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Global Affairs in the Great White Way
by Randy Gener


Randy Gener, the writer-director of "Love Seats for Virginia Woolf" and "Sick With Lust: Fire Island Tales," is critic-at-large for The New York Theatre Wire.

What's presently taking place on Broadway, according to conventional thinking, is a British invasion. How else would you explain the preponderance of London productions or British-led projects either running or about to open on Broadway? The proponents of this predictable line of reasoning are Johnny-come-lately trend-spotters and rabid Anglophiles; as a very up-to-the-minute headline in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian observed, "New York's theatreland comes to resemble the West End on tour."

And if you believe their public relations spin on it, Broadway seems to be merely replicating London's success stories. But the reality of it is far less parochial and not so blinkered. If you scratch the surface of it and dig a little deeper, Broadway is actually becoming far more international in its scopeand its artistic offerings.

So while it is true that a British director, David Leveaux, is at the helm of Roundabout Theatre Company's the Tony-winning musical revival of "Nine," with a book by Arthur Kopit and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston, the show itself is headlined by the Spanish-born movie star Antonio Banderas and the Broadway legend Chita Rivera of "West Side Story" and "Chicago" fame. Its source material is the Don Juan of Italian film classics--Federico Fellini's autobiographical film "8 ½," whose lead character, Fellini's alter ego Guido Contini (which starred Marcello Mastroianni), is a great movie director who can't complete his next film in Venice because he is emotionally stuck with the many women in his life. And while Leveaux first had a go at "Nine" in 1996 at London's Donmar Warehouse, he had, in fact, tackled it again two years later in Argentina.

Two recent shows, Yasmina Reza's play "Life (X) 3" (with Helen Hunt, Brent Spiner, John Turturro and Linda Emond) and the jewel-like Michel Legrand musical "Amour" (now closed), are actually steeped in the comic sophistications of French culture. The text in Reza's latest dramatic dissection of human relationships, exploring three versions of the same evening, is a translation from the original French text by Christopher Hampton. The lyrics for the short-lived "Amour"--which marked the Broadway debut of the noted French film composer and jazz artist ("The Umbrellas of Cherbourg")--were translated into English from the original libretto by French writer Didier van Cauwelaert. Legrand first brought this Ionesco-like chamber musical to the Paris stage six years ago when it was then known by the title of the Marcel Aymé 1943 short story on which it was based, "Le passe-muraille"("The Walker-Through-Walls").

And if you wish to include such blockbusters as the Broadway production of the Puccini opera "La Boheme," which is sung in Italian by three sets of young singers from six different countries alternating as Mimi and Rodolfo, you may naturally think that Broadway's new international fetish is strictly European in flavor. It is not-its orientation is, in fact, quite global. The bracing new revival of "Master Harold?And the Boys"--starring Danny Glover in a return to the Athol Fugard drama that propelled him into national prominence in 1982-deals with apartheid in 1950's South Africa.

Meanwhile, the driving force in the Broadway staging of "La Boheme" is none other than an Australian--Baz Luhrmann. The maverick Luhrmann, whose comet flashed across the intercontinental firmament after the wild success of "Moulin Rouge" and "Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet," has revisited his theatrical roots by turning to the same project that he took on for the Australian Opera in Sydney in 1990.

Premiering in September 2003 at the Imperial Theatre is "The Boy From Oz,"starring Australia-born film star Hugh Jackman, a musical biography of the late Peter Allen who was a protege of Judy Garland and was briefly married to Liza Minnelli. And in spring 2004, British producer Andrew Lloyd Webber will bring to Broadway the Bollywood-style musical "Bombay Dreams" by composer A. R. Rahman-thus adding a lilting South Asian accent to Broadway's lullaby.

One of the inescapable facets of Broadway's new tendency toward globalization is the need to adapt theatrical projects for different markets. Just as MTV alters its format to address Spanish-speaking audiences in Mexico and takes on a different mold for other Spanish speakers in its Argentina market, Broadway versions of plays and musicals with an international pedigree need to be changed and modified, in a whole variety of ways, to suit the differences of culture and language. What's involved goes beyond a mere translation into American English.

For "Life (x) 3" cast members Helen Hunt, Brent Spiner and Linda Emond, it has been an intriguing acting challenge--"It's been more complex than you might think," Emond has said--to rework and reconfigure, along with the British director Matthew Warchus, Reza's French script into American modes of speech and behavior.

A show's content often need not be in a completely different language to need revising. In "The Play What I Wrote," Sean Foley and Hamish McColl, