smith and John Brant, as well as Canadian and Australian partners, onto “Come From Away.” From its inception, the musical was an international project.

It had to be. “Putting on a production has become much more intricate,” Smith says. With the advent of social media and online ticketing, local knowledge and on-the-ground expertise have become crucial. Partners are necessary, partly to raise investment. “It’s really important to figure out the front end of a show as well as the back,” Adams says.

The same philosophy extends to the state-subsidized theater sector in Britain. With government funding dropping 28% in real terms over the past decade, theaters have had to make up the shortfall, in part by exploiting their successes commercially. That has led to relationships with commercial outlets — co-producing arrangements and first-look deals — and upped the number of shows that migrate to New York. “The Ferryman,” “Ink” and “Network” all followed that path.

For the National Theatre, New York has a wider strategic importance. Eight years ago, it opened an office there to oversee its American interests, beginning with the hit play “War Horse.” Today more than 15% of its fundraising comes from the U.S. “That regular presence, whether on Broadway or St. Ann’s [Warehouse in Brooklyn], as well as with NT Live [broadcasts], brings an important profile,” says Lisa Burger, the National’s executive director.

Some of the transatlantic relationships go back a long way. Whether director John Tiffany and his “Harry Potter” team bringing “Black Watch” to New York in 2007 or “Ink” helmer Rupert Goold dispatching “Macbeth” to BAM in Brooklyn a year later, many of the Brits on Broadway today debuted there a decade or so ago. “A ton of British work has come to New York,” says Susan Feldman, St. Ann’s artistic director, who has imported a great deal of it herself. “It was considered pretty radical early on. Now those artists can play anywhere. More people are going to see their work.”

Newer venues like St. Ann’s have offered British shows opportunities outside the Great White Way. Feldman’s space was large enough to host “Black Watch” and bold enough to back it. It’s since given Denise Gough (“Angels in America”) her New York debut in the National’s “People, Places & Things.” Park Avenue Armory opened another set of doors to large-scale shows, while BAM’s Fisher Building offered increased flexibility. Now there’s also The Shed in Hudson Yards — with a Scot, Alex Poots, calling the shots.

Across the pond, London’s subsidized theaters still offer something that’s often a stretch in America: decent development time. After a promising Off Broadway run, Anaïs Mitchell’s musical “Hadestown” used the National Theatre to scale up before heading back to New York. “Groundhog Day” and “Girl From the North Country” both had their first runs at the not-for-profit Old Vic.

American artists are leaving their mark on the U.K. Just as a generation of British creatives announced themselves in New York a decade ago, Britain’s subsidized theaters are now welcoming a wave of new U.S. talent — playwrights in particular. The Almeida in North London has become Anne Washburn’s home away from home, premiering both her take on “The Twilight Zone” and her surrealist spin on the Trump era, “Shipwrecked.” Annie Baker is returning to the National this fall with her third play there, “The Antipodes.” Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Lynn Nottage, Danai Gurira and Rajiv Joseph all have had multiple London productions in recent years.

The surge in interest is partly political, an attempt to make sense of the state of the U.S. today. But it’s primarily aesthetic. Although American dramatists, including Bruce Norris, Christopher Shinn and Tony Kushner, have had transatlantic success, the current diversity of voices and form feels new. Writers like Taylor Mac and Clare Barron are winning fans in London’s literary quarters, where the feeling is that American artists are more adept at expressing identity politics onstage than their British counterparts.

The more those voices establish themselves with U.K. audiences, the more traffic there’ll be on what Jeanie O’Hare, the Public Theater’s director of new work development, calls the “Grade-A highway across the Atlantic.” And the more crossover between the two cultures, the closer those 3,465 miles will come to feel.

—Matt Trueman