The British Aren't Coming. (They're Already Here!)

he Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” concerns a mystery surrounding the death of a neighbour’s dog that is investigated by young Christopher Boone, who has Asperger’s-like issues, and his relationships with his parents and school mentor.

NEW YORK – Dating back to George M. Cohan, America’s unique and singular contribution to the pop-culture landscape has been the Broadway musical. But in this era of all things globalization, there seem to be more stars yet fewer stripes on the Great White Way than ever before.

A quick survey of current Broadway offerings shows that 23 plays and musicals are set on foreign soil, while just 12 stories take place in America.

Forget about the British Invasion. Broadway is undergoing a British occupation. The question is, is this a particularly new phenomenon? Or has it always been that way?

America may have invented the musical as we know it, but the European influence on the American musical theatre is longstanding and irrefutable. (Look no further than The Phantom of the Opera: 11,319 performances and still going strong).

When it comes to plays, the parade of British winners often makes the Tony Awards telecast sound as though it’s being simulcast from London, not New York. This year will be no exception as seven of the 10 nominated leading actors and actresses are Brits. (Make no mistake: These are very grateful Brits who always manage to sound far more eloquent than the Americans in their acceptance speeches).

You can’t wander through Times Square right now without bumping into big-buzz British balderdash: A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder, Finding Neverland, Kinky Boots, Matilda The Musical, Skylight, Something Rotten!, The Audience, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Wolf Hall … Parts 1 and 2!

A Broadway quoteWhile the British presence seems pronounced, DCPA Broadway Executive Director (and Tony Awards voter) John Ekeberg isn’t so sure this is a new trend. After all, musical theatre exists to transport audiences to a new world. And most American musical theatre audiences want to get as far away from their own backyards as they can get.

“A great play will show you a slice of life, and often that slice reflects a very real human experience that helps them better understand the world they live in,” Ekeberg said. “Traditionally, we think of that as the job of American play. But more often, people look to musicals to help them escape from their own lives for a few hours and take them someplace that’s new to them.”

The groundbreaking musical Fun Home is the rare musical that manages to accomplish the goals of a great play and musical at once, Ekeberg said. Fun Home poignantly recalls cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s home life in Pennsylvania, where she discovered she was a lesbian at about the same time she learned her father had been living a closeted gay life since before his parents were even married.

 “For me, that is a world I am not at all familiar with, Ekeberg said. “So in its way, it accomplished for me what people most want from a musical.”

And yet for other audiences, Fun Home also accomplishes the primary purpose of a play as well. For audiences who grew up in families like the Bechdels’ and faced the same issues, Fun Home can be a place of understanding, healing and catharsis – like any great play. 

Ekeberg cites the Denver-bound If/Then as a similar example. It features a Sliding Doors-like plot that shows the two different futures our protagonist (played by Idina Menzel) might live out based on the consequences of one choice.

“In that way, If/Then takes the audience to two completely different worlds in the same musical,” Ekeberg said.

The 2015 Tony Awards should be a travelphile’s dream as it celebrates stories that take audiences all over the world. The four works nominated for best play are written by a Brooklyn bartender (Robert Askins, Hand to God); a Dame (literally) in Dame Hilary Mary Mantel (Wolf Hall); a young historian from Manchester (Simon Stephens, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time); and a Pakistani American (Ayad Ahktar, Disgraced).

Of the four nominated best new musicals, only Fun Home is set in the U.S. The others are An American in Paris, Something Rotten! (South London in 1595) and  The Visit (a small European town).

Broadway in America
Airline Highway: The Hummingbird Motel in New Orleans
An Act of God: Set in Heaven (but written by an American)
Beautiful, The Carole King Musical: New York and California
Chicago: CHICAGO!
Fish in the Dark: Written by Larry David; starring Jason Alexander (Seinfeld)
Fun Home: Cartoonist Alison Bechdel’s hometown of Lock Haven, Pa.
Jersey Boys: JERSEY!!
Hand to God: Somewhere in Texas
It Shoulda Been You: An American wedding
It’s Only a Play: An American townhouse
On the Town: World War II New York City
On the Twentieth Century: Chicago and New York in the early 1930s

Broadway around the world
A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder: A musical that’s bathing in British (blood)
Aladdin: Middle-Eastern city of Agrabah
An American in Paris: An American in Paris
The Audience: Queen Elizabeth II
The Book of Mormon: Uganda!
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: Set in Wiltshire and London
Doctor Zhivago: Set in Russia (closed)
Finding Neverland: British, set in Neverland
Gigi: Set in Paris (mostly) at the turn of the century
Hedwig and the Angry Inch: Out Protagonist was born in East Berlin
The King and I: The Royal Palace in Bangkok, 1860s
Kinky Boots: Shoe factory in Northern England
Les Misérables: French Revolution
The Lion King: The lion kingdom of Africa
Mamma Mia!: Big Swedish pop songs on a tiny Greek island
Matilda The Musical: A wormy little village in England
The Phantom of the Opera: Paris Opéra House. 1881-1911
Skylight: A flat in Northwest London
Something Rotten!: South London, 1595
The Visit: Small European town based on novel’s fictional German town of Güllen
Wicked: You know … Oz. (And not the HBO prison!)
Wolf Hall Part One: The court of Henry VIII, 1527
Wolf Hall Part Two: More, ore, more!  

Tony Awards telecast
Sunday, June 7
7-10 p.m. MDT

Our New York report (to date):
Colorado’s Annaleigh Ashford and Beth Malone both nominated for Tony Awards Broadway League dedicates New York conference to DCPA’s Randy Weeks
Idina Menzel will launch ‘If/Then’ national tour in Denver

More in the coming days:
Our New York report continues with articles on Lin-Manuel Miranda (author and star of Hamilton), and videos featuring Colorado actors on Broadway