Stars & Gripes: The Yanks Are Coming Again & AgainDate: 25 March 2002
Mark Shenton looks at a transatlantic invasion of plays and people to the West End - and wonders why, outside of a select few British actors and directors on Broadway, the traffic is largely one-way at the moment.
What's going on? Britain's Henry Goodman has just taken over from Nathan Lane in the Broadway megahit The Producers. Essex girl Denise van Outen is currently reprising her all-American Roxie Hart in the Broadway edition of Chicago. And Josefina Gabrielle (another sometime London Roxie) is also to be found on the Great White Way, reprising her National Theatre role as Laurey in Trevor Nunn's production of Oklahoma! that has just been recreated there.
The past few weeks have also seen the National's former and future artistic directors, Richard Eyre and Nicholas Hytner, directing new Broadway productions of otherwise all-American work - respectively the Arthur Miller classic The Crucible (starring Liam Neeson) and a new Marvin Hamlisch musical, The Sweet Smell of Success. And another South Bank regular, Sean Mathias, is currently directing a Broadway revival of The Elephant Man with a cast that includes our own Rupert Graves.
An Unofficial Colonisation
So Broadway currently has some of our talent working over there; meanwhile, London's theatreland is undergoing an unofficial colonisation of its own by all things, and people, American. Musicals, of course, have long been welcome transatlantic visitors. We've already got new productions of old Broadway musicals in town at the National (South Pacific) and in the West End (Kiss Me Kate). We've also got a recycled 1920s Gershwin musical, My One and Only, and a reworked Disney cartoon, The Lion King, from New York, too, while the hit revival of the 1976 Broadway musical Chicago continues to run successfully.
Now The Full Monty has arrived - and it has the cheek (not to mention the bare rear cheeks of its steelworkers-turned-strippers) to reimagine what was once a hit British film set in Sheffield into a quintessentially American musical set in Buffalo, NY. And to really rub salt into wounded British pride, its star stripper line-up is all-American, too - all but one of them from the original Broadway company of the show. Kiss Me Kate, too, brought four Broadway veterans to town, only two of whom had actually appeared in the show's New York revival, but all of them deemed necessary to give it the authentic whiff of Manhattan. Ditto South Pacific, which found its hillbilly nurse, Nellie Forbush (the altogether delightful, and altogether unknown Lauren Kennedy) by casting the role in New York.
Never mind that none of these performers are known outside of New York, and some of them not even there, so don't sell a single ticket over here: it's the shows that actually count. So why are these imports necessary at all, some might say? As a reviewer, I'd say that the end justifies the means in each of these cases - not that finding equivalent talents here would have been an impossibility (though it might be constructively asked: did they try?), but that they're all good, so who cares?
Maybe if I was an actor, I would care. While there has long been free exchange between London and New York for what are deemed to be stars of international repute, gripes begin to kick in when unknown performers are being bartered between the two places. Britain and America's respective Actors' Equity Associations are, sometimes justifiably, wary of their members' employment opportunities being compromised by such blatant exchanges, and have set up supposedly rigorous (but in fact somewhat arbitrarily applied) rules to govern them.
But audiences sometimes lose out as a result. It has just taken Trevor Nunn's National Theatre production of Oklahoma! four years to cross the Atlantic. In his review of the production that has now finally opened there, Ben Brantley of The New York Times has compared it to what was seen at the National. Referring to its original triumph there, he lamented, "that level of excitement, I must reluctantly confess, has lowered in this latest version. Mr Nunn had hoped to bring his London cast with him to New York, a plan thwarted by the American Actors' Equity. Working with a mostly new ensemble (only two original performers remain), he and Ms (Susan) Stroman have yet to achieve the same compelling fluidity or galvanising sexual charge."
But when direct exports are allowed, such as the current Donmar Warehouse staging of Stephen Adly Guirgis's Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, with its original off-Broadway cast under the direction of Philip Seymour Hoffman, audiences are treated to the kind of galvanising energy that only an indigenous cast can supply. By striking and immediate contrast, the local cast assembled for the Donmar's simultaneous production of an American world premiere, Frame 312, drew this comment from the Evening Standard's Nicholas de Jongh: "The Donmar's discreditable practice of casting English actors as Americans ensures another blow or two is struck for inauthenticity."
Both productions are part of the Donmar's current American Imports season that will occupy the theatre for the next four months and that, in May, includes the appearance of Gwyneth Paltrow in an already completely sold-out run of the Pulitzer-prize winning Broadway play, Proof. In June, a co-production with New York's Public Theatre will see the world-premiere of Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out, with American director Joe Mantello directing an all-American cast.
Before either of those, in April the Donmar offers the UK premiere of Kenneth Lonergan's off-Broadway play Lobby Hero. Lonergan, an up-and-coming playwright and film-maker (who made last year's Oscar-nominated You Can Count On Me), is also currently represented by the West End arrival of his first play, This is Our Youth at the Garrick. Laurence Boswell's production of that piece has wisely cast its three roles with a trio of rising young Hollywood actors.
Hayden Christensen, soon to be seen as Anakin Sykwalker in the latest episode of the Star Wars Trilogy, stars alongside Jake Gyllenhaal (Jurassic Park III) and former child star (and Oscar-winner for The Piano) Anna Paquin. Not only does this sexy it up, but more importantly this portrait of the rage, resentment and immaturity of youth is best served by actors who understand the rhythms of American speech so minutely. Boswell's next assignment, meanwhile, will be to direct American megastar (but fledgling stage actress) Madonna, in a new Australian-written play, Up for Grabs.
Those are not the only American-written plays and personalities due in town soon. April sees the world premiere of Naomi Wallace's The Inland Sea at Wilton's Music Hall in an Oxford Stage Company production. May sees the US author of Angels in America, Tony Kushner, come to the Young Vic with Homebody/Kabul, charting the journey of an Englishwoman into the heart of Afghanistan. And at the Almeida, another playwright/film-maker, Neil LaBute, returns to the theatre that staged his last play, The Shape of Things, to premiere his latest, The Distance from Here, with yet another all-American cast.
While America continues to enforce barriers to entire British companies going to New York, no such restrictions seem to apply the other way around. I'm all for wholesale exchanges; but at the moment, it seems to be largely one-way, except for a few token entries at the top.