Are British stage directors better than ours?
Before I answer that, some context.
Over the last few decades, British directors have become enmeshed in the fabric of Broadway -- which is something many American directors grumble about, although seldom for publication.
With 35 to 40 productions a season, Broadway jobs are scarce. Established American directors get steady work - producers like to believe they reduce the risk in what is the chanciest of businesses - - but others, including many who've done acclaimed work off- Broadway and in regional productions, have very limited opportunities.
Not every director aspires to Broadway. Some prefer the greater artistic freedom and reduced pressure of non-profit theater.
But to make a good living, you pretty much need to work on Broadway. Upfront payments for directors start at around $60,000 and can zoom from there. And then there are royalties for as long as a production runs. (Not that he needs it, but Harold Prince, who directed "The Phantom of the Opera," has been collecting a weekly check from that musical for 25 years.)
In the current Broadway fall season, seven of the 16 productions have British directors. (All but one of the 16 is directed by a white male, indicating the steep hill women and minorities still must climb.)
From the perspective of American directors, a British director sometimes makes sense, as when a production comes over from England as a package. That's the case with the repertory presentations of "Richard III" and "Twelfth Night," staged by Tim Carroll.
In a grayer area, there's the case of a British director hired to do an American production of an English play.
This is exemplified by the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Terence Rattigan's "The Winslow Boy."
Lindsay Posner, making his Broadway debut, was selected after the Roundabout admired a version of the play he'd directed earlier this year in England. (The choice paid off with a superlative Roundabout production.)
Nativist resentment is probably highest when an Englishman does a classic American play. This season, that would be John Tiffany -- hot from his staging of the musical "Once" -- directing "The Glass Menagerie." It's impossible, though, to fault his hiring on artistic grounds, since he's staged what might be the most brilliant version of Tennessee Williams' drama ever done.
So, what is it with British directors?
Directors, like all artists, are individuals. Ability is independent of nationality.
It's not uncommon to hear that British directors are better at doing Shakespeare. But how does that explain the 2003 staging by Jack O'Brien of a transcendent "Henry IV?"
O'Brien, a native of Saginaw, Mich., is doing "Macbeth," with Ethan Hawke, this season.
If we can agree that inspiration is essentially personal, there is one noticeable pattern: Some British directors and theater companies have a knack for revitalizing classic American musicals.
The Menier Chocolate Factory, a small London company, has superbly remounted "Sunday In the Park with George" and "La Cage aux Folles," with both productions coming to Broadway. And its "Merrily We Roll Along" is a revelatory staging of a show long considered an unsalvageable failure.
Scotsman John Doyle, working in a small theater outside London - to muddle analysis, he was trained at the University of Georgia - had his actors double as musicians, resulting in a haunting "Sweeney Todd."
Going back almost 20 years, Britain's Royal National Theatre sent over a transporting version of "Carousel," staged by English director Nicholas Hytner.
Recognizing that American directors can also do great revivals (Bartlett Sher's 2008 "South Pacific," for one), I think British directors tend to approach these shows differently.
For Americans, the musicals are set in memory; they're treasured experiences we've grown up with, and there's an inclination to replicate what's given us pleasure. We also tend to cherish the shows for their songs rather than their stories.
From speaking to British directors over the years, I've gotten the sense that, aware as they might be of the shows, they tend to start from scratch, to go back to the original text, and regard the stories as worthy of dramatic exploration.
That often gives much more weight to the characters and their relationships, and presents the familiar from a stimulating new perspective.
For audiences, it's international cross-pollination at its best.
A service of YellowBrix, Inc.
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