The United States and Great Britain have a long love-hate relationship. The British loved America, so they took it from the Dutch. Americans hated the British so they kicked them out. Over time, animosity thawed between these two countries, but the vestiges of this familial feud remain in vague generalizations of each other's culture. Americans assume the English are all over-intellectual, monocle-donning fops, and the British assume all Americans are all morbidly obese, loud-mouthed ignoramuses.
Although these stereotypes range from mostly exaggerated to wholly inaccurate, respectively, they are helpful in mocking friends from across the pond over a jaunty pint. However, when these gross generalizations appear on the pages of London and New York City's best newspapers, reader beware. And each city's culture writers are showing their prejudices as they report on, of course, the cross-Atlantic transfer of the hit musicals The Book of Mormon and Matilda.
Leading the charge on the American side is New York Times theatre reporter Patrick Healy, who, in his recent article on Matilda ("Dream Big, Girl"), wonders if the West End hit can make it on Broadway:
The answer hinges on whether the sensibility and sophistication of Matilda will translate to American audiences -- specifically the families and tourists who are the backbone of the billion-dollar Broadway industry, which depends on a handful of blockbuster shows to counter a couple of dozen failures each year.
Meanwhile, in London, The Book of Mormon opened to somewhat mixed reviews from critics, most of them not even attempting to hide their disdain for Americans. Even the positively inclined reviewers found a way to look through their powdered wigs and down their noses at the American invasion. Euan Ferguson at the Guardian was typical amongst the backhandedly positive reviewers:
If you are by any chance looking forward to a smug few British-liberal hours sneering at the mad imbecilities of self-righteous Americans and organized religion, I have to tell you that you'll be disappointed. The Book of Mormon is far, far cleverer, far kinder, far more nuanced than that.
The American writer surmises that a British musical will only be successful if American audiences can somehow interpret superior English sophistication. The British writer informs readers that an American musical will actually be clever -- as impossible as that may sound. What's surprising is that instead of each side championing their countrymen, they're both piling on Americans. What in Benedict Arnold's name is going on here? And are these less-than-subtle knocks at the sophistication of the American musical and the Broadway audience actually grounded in fact? The answer is one word, regardless of accent: "No."
The usual assumptions about British and American sensibilities may be true for burger joints, but they rarely apply to musicals. In the '80s, the British ushered in the era of the emotionally brash, lavishly produced mega-musical -- The Phantom of the Opera is a West End transfer that boasts the claim of the longest-running Broadway musical ever. Meanwhile, the history of urbane, witty, sophisticated Broadway musicals includes masters from Rodgers and Hart to Frank Loesser to Stephen Sondheim.
And recent history is no different. In the past decade, Broadway theatre audiences have shown a propensity for supporting more adventurous musical fare -- Spring Awakening, Light In the Piazza, Next to Normal and In the Heights were all critical, financial and award-winning successes. The only one of those to make it to the West End was Spring Awakening, which earned ecstatic reviews, the Olivier Award for Best Musical and subsequently languished for lack of support from the West End theatre-going community. Conversely, Legally Blonde was not embraced by Broadway critics or audiences enough to recoup its investment, but was a huge hit in London and won the Olivier Award for Best Musical. I loved Legally Blonde, and not because it was sophisticated, but because it was a damn good time. Londoners showed their agreement by cheering in their seats and dropping their pounds.
There are plenty more case studies to look at, as these cities trade musical productions back and forth like they were Ryder Cups. Traveling against the gulf stream in the last decade were several West End musicals. Some fared well: Billy Elliot, Mary Poppins and Mamma Mia!. Some fared less well: Ghost, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Amongst the less-well faring there is not an example of one that was rejected because of its sophistication. So why does anyone think Broadway musical-goers are incapable of understanding the chaps from Olde London Towne?
It seems that it stems most from what some people see as Billy Elliot's failure. It won 10 Tony Awards including Best Musical and recouped its entire $18 million investment, but it struggled to become an enduring Broadway title. I'd argue that doesn't make Billy Elliot anything close to a failure, and I'm not sure how anyone looks at that set of facts and comes to the conclusion that Broadway audiences can't interpret British fare. They embraced it, supported it, cheered it and moved on -- hardly a response reflective of a No-Thanks-Please-It's-British attitude.
The day after The Book of Mormon opened in London, it raked in $3.2 million -- the highest one-day gross in London theatre history (USA!). Matilda is showing strong sales ahead of its Broadway opening on April 11. It seems that audiences aren't asking the same questions our esteemed news reporters are -- and perhaps our culture writers could take note. Theatregoers aren't asking, "Is it too American/British for the West End/Broadway?" Instead, they're saying, "I don't care where it's from, is it any damn good?" In the cases of both The Book of Mormon and Matilda, the answer is one word, regardless of accent: "Yes."