How American Directors Navigate the Industry Across the Pond

Special Features   How American Directors Navigate the Industry Across the Pond
Despite a drought when it comes to Olivier victories, these American directors continue to mount productions across the pond. Why? The uncharted territory.
Matt Henry and Killian Donnelly and company
Matt Henry and Killian Donnelly and company Matt Crockett

Since 2006, British-born directors have been nominated for Tony Awards for directing plays 21 times (five of whom won, including twice over for Marianne Elliott) and for directing musicals ten times (four of whom won). By contrast, for the West End’s Olivier Awards (where there is only a single category for directors), American directors have only been nominated five times in all—with no wins—since that same year.

Yet, the West End is full of Broadway creative talent, and many of them are now originating new shows over here sometimes pre-Broadway, as well as recreating their Broadway hits on West End stages. “In terms of the process of doing a brand-new musical, whether on the West End or on Broadway, there’s no difference at all,” says Jerry Mitchell, who now has experience with both. “The only thing is that it less expensive in London than in New York.” In terms of the talent, the resources are comparable. “You’re working with people at the top of their craft whether they live in London or New York,” Mitchell declares. And the audience? “You hope that a show will translate to a West End audience like it does to a Broadway one,” he goes on. “The world is getting smaller and smaller and people are being connected by a thing called the internet, so it is not so different like it used to be.”

His 2013 Tony Award-winning production of Kinky Boots is now an Olivier Award-winning hit in London, too, which brought a British story back home to these shores. “Without question it is being done with better accents,” he says. “If it hadn’t, we’d have really been up Sh*t Creek without a paddle! It was always my intention that that show—of all the shows I’ve worked on—had a place in the U.K.”

Mitchell is now actively pursuing opportunities to originate new musicals in the West End under the umbrella of Jerry Mitchell Productions, a company set up with U.K. theatre-owners ATG. Mitchell currently has two projects in London and five more in New York: “Every musical takes at least a year and sometimes three, four or five for it be ready for an audience. You write it, you read it, you write it, you read it again, you do a lab, you do a workshop and then you do the show.” So what went wrong with the original production of Phantom sequel Love Never Dies that he choreographed in London? “I don’t think enough preparation time was put into it before it opened in the West End.”

But talk to Broadway directors about transferring work here, and many will have a story about a show that won awards in New York and quickly tanked here. For Casey Nicholaw, it was the import of The Drowsy Chaperone. “It was a heartbreaker and baffling to me [that it didn’t run in the West End]. Doing it here was a very special experience, and we really did change the show to suit the people in it.”

For Michael Mayer, his Spring Awakening quickly ran aground after transferring to the West End from a hit season at Lyric Hammersmith in the British suburbs. “There was something possibly disingenuous about doing it at Hammersmith [first] to pretend we hadn’t won eight Tony Awards, including the Best Musical, the year before. Instead, it was hoped we’d be discovered there [as if it was new].”

Sheridan Smith
Sheridan Smith Johan Persson

Mayer now enjoys a happier experience with his new production of Funny Girl in London—the first major revival since its original outing with Barbra Streisand in the ‘60s took Broadway (and later the West End) by storm. “It just fell into my lap,” he says of being asked to direct it. “My agent called and said that Sonia Friedman and Scott Landis were teaming up with the Menier Chocolate Factory to do it and would like me to do it. So I came over to meet Sheridan Smith [the star lined up to play the title character], and there was instant chemistry. We all saw the show the same way: as a memory play, embracing the beauty and poetry of going back and reviewing Fanny Brice’s life before a big moment.”

Nicholaw recently had four shows playing simultaneously on Broadway and currently has two in the West End (The Book of Mormon and Aladdin, which has just opened here). Next up, he has the London premiere of Dreamgirls this fall. “I’m so excited about it, and the good thing is that after having done four shows there now, I already have a team of people I can create with, like Tim Hatley and Hugh Vanstone, who did Spamalot.”

Mayer found himself working with a new set of creatives that he hadn’t worked with before on Funny Girl, including designer Michael Pavelka and choreographer Lynn Page. “As much as it is wonderful to work with teams of people who have become family to me, as I do in New York, this has been a wonderful opportunity … to use language in ways that I’m not used to.”

The challenge of the West End inspires these directors, but they also enjoy some unique London luxuries. “In New York, we take a break every one hour and twenty minutes by union roles for ten minutes,” says Gordon Greenberg, currently at the head of a new West End and touring edition of Guys and Dolls. “Here you can go much longer—at least two hours—and then have a 15 minute break, which is a much better time. You can make a cup of tea, sit down and schmooze!”

Still, the greatest pleasure of working in London, he feels, is “just how routine and woven into people’s lives so seamlessly the theatre is here. There’s an amazing respect for the craft, and it’s been fascinating to watch someone British here build a New York character so well.”

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