A LETTER FROM LONDON: The Brits Vs. The Yanks — Different Approaches to the Same Passion for Theatre

News   A LETTER FROM LONDON: The Brits Vs. The Yanks — Different Approaches to the Same Passion for Theatre
Are there differences between New York and London theatregoers? London writer Ruth Leon asks the question, and takes in Broadway's Arcadia, Earnest, Anything Goes and Jerusalem.

Chris Rock in The Motherf**ker with the Hat
Chris Rock in The Motherf**ker with the Hat Photo by Joan Marcus


Say to a London theatregoer, "Tell me about the play," and, chances are, he'll tell you about the play. Say the same thing to a New Yorker and he'll say, "We had very good seats." Apocryphal, of course, but not too far from reality. I've been playing hooky from my usual beat this month and hiding out in New York, trying to catch up on everything I've missed this spring. Seeing six or seven plays a week in the Big Apple has set me meditating on the difference between West End and Broadway audiences.

For a start, Londoners care a lot less about where they sit than New Yorkers do. If they really want to see a play or musical they'll hang from a chandelier or hide under a seat, but in New York, the moments before the curtain rises are filled with high drama in the aisles — ticketbuyers desperately trying to move from wherever they are to somewhere better. Sellouts, where they can't change because there are no free seats to move to, only frustrate them more, which engenders much whispered fury and rustling of Playbills.

New Yorkers don't mind being late to the theatre, which infuriates the rest of the audience who are already seated as the latecomers shove their way to the middle of the row (why are latecomers invariably holding tickets for the row's center?), kicking the coats and bags neatly stored under the seats. Theatres in the U.K. often don't allow latecomers to enter the auditorium until intermission, and there's no quarter given or excuses accepted, so most of us have learned to arrive on time. Cutting it fine is apparently the New Yorkers' way of telling one another that they are so busy that they couldn't have gotten to the theatre a second earlier. Another is the ubiquitous cell phone, rarely turned off or silent until the play or the overture has actually started, lighting up the auditorium at just the moment you want to be quiet to anticipate the evening to come.

Annoying, but not as annoying as Londoners who feel the imperative to whisper to one another once the play has started, heads bobbing together and then apart, not allowing the person behind them to find a convenient gap from which they might enjoy the play before they have to exchange another pithy comment. If I had my way, I'd separate all couples as they enter the theatre, sending them to opposite sides of the auditorium.

Brian Bedford in The Importance of Being Earnest
photo by Joan Marcus

Once seated, the New Yorkers are the more appreciative and responsive audience. Even after the play has started, they will interrupt the action to applaud the entrance of an actor whose face they recognize, even at the expense of the mood and atmosphere that the actor is trying to create. They start laughing early and loudly, whereas a British audience will often wait until they feel they have the measure of the play, sensing the shape of it, before laughing. Even then, they rarely display the volume and enthusiasm of Americans until well into the second half of the play.

Standing ovations are de rigueur in New York, not awarded as a recognition of the exceptional artistry and skill of the performers but as a regular part of the applause, even for a ho-hum production of a mediocre play. This makes it difficult for those not standing to see the actors they are applauding but at least they stay until the end of the applause, until the house lights go up, not rudely setting off up the aisles on their way to the exits as some English audience members do as soon as the play is over.

But perhaps the biggest difference is the emphasis on star power on Broadway. These days few plays can raise their production costs unless at least one cast member is a movie or television star, and this is true on both sides of the Atlantic. But in New York, audiences expect the star they know to be performing a similar role to the one they know him for.

For example, stand-up comedian Chris Rock, unknown in Britain but very famous in the States, was cast in a new play with a title that can't even be used on its own posters: The Motherf**ker with the Hat. The audience the night I saw it was appreciably younger and more diverse than the standard Broadway audience. They hadn't come to see a play at all, but a star. I would guess that at least two-thirds of them had gone to the theatre that night expecting a Chris Rock stand-up routine. What they got was a play, with characters and a plot, and it was strong enough that they became interested in that instead. By the time Chris Rock entered the action, which didn't happen until some way into the play, the mood of the audience, initially impatient for their guy to appear, had changed. The real star of the show, a terrific stage actor called Bobby Cannavale, in cahoots with the playwright and the other actors, had distracted their attention and, although they applauded when their hero made his appearance, they were by now hooked on the play itself. A raucous comedy club crowd had become an attentive playgoing audience and Chris Rock, while perfectly adequate in his role but without the acting technique and experience of the superb Cannavale, became just another character.

