Scene: June 7, 1981, immediately following the 35th Tony Awards. Players: David Merrick and Bernard Jacobs. Merrick’s production of 42nd Street has just won the Best Musical Tony, while the Best Play honor has gone to the National Theatre’s production of Amadeus, brought to Broadway from London by the Shubert Organization, Elizabeth McCann, Nelle Nugent, and Roger Berlind.
Jacobs, then president of the Shuberts, congratulates Merrick on his win. Merrick replies: “Thank you.” Jacobs says: “Well, aren’t you going to congratulate me for Amadeus?”
“For what?” Merrick snaps back. “Being a travel agent?”
This story was told to me by veteran London and Broadway producer Robert Fox as he discussed his career, which has included bringing Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage to Broadway from the West End in 2009. It’s one of the few shows he didn’t produce in London before the transfer, but he especially enjoyed working on it here, largely because there were some textual adaptations made for the U.S. version, including changing the setting from Reza’s native Paris to Brooklyn. “It’s more fun when there are changes made,” Fox told me. Otherwise, he conceded, “You’re just a travel agent.”
While I was working in general management on a spate of British transfers in the late ’90s, some of them Fox’s, I began to feel like what our office was doing should be called “just-add-water producing.” The shows were already hits in London. All we needed to do was take care of visas, customs, contracts, budgets, and the like.
But not all transfers are created equal. For some the only water added is a little bit of Atlantic travel, which others require much more. This New York season, there’s the Bob Dylan/Conor McPherson musical Girl From the North Country, which was entirely recast for its Off-Broadway run at the Public Theater after a respectable, award-bedecked run on the West End. On Broadway a commercial run of The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth was brought over last October with most of its London cast (though it recently announced American replacements for many of the lead roles). Also this season on Broadway is King Kong, an Australian import with a locally hired cast and crew (with a few exceptions for puppet handlers); last season, the juggernaut Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which took last year’s Best Play Tony, features a mix of British and American actors, and is likely play until the end of time.
How do these productions get to America, and what does their proliferation on Broadway say about the state of American theatre?
According to Fox, the hardest part of producing transfers is getting actors to commit to being away from home for up to 25 weeks. This wasn’t a problem for the recent revival of Angels in America, which transferred to Broadway after a run on the West End. Indeed as I watched I realized that the American play was being performed primarily by British actors, all of them doing in their best American accents. I was dizzy just thinking about it, but audiences didn’t seem to mind; the play’s average percentage of capacity was 92 percent, according to the Broadway League, and it won the Best Play Revival Tony. (Angels director Marianne Elliott, along with Dutch director Ivo van Hove, is fast becoming Broadway’s go-to non-American director; she won Tonys for War Horse and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, both London transfers.)
But it was a still a risk to produce, not the least because the run time exceeded seven hours. It’s common knowledge that most Broadway shows lose money, so how can a producer improve his or her odds for financial success? Star casting is one strategy: Andrew Garfield and Nathan Lane in Angels in America, and Bryan Cranston in Lee Hall’s adaptation of the Oscar-winning film Network, to name two recent examples. Fox compares celebrity casting to having insurance. “The bigger the star, the bigger the insurance,” he said. Movie star Nicole Kidman appearing in The Blue Room, produced by Fox in 1999, is a case in point.
The problem with stars is that they rarely commit for longer than six months, including rehearsals. “Limited contracts are happening more and more as we are competing with more media,” Fox explained, referring to the seemingly infinite number of television shows and streaming sites vying for our leisure time—and actors’ dance cards. Ticket sales can drop dramatically once a star leaves the show, unless they’re replaced by another fabulous star. And let’s not talk about all the refunds you’re stuck with if the star is sick and misses a performance. That’s what “non-appearance insurance” is for, Fox said. “It’s expensive, but it’s worth it.” (It’s usually through Lloyd’s of London to cover a show in London and New York.)
Other ways of minimizing risk include bringing over properties with powerful word of mouth and sold-out runs, such as Elliott’s gender-flipped Company, rumored to be transferring to Broadway next season after receiving rave reviews in London. But for every Harry Potter and Matilda the Musical—productions that receive strong reviews and a basket of awards—there’s a Groundhog Day, which won the 2017 Olivier Award for best new musical at London’s Old Vic before coming to Broadway, where it ran for just six months.
