Musical swings and roundabouts
Will Ellsworth-Jones on the fortunes of two British musicals on Broadway
It is a strange weekend in New York for the British musical. First the good news: Les Miserables, which opens on Broadway this Thursday, has been setting extraordinary records in New York. It has already sold more than $11m worth of tickets, $4m more than Cats, which has held the Broadway advance record since 1982. Yet Starlight Express, which was supposed to open last Thursday after one postponement, has been forced to postpone again for 10 days because the show's high technology, computer-controlled scenery is not working.
Les Mis cost $4.5m to bring over and investors should be paid back within five months. Cameron Mackintosh, its producer, whom one Broadway designer calls "the most financiable producer in the theatre today", has to struggle to explain the show's thundering success.
"The show seems to have hit a public nerve", he says. He compares it with Platoon, a film about Vietnam which has been a surprising success and may will win an Oscar, two hits with "the least likely popular subject matter". He draws in Sports Aid, and Band Aid, as two signs of a public consciousness which he cannot quite describe but which translates into big money for him and his backers. New Yorkers wanting a good weekend seat will have to wait until August, weekdays only until May.
Mackintosh hopes that Starlight Express will be an equal hit - the shows share the same director, Trevor Nunn, and the same set and lighting directors. "When you have several hits in a city they help each other", he says, "with just one hit everyone's expectations get too hight".
But Starlight is in some trouble. It is the most expensive show ever to hit Broadway, costing a mammouth $8m to stage. While advance ticket sales have reached almost $5m, the delay in opening has ruined any word of mouth sales. Calling the ticket office this week it was possible to get two of the best seats only two days after the new opening date.
While spokesmen talk about giving the company more time, other sources suggest that the "show is a mess technically". The changes in Les Mis as it came across the Atlantic are miniscule but Starlight has been transformed into a train race across America. Perhaps more important the roller skating track that went around the back of the theatre in London has been abandoned. It has been replaced here by an elaborate system of ramps and bridges which keep the cast on the stage. The changes involve a major step up in the technology so that connecting bridges can rise to close the gaps in the ramps before the "trains" do (the skaters are getting an 'extroadinary risk payment' of $15 each performance).
What Starlight does have on its side, however, is a big investment from MCA, the entertainment conglomerate that is using television to try to sell the show to an audience that has probably never seen a Broadway show before. Can a combination of two skills, British music and American hype, snatch success from near disaster? It could almost be the plot for a new Broadway musical.
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