Patina Miller in Sister Act.
photo by Joan Marcus

Audience dynamics are fascinating. For me, the differences are most easily judged by watching my fellow theatregoers at plays that have transferred to New York from London. Not the musicals — Sister Act or Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, where the response on both sides is similar, but the plays — say, War Horse, Arcadia or Jerusalem. The quality of listening is different. Americans want to be engaged immediately with the characters, the plot, even the scenery. If the first few minutes of the play don't grab them, they stop listening, and the rustling, coughing and fidgeting factors rise. Brits are more patient. They will allow the play to grow on them, even if, as in the case of Jerusalem, they are not at all sure whether they like the characters or not. Once the totality of the experience overtakes them, though, the transatlantic differences fade. While many New York theatregoers routinely go to London at least once a year to go to the theatre and are accustomed to the different pace of theatrical development, there are still major differences. The audience reaction to War Horse is different in the U.S., at least in part because the First World War setting has another meaning for the British, who are still conscious of the entire generation of young men who perished in that war, a conflict that changed Britain irrevocably. Americans had only a peripheral involvement, and it is therefore difficult for them to understand the passionate treatment of the human loss described in the play. I have heard Americans refer to the human story as "sentimental," whereas Brits mourn openly. Reaction to the plight of the horses is similar in both cases.

Mackenzie Crook in Jerusalem.
photo by Joan Marcus

Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, probably the best play written in my lifetime, with a mixed Anglo-American cast, was generously received by its New York audience, but the big surprise was the welcome given to Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem. This is a great play, but an intrinsically British one, concerned as it is with the state of the British state and the creeping death of eccentricism. It cannot only be Mark Rylance's towering performance and Mackenzie Crook's quieter but equally significant one that produced the outpouring of applause and cheering on the night I saw it on Broadway. It must also be the play itself and its resonance for its new audience in New York.

The audience loved Brian Bedford's rousing turn as Lady Bracknell in Wilde's very English The Importance of Being Earnest and the usual jokes went around that he should be nominated for a Best Actress Tony (he was, in fact, nominated for a Best Actor). What struck me was that, protestations to the contrary, Americans understand the subtleties of class very well. Of course there is a class system in America, although it is slightly easier to transcend than the one depicted in Importance, and if you doubt that, hurry to Good People, a wonderful new American play by David Lindsay-Abaire on this very subject. The audience members I talked with afterwards were, of course, thrilled by Frances McDormand's stunning performance but acknowledged the basic truth of a hidden class system as intrinsic to American society as the overt one in Britain.

The show that most exemplified American exuberance for me on this trip to New York was Cole Porter's Anything Goes, a joyous, thrilling experience for the hardened theatregoer and the neophyte. Sitting next to me on one side was another critic who had a big grin on his face from beginning to end. On the other was a middle-aged woman who couldn't keep still in her seat. She clapped, she whooped, she bounced up and down, and when, in the intermission, I remarked how much she seemed to be enjoying herself, she told me, with shining eyes, that this was her first ever Broadway show but it certainly wouldn't be her last. I can't imagine the British expressing their emotions like that, but I wish they would.

(Ruth Leon is a London and New York City arts writer and critic whose work has been seen in Playbill magazine and other publications.) *

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Shina Ann Morris, Joyce Chittick, Colin Donnell, Sutton Foster, Joel Grey, Kimberly Faur&eacute and Jennifer Savelli
Shina Ann Morris, Joyce Chittick, Colin Donnell, Sutton Foster, Joel Grey, Kimberly Fauré and Jennifer Savelli
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