Transferring an international production, then, seems on par in terms of risk with developing a show in an American nonprofit theatre and then putting it on Broadway. Some might argue it’s even more difficult. Why? One word: visas. According to Tom Carpenter, Equity’s eastern regional director and general counsel, American Equity has exchange agreements with British Equity, Canadian Equity, and Australian Equity.
“Each of them is slightly different,” Carpenter says, “but they all allow American Equity to negotiate the terms of the exchange based on each production, and makes American members eligible for a P-2 visa” for individual performers or a group entering to perform under a reciprocal exchange program.
Most performers coming here to work are also on P-2 visas. A small number are on an O-1B visa, which is used for, in the words of American immigration services, “individuals with an extraordinary ability in the arts.” In showbiz terms: the stars. “Glenda Jackson, for example, will come to the U.S. on an O-1B visa when she appears as King Lear on Broadway this spring,” Carpenter explains.
Exchanges with Canada and Australia happen just about one to one in real time, but the majority of exchanges happen between Broadway and the West End. In these cases, the number of actors crossing the Atlantic to work goes into a “pool,” and the two Equity offices watch the number of work weeks in each country carefully so that by the end of the season, they will have supported just enough visa applications so that the number of work weeks by Americans in the U.K. roughly equals that of British actors who worked in the U.S. (Off-Broadway and LORT exchanges are not part of this pool, but are also roughly one to one.)
If a producer is producing in multiple countries, their agreement may call for a strictly reciprocal exchange within those productions. An example is Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway and in Australia. Regionally, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company is doing a co-production with London’s National Theatre of Bruce Norris’s Downstate, which has a British and American cast and creative team.
What about shows that come with their whole huge cast, like The Ferryman? Carpenter said that this is an example of a “unit production,” and while most of the original actors come over with the show, they try to work into the agreement that American stage managers and/or understudies will be hired. And though it may seem like there is an imbalance with so many British and Irish actors coming over (16 actors for The Ferryman), Carpenter assured me that there are just as many American actors working on the West End right now—it’s just that we don’t hear about them.
For example, there’s Dreamgirls on the West End, just winding up a two-year run that featured many American performers (including “Glee” alum Amber Riley) and was overseen by American director Casey Nicholaw.
In fact, parity isn’t the problem. “The bigger problem,” Carpenter said, “is when members apply for fraudulent visas.” This is an issue all performing arts labor unions are experiencing, including SAG-AFTRA (Stage Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), AGMA (American Guild of Musical Artists), and the Local 802 AFM (American Federation of Musicians). Performers may go so far as to forge a deal letter, or to write a fraudulent letter from a union (on stolen or fabricated letterhead) supporting a visa application so that the artist can go into another country to look for work. Sometimes, an artist may apply for an O-1 B visa when he or she doesn’t qualify as having “extraordinary ability.”
“If an actor is performing on Broadway under a P-2 visa, and then gets some day work in television, he or she must apply for another visa for that short day job,” according to Carpenter. These things are watched very carefully to maintain parity.
All this talk of visas reminds me of the cabaret show Alan Cumming is touring the U.S. with, which he calls Legal Immigrant. A Scottish national and a naturalized U.S. citizen, Cumming goes to great pains to identify the nationalities and immigration status of all the musicians in his band and the composers of the songs he sings. He’s making the political point that the U.S. is a country of immigrants, and that our government should be embracing multiculturalism for its rich contribution to arts and society, rather than impeding it.
As long as the American theatre continues to have cultural exchanges with other English-speaking countries, we may be doing our part to promote multiculturalism, but only in a limited way. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had similar exchanges with non-English-speaking countries? The technology exists if we wanted simultaneous translation, as in opera. The world is getting smaller and smaller. All we in the theatre world need to do is broaden our vision, be willing to take the risk—and add water and stir.
Lisa Lacroce Patterson is a freelance writer who has also worked as an arts administrator for 30 years.