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From A Tiny London Stage, Big Musical Hits
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From A Tiny London Stage, Big Musical Hits


From A Tiny London Stage, Big Musical Hits
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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This Sunday, a new production of "Le cage aux Folles" opens on Broadway, right across the street from a hit revival of "A Little Night Music." Both shows began their lives at the Menier Chocolate Factory. That's a tiny theater in London that's become a powerhouse for revivals of American musicals. Reporter Jeff Lunden paid the Menier a visit on a recent trip to England.

JEFF LUNDEN: It really used to be an old chocolate factory. The Menier is in a formerly derelict industrial building south of the Thames, across from a row of nondescript offices. And the theater itself is minuscule. Seating less than 200 people, the audience in the first row could literally reach out and touch the actors.

But the impact of the shows has been huge.

(Soundbite of music)

LUNDEN: That's the overture to the Menier Chocolate Factory's production of "Sweet Charity," which will be its eighth show to transfer to London's West End in the six years the theater has been open. International Herald Tribune critic Matt Wolf says the Menier constantly surprises by presenting big shows in an impossibly small space.

Mr. MATT WOLF (Critic, International Herald Tribune): It doesn't make sense as the musical producing factory that it's become, and I think therein lies its strength: because it doesn't seem plausible, the fact that it does it is very exciting.

LUNDEN: Producer David Babani says there's a key to his theater's success: no money.

Mr. DAVID BABANI (Producer): The limitations of the space and budgets, et cetera, are a virtue. They force people to be creative. They force people to problem-solve in incredibly exciting ways.

LUNDEN: And Babani has been able to attract top-tier talent to this hole-in-the-wall theater for next to nothing, legendary directors like Trevor Nunn - he did a couple of little shows called "Cats" and "Les Mis," and Hal Prince, who has 21 Tony Awards on his shelf. Actor Douglas Hodge, who's played Shakespeare and Pinter at some of London's largest theaters, leapt at the opportunity to play the drag queen Albin in "Le cage aux Folles" at the Menier.

Mr. DOUGLAS HODGE (Actor): The Chocolate Factory immediately seemed to have that same crumbling, fringe-like, awful Dickensian atmosphere that seems to lead towards good theater. I don't know why.

LUNDEN: And the production was so well-received, it moved to the West End, where Hodge picked up an Olivier Award, and has now come to Broadway, where he is making his New York debut.

(Soundbite of musical, "Le cage Aux Folles")

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. HODGE: (As Albin): (Singing) I am what I am...

LUNDEN: Actress Hannah Waddingham starred in "A Little Night Music" at the Menier, as well as in the West End. She says the space is so intimate the audience sometimes becomes a part of the action.

Ms. HANNAH WADDINGHAM (Actor): In the middle of it, at the most inopportune moment, people will decide they need a pee. And you just think: Seriously, guys? I'm right here. You've just walked through two of us to get out of the room to go to the loo. And then they come back, and they do that kind of crouch thing, and a couple of people go: Sorry, sorry, I'm sorry, I'm just going to quickly nip out, while you're in the middle of a scene. But that's the whole charm of it.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. WADDINGHAM: (Singing) Making the hallway la la la...

LUNDEN: The intimacy extends backstage, where the actors share a dressing room in the basement, and the men and women are divided only by a curtain, says David Babani.

Mr. BABANI: So it means that everybody is together, everybody can hear everything that's said. And it just promotes some real camaraderie, which is, again, a key factor in our shows.

LUNDEN: Another key factor is Babani's hunger for commercial success. His theater receives no government subsidy, and its income is entirely self-generated. So in addition to the theater, the Menier operates a gourmet restaurant. But it's the shows, including a lot of American musicals, that bring 'em in.

Mr. BABANI: I think it keeps you on your toes and, especially, because we're not funded, we can't go into sort of lazy producing mode. Two flops in a row, and we're closed.

LUNDEN: But perhaps the biggest key to staying afloat is having shows move to larger and more lucrative theaters in the West End and on Broadway.

Mr. BABANI: Unlike a lot of other places, we still remain active producers. We raise money for them and so on and so forth. So it makes it a very pleasurable experience, watching the follow through rather than creating something and then just giving it to somebody else to run with.

LUNDEN: And with "Le Cage" opening on Broadway and "Sweet Charity" opening in the West End, all in the space of a few weeks, Babani's feeling really good.

Mr. BABANI: I get to work with my heroes. We get to make great shows. People seem to like them, and they come and they clap at the end and everything. Like, I don't know what more a guy can ask for.

LUNDEN: For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

(Soundbite of music)

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