The West End does books before Broadway.

green with envy broadwayI’m jealous of the West End.

They’ve got lower costs for labor, crowdfunding, and they let you eat ice cream in your seats.

And they have also gotten their hands on some very popular material lately that I don’t think anyone on Broadway could have grabbed.

In 2009, I saw War Horse in the West End, and I wept like a baby.  And I remember thinking, “This is exactly the type of theater I’d like to produce.   Where did it come from?”

It was an adaptation, of course, like most shows out there.  But this one was from a very popular novel.  A novel that was ripe for a movie treatment (and became one directed by Sir Spielberg, no less!

But somehow, the National Theatre got a stage version first.  BEFORE the movie.  “Huh,” I thought, “That breaks every theatrical rights rule I’ve ever heard.”  Usually, either the Author’s agent doesn’t want to release the stage rights before the film rights are released for fear of upsetting the movie studios.  Or, if the rights are already sold to a studio, usually that studio ain’t letting anything happen to that property until the film is long released.  And maybe never!  (I’ve had a few studios say to me, “Ken, we have no interest in INSERT TITLE HERE ever being  a live theatrical property.  Ever.”)

But there I was, staring at a giant puppet of a horse.

Last year I was chatting with John Tiffany during tech of Macbeth and I asked what was on deck for him.  He responded in his awesome accent, “Let The Right One In . . . you know, the vampire book!”

If you don’t know the vampire book of which he speaks, Let The Right One In is based on the 2004 Swedish bestseller that the National Theater of Scotland adapted into a stage version, and which is on a stage in the West End as I type.  (It did have a film adaptation as well in 2010 – but the stage rights had to have been already promised by then.)

And this coming year, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is another best-selling novel which debuted onstage in Great Britain in 2012, will arrive on Broadway, beating its future film version by years.

I can’t say this for sure, but I have this sneaking suspicion that if I, or one of my Broadway counterparts, had approached the authors for the rights to any of these projects for a Broadway production, we would have been rejected with the same old excuses, which I translate to mean they are afraid a Broadway production will damage the brand and make a film sale difficult or impossible.

So what is it about the West End that is safer?  Does it feel more out of the way?  Are the critics kinder?  Is that why stars like Matt Damon and more have stepped on those stages but never ours?  Is that why Rain Man premiered there but never here?

Or is the West End considered more artistic?  Are the agents and publishers and movie companies, oh my, more trusting of work in the West End than they are on the Broadway?

Whatever the reason is (and I hope you’ll give me your ideas in the comments below), I’m a little green with envy.  I want the rights to newer stuff.

Wait – I wonder if I asked for the rights to something and said I would premiere it in London first . . . if that would make the rights easier to get.  I bet it would.

Do you?


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  • Jared says:

    I think all of the reasons you hypothesized play a reason. I do think that Americans have this impression of the West End as being more “artistic,” as the shows that get produced there seem less blatantly concerned with making boatloads of cash.

    I also feel that critics are kinder and more encouraging of new works in the West End. If a show premieres on Broadway and isn’t perfect, every critic will point out it’s flaws with gleeful abandon. New works are savaged, and I feel that the prevailing critical climate is more about mercilessly pointing out all the flaws rather than applauding all the effort that went into making them.

    When a show premieres in London and isn’t up to snuff, critics say as much, but it never feels as hateful as American critics. If a show opens on Broadway and is bad, it gets relentlessly mocked, becoming a punchline that definitely damages the brand. If a show opens in the West End and is bad, it doesn’t seem to affect the property as much, and I think a large part of that is the tone of the reviews.

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