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West of the West End

On Broadway, British directors are bringing a straight-play sensibility to treasured American musicals.

May 11, 2003|Matt Wolf | Special to The Times

London — If the London theater has seemed sleepy of late, there may be a simple explanation: No fewer than eight major British directors have been gainfully employed this season on Broadway. And three of them -- Jonathan Kent, David Leveaux and Sam Mendes -- are reviving the kinds of time-honored Broadway musicals that were once the sole province of American creators.

The transatlantic shift in directorial talent hasn't happened overnight. Although it's instructive to note that English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber turned to an American, Harold Prince, to stage "Evita" and "The Phantom of the Opera," two of Lloyd Webber's biggest hits, the more recent trend has been to look the other way. From Nicholas Hytner's National Theatre "Carousel" in 1992 -- a four-time Tony winner on Broadway two years later -- to Trevor Nunn's "Oklahoma!" and Matthew Warchus' "Follies," one Englishman after another has ventured where the British once rarely trod: beating the Americans at their own game.

Or have they?

Arthur Laurents, the octogenarian American book writer of "Gypsy," rattles off the shotgun marriages between cultures that he says haven't worked -- "Follies" and "Oklahoma!" among them, or so Laurents maintains. Where does that leave Mendes, the Oscar winner who has undertaken the third revival of "Gypsy" to reach Broadway?

"Sam," Laurents told me over the winter, "will break the hex."

That "hex" could well include the 2001 production of "Follies" from Warchus that was strong on forensic investigation of character -- in a London studio theater, it would have been a knockout -- but rarely sold the sizzle. The aim was for a book-driven and actor-oriented approach to a 1971 musical that, as reappraised by Warchus, carefully revealed the fissures of two marriages only to leave the "Follies" show-within-a-show in Act 2 falling distinctly flat (perhaps intentionally, one rather perversely suspects, given the anti-glamorous nature of the entire staging).

But with this year's Tony nominations due to be announced Monday, a Broadway season defined to a considerable degree by a newfound confidence in the original American musical (think "Hairspray" and "Movin' Out") may also find itself acknowledging the work of a trio of English directors, each of whom has done his bit to prompt a rethinking of three very different Broadway musical classics.

The British acumen seems best applied when the musical reveals its strengths as a play: "Carousel," for instance, adapted from a play (Ferenc Molnar's "Liliom") and staged by Hytner on both sides of the Atlantic with an overwhelming eye for textual detail. Or the Trevor Nunn "Oklahoma!," which in London at least -- less so on Broadway -- married genuine star power (Hugh Jackman's naturally virile Curly) to an examination of a pioneering culture that was about much more than the exigencies of box socials. Even musicals without an actual dramatic source -- "Guys and Dolls," for instance, culled from the stories of Damon Runyon, or the momma of them all, "Gypsy," inspired by the memoirs of the stripper Gypsy Rose Lee -- hold up to textual scrutiny like the best of plays, except that they come buttressed with music and lyrics to lift the libretti into a newly remarkable whole.

In bygone days, the American directors of these shows did it all. Jerome Robbins staged the book scenes and the choreography of "Gypsy" in 1959, as he had done with "West Side Story" several seasons earlier and would go on to do five years later with "Fiddler on the Roof." As recently as 1982, Tommy Tune shone on dual fronts as director and choreographer of the Maury Yeston-Arthur Kopit musical "Nine," his vision of an admittedly tricky piece an all-embracing one, from the feather boa that helped win supporting player Liliane Montevecchi her Tony to the very conceit that the Fellini adaptation should consist of one man and a consciousness-invading cavalcade of women.

A new source for directors

Where is a producer to turn nowadays when it comes to tapping a director for his or her musical?

In the absence of such home-grown creative geniuses as Michael Bennett, the begetter of "A Chorus Line" and "Dreamgirls" who died in 1987 from AIDS complications, Broadway has turned increasingly toward British theater veterans. After all, says Jonathan Kent, whose revival of "Man of La Mancha" looks likely to snare Tony nominations for stars Brian Stokes Mitchell and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, if you can direct Shakespeare, you can have a go at a musical steeped in a no less classic source, Cervantes.

"Of course, there is a huge difference," acknowledges Kent, who will be in Tokyo come the Tonys directing -- what else? -- "Hamlet," in Japanese. But the sort of classic theater in which generations of Britons are steeped turns out to be good grounding when it comes to musicals.

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