A West End Test For The Broadway-Bound The new Broadway season is about to start, and it's likely some of this year's biggest hits -- or biggest flops -- will be from London. Trying out shows before they hit Broadway goes back a long way, and the West End is the ideal backdrop for fostering new productions.
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A West End Test For The Broadway-Bound

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A West End Test For The Broadway-Bound

A West End Test For The Broadway-Bound

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And there's still theater on the London stage too, not just in parliament. First of two reports now. Our theater reporter, Jeff Lunden, explains why some of Broadways biggest hits and for that matter flops - have London roots.

JEFF LUNDEN: How did all those great plays by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams or comedies by Neil Simon make it on Broadway? Well, before they got there, they tried out in front of paying audiences in New Haven or Boston or Philadelphia, says Jeremy Gerard, theater reporter and critic for Bloomberg News.

Mr. JEREMY GERARD (Bloomberg News): A producer would read a script and say, okay, Im going to produce this play and they would put together the company and they would take it on the road. And thats where they worked out the kinks and would either make money or lose money, before bringing it in to Broadway and hope that it would fly.

LUNDEN: But it was a costly and risky method to develop plays, and decades ago producers abandoned it. Instead, they started looking at regional theaters and off-Broadway and most especially London.

Mr. GERARD: Theres always been a pipeline, I think, with plays coming to New York from London, because producers believe that American theatergoers love British accents - even if theyre replaced with American casts - they love British accents.

LUNDEN: And this year will be no exception. In short order, several British imports will be landing on this side of the Atlantic - "The Pitmen Painters," "Brief Encounter," and in a particularly risky commercial gamble, "La Bete," a short-lived Broadway flop from the 1990s. Its set in 17th century France, written in rhyming couplets, and stars Mark Rylance and David Hyde Pierce, in a pair of juicy comic roles.

(Soundbite of play, "La Bete")

Mr. DAVID HYDE PIERCE (Actor): (as Elomire) I say, you have the power to depress with every single syllable you speak, with every monologue that takes a week and every self-adoring witticism.

Mr. MARK RYLANCE (Actor): (as Valere) Well, do you mean this as a criticism?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUNDEN: Sonia Friedman has produced plays on both sides of the Atlantic and is the lead producer on "La Bete." She says theres a reason London is such a fertile proving ground for plays. Theres a loyal theater-going audience and ticket prices are affordable. Most important, it costs about a third as much to mount a play over there than on Broadway.

Ms. SONIA FRIEDMAN (Producer, "La Bete"): An average-sized play that will run in London for, say, 14, 16 weeks, would normally cost between 350 and 500 thousand pounds sterling. That very same production, if you were to mount it on Broadway, would probably cost between two-and-a-half and three-and-a-half million dollars.

LUNDEN: And weekly running costs are three to four times more expensive in New York. Friedman attributes much of the difference to labor, but there are other factors. To lure Broadway audiences to spend $125 a ticket, youve got to pay a lot for advertising.

Ms. FRIEDMAN: Just a simple commercial TV ad in New York is three times the amount of my marketing budget for the whole of the London run.

LUNDEN: International Herald Tribune critic Matt Wolf - an American who has lived in London for 26 years - says lower production costs in the West End lead to more experimentation, but theres a reason why producers want to take the leap to Broadway.

Mr. MATT WOLF (Critic, International Herald Tribune): You often hear people saying, if they have a London hit, theyll often say, gosh, I wish that had been a Broadway hit, because that rare time out in New York, when you absolutely go hell-for-leather with a production and it pays back, you can make proper money. London, you dont lose as much but you also dont earn as much.

LUNDEN: That financial incentive has led producer Sonia Friedman to try something new with "La Bete."

Ms. FRIEDMAN: I put together something thats never been done before, which is sort of a global capitalization, global budget for both West End and Broadway. We thought, why wait? Given that if this was going to be a success - and you always set out on a show assuming it will be - we would be transferring it to Broadway, so lets just make the decision to do it and to do it all as one and not wait to read the reviews.

LUNDEN: "La Bete"'s London run has sold out - despite mixed reviews - and the Broadway run begins on September 23rd with some money already in the bank. Friedman's not the only innovator. A couple of American producers have developed first-look relationships with some of London's most prestigious nonprofit institutions. Bob Boyett's deal is with the National Theatre.

Mr. BOB BOYETT (Producer): I provide them with a sum of money on an annual basis, and that money is used however they wish for development of new products. And in return for that I have an option to transfer the productions from the National here to New York and to North America.

LUNDEN: Sometimes Boyett's arrangement with the National has been wildly successful - his transfer of "The History Boys"�in 2006 mopped up at the Tony Awards. But the next year,�"Coram Boy"�was a 30-performance disaster. Success in London does not necessarily ensure success in New York, says critic Matt Wolf.

Mr. MATT WOLF (Critic): Last season there was a multimillion dollar Broadway flop with�"Enron," which had been a great success in London. And I don't think anyone guessed that it would fail in New York quite so quickly. It only lasted a couple of weeks.

(Soundbite of play, "Enron")

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) You know the difference between the state of California and the Titanic? At least when the Titanic went down the lights were on.

LUNDEN: Bob Boyett lost money on�"Enron"�too. This season, he's bringing two shows over from the National. First up, at the Manhattan Theater Club, is "The Pitmen Painters,"�a London hit based on a real story of miners in northern England who became celebrated artists.

Mr. BOYETT: And it was a fascinating concept for men that are in the dark all day long, working in mines, how they saw the outside world - the way they saw color, the way they saw contrast.

(Soundbite of play, "The Pitmen Painters")

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character) I'm so terribly sorry. I didn't quite catch that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #3 (Actor): (as character) You (unintelligible) do you not?

Unidentified Man #4 (Actor): (as character) Do you teach art?

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Oh, yes. I do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LUNDEN: Whether or not�"The Pitmen Painters"�is lost in translation on Broadway remains to be seen. But Bob Boyett doesn't see the London pipeline shutting down anytime soon.

Mr. BOYETT: You're just in an atmosphere where you can develop without as great a risk. And you can take more chances.

LUNDEN: "The Pitmen Painters" begins performances on September 14th.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

SIMON: Tomorrow on WEEKEND EDITION SUNDAY, Jeff Lunden looks at another trend on Broadway: small plays with big stars. He talks with James Earl Jones about his upcoming appearance in "Driving Miss Daisy" and Patrick Stewart about starring in David Mamets "A Life in the Theater."

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