The business of sending musicals abroad has never been bigger—Disney has brought in more than $2 billion overseas from 'The Lion King' alone. But navigating the global stage can be tricky. Why Germans love 'Tarzan' and 'Fiddler' is big in Japan.
By Ellen Gamerman
When the musical "Tarzan," based on the Disney movie, opened on Broadway in 2006, critics were merciless and the show closed after little more than a year. Then the musical moved to Europe and everything changed. Ten percent of the Dutch population, or about 1.6 million people, saw "Tarzan" over its two-year run, according to Disney. Today in Hamburg, German audiences erupt in applause after numbers like "Gar keine Wahl" ("No Other Way"). Disney executives now joke that Broadway was the musical's "out-of-town tryout."
The export of musical theater abroad has never been bigger. At least 13 major productions of American or British musicals are running in Japan. "Next to Normal" will hit Oslo in September. In Manila, an English-speaking Filipina in a honey wig sings "Omigod You Guys" at "Legally Blonde: The Musical" every night.
Foreign productions of "The Lion King" have grossed nearly $2.2 billion to date, Disney says, almost three times the show's Broadway haul. "In terms of a piece of the revenue that we generate, it's just startling," says Disney Theatrical Productions president and producer Thomas Schumacher.
As producers discover that they can reap huge profits overseas—sometimes even turning a Broadway flop into a foreign hit—more American shows are enlisting foreign investors and granting international rights at premium prices. International presenters now may pay $200,000 in advance to stage a big U.S. production in a major foreign market, at least double what they were spending a decade ago in many cases, say people familiar with the business. Producers say they're seeing interest from territories that 10 years ago never thought of Broadway.
Exporting Broadway shows is a tricky proposition, however. It's not just a question of translating the dialogue and lyrics into the local language. There's also the thorny question of conveying humor and pop-culture references, and trying to gauge what audiences will respond to in vastly different cultures.
During a light moment in Disney's "The Lion King," Zazu the bird is supposed to sing a cheerful but trite tune, prompting a groan of recognition from the audience. On Broadway, that song is "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious." In Australia, it's the country's familiar "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport." On a Shanghai stint, it was a ubiquitous Chinese ad jingle. In Germany, the bird sings the "Heidi" theme song, then yodels.
Just as American producers say it's impossible to predict a smash on Broadway, the global marketplace can be fickle. "The King and I" struggled on a five-month tour of Asia, despite its connection to Thai history. "Wicked" has run three years in Japan, although audiences there aren't widely familiar with "The Wizard of Oz" story at the heart of the musical. "Fiddler on the Roof" has been revived periodically on Broadway, but in Japan its focus on tradition has made it an institution: The late Hisaya Morishige played Tevye 900 times over two decades.
Shows typically appear abroad in one of three forms. The most expensive to stage tend to be "replica" or "first class" productions, which usually play in a country's native tongue; they often draw on the same creative team as the original productions but employ local casts. Most major productions of blockbuster shows in well-established markets such as Germany, Holland and Japan fall in this category. Non-replicas use the same script and score as the original but are licensed with a cheaper class of rights that bar the creative team from copying the original sets, costumes and choreography. Finally, some American shows go on tours overseas and run in English with a non-local cast, often with supertitles.
"Billy Elliot the Musical," a London import to Broadway about a British miner's son who dreams of dancing, launches its first non-English replica production next month in Seoul, South Korea. An international creative team has been in regular contact with original director Stephen Daldry to recreate the musical, in which Korean actors play working-class folk in Margaret Thatcher's England.
Superimposing the show's characters and style on Korean culture has proven arduous: The text is now in its sixth translation. Adapting the humor has been particularly delicate. When Billy misinterprets "Billy Elliot Esquire" as "Billy Elliot is Queer" in the London and New York versions, the joke is obvious, but there's no equivalent Korean wordplay. To get a laugh in that spot, Billy instead confuses the phrase with a bit of Korean profanity. Foul language carries its own problems. "Such languages are not often publicly said in Korea, so we had to think hard how to tone them down," said Moon Mi-ho, chief executive of Magistella, the Korean producer of the musical. (When the boys were reluctant to swear during rehearsals, the production had to ask the parents to tell the children it was OK to do so.)
The production picked the four actors alternating the role of Billy, ranging from ages 10 to 14, from a pool of 800 kids whose skills included Judo, Taekwondo and ballet (one Billy played Young Simba in "The Lion King" in Korea). The country largely lacks a tradition of "triple threats"—performers trained to sing, act and dance—so each boy needed training in at least two of those three skills. Earlier this year, the boys traveled to New York and Chicago to catch performances of the show.
A story about an English mining town might seem an odd fit for a Korean audience, but Louise Withers, the executive producer of "Billy Elliot" for Australia and Asia, said that local theater executives made a compelling case for the musical rights based on the idea of family devotion: A story about parents sacrificing to help a child overcome the odds resonates in Korea. And the background and social atmosphere of "Billy Elliot" have a lot in common with Korea's situation in the 1980s—poor mining villages, union demonstrations, workers' clashes with the government.
Magistella would not disclose what it paid to license rights to the musical, but it says production costs totaled $11 million. Expenses tend to drop the more a show is reproduced, as efficiencies are built in: The U.S. version of "Billy" cost $18 million.
At a recent rehearsal at the Namsan Creative Center, located on a mountain in central Seoul, Chung Young-joo, who plays tough-talking ballet teacher Mrs. Wilkinson, said that her character's teaching style is not one Koreans would recognize. "Mrs. Wilkinson is so straightforward and rough, which is quite different from a typical Korean teacher, who prefers being indirect even when criticizing a student," she said.
The musical-export business took off in the 1980s, when British theater impresarios Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber sent shows such as "Cats" and "Les Misérables" to countries such as Norway, Hungary and Russia, going beyond the typical back-and-forth traffic between Broadway and London's West End. Following suit, American musicals began launching major replica productions. With its newly launched theatrical division, Disney sent "Beauty and the Beast" to 18 countries outside the U.S. starting in 1995.
Now, the business is expanding as many more shows of differing sizes—not just the big hits—are heading overseas to new territories. That's thanks in part to a shift in focus by producers, who in recent years have moved deeper into markets such as Asia, South America and South Africa. Foreign productions are often built into the business plan from the outset—though, as always, a show can still turn up dead on arrival.
London is another busy hub. Mr. Mackintosh is opening 35 to 40 shows world-wide in the next four years, twice the amount of a decade ago, he says. "The appetite for musical theater … has to do with how pop culture has changed," Mr. Mackintosh says. "Who would have thought you'd be able to see prime-time TV shows like 'Glee,' or [television] competitions to find stars for West End theaters?"
Internationally, as on Broadway, the theater industry is weathering the recession by either relying on a handful of blockbusters, or by staging smaller and more nimble productions that run at lower costs. In New York, attendance was down slightly this past season compared to 2008-09, but total grosses stayed about the same, at around $1 billion, thanks to a rise in average paid admission. No figures are publicly reported on Broadway's international industry.
Even at home, Broadway shows today are typically designed with a global audience in mind. About 1 in 5 theatergoers were international visitors in the 2008-09 season, the highest proportion on record, according to the most recent data available from the Broadway League.
Drew Cohen, president of Music Theatre International, which grants rights for mostly non-replica shows in territories such as Europe, Asia and Australia, says revenues from foreign licenses grew more than 10% in the last two years, thanks in part to demand for musicals also known by their movie counterparts such as "Hairspray" and "Legally Blonde."
Some theater genres fare best in particular regions: Scandinavia has become a strong customer for less mainstream, darker fare. The first foreign production of "Next to Normal," the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about a bipolar mother, opens in September in Oslo.
Still, the global economic downturn is taking a toll, and some shows are struggling. A producer in Buenos Aires paid about $225,000 for the rights alone to the edgy musical "Spring Awakening," say people involved in the deal. Though the large production was critically praised, it closed in June after three months.
Ron Kollen, Disney Theatrical's senior vice president for international, is the theater industry's answer to a U.N. diplomat. Well-manicured, polite and rich in frequent-flier miles, he is responsible for developing new territories. (He gets a call a week from Dubai, Qatar or Saudi Arabia.)
At Disney Theatrical's headquarters at the New Amsterdam Theatre in New York, Mr. Kollen recently fielded a call from Holland, where a theater was experiencing a minor crisis: Audience members at a Dutch performance of "Mary Poppins" had begun screaming from their seats. They weren't responding to the show—they were sneaking glimpses of the Dutch team's scores in the World Cup semi-finals on their mobile phones. "It was not a pleasant experience for the cast," Eline Danker, commercial director for this and other Dutch shows handled by local producer Stage Entertainment, told Mr. Kollen on speaker phone. To avoid a similar problem, she told him "Mary Poppins" would start two hours early on the day of last Sunday's World Cup final.
Taking shows around the world can give producers a chance to rethink mistakes they may have made on Broadway. Before "Tarzan" opened in New York, executives from Stage Entertainment attended early rehearsals and were intrigued, buying the rights before the show opened—and flopped. When they moved it to Holland, Disney and Stage Entertainment made some key changes. "Tarzan" was marketed less as a family show and more as a date-night romance. Disney added new choreography and significantly increased the amount of stage flying.
Stage Entertainment, based in the Netherlands and founded by Joop van den Ende (a co-founder of the television company that developed the European show "Big Brother") also tapped into local TV audiences. In Germany, Tarzan and Jane were cast via a reality TV show; Elisabeth Hübert, one of the winners, is still playing Jane. Tarzan (pronounced "tah-tzahn" in German) is now played by Alexander Klaws, a winner of Germany's version of "American Idol." The show has grossed $182 million abroad to date, according to Disney. On Broadway, it grossed about $42.7 million, according to the Broadway League. That wasn't enough to recoup its initial investment after covering weekly running costs.
Some capitals are tough markets for long-running musicals. "The Lion King" will close in Paris at the end of this month without recouping Stage Entertainment's investment, a company executive says. The show ran three years and attracted larger than expected audiences, the company says, but Paris has never had a major audience for American musicals.
Asia has emerged as a promising market for Broadway musicals, though progress moves in fits and starts. Chinese restrictions on foreign investment in entertainment have loosened in recent years, and Hong Kong is building a new theater district to compete for cultural prominence with Macau and Shanghai. Korea has gone from about 40 Off-Broadway size houses in 1995 to 400 today, says Simone Genatt, a co-founder of Broadway Asia Co., which exports musicals to Asian countries.
Broadway Asia has presented shows in 35 different cities in mainland China, creating new shows for Asian markets or picking up existing productions and touring them. What the company dubs the first "made in China musical"—a combination of live performance and classic movie footage titled "Reel to Real: the movies musical"—opened in Beijing with English-speaking American actors last year and will have its European premiere in Edinburgh, Scotland, next month.
Broadway blockbusters remain the surest bet. In the Osaka production of "Wicked," performed in Japanese, the good witch Glinda is portrayed by a Japanese actress—but she wears a blonde wig. "Of course she would be blonde," said Yumiko Nakajima, 41, a theatergoer at a recent performance. "That's part of her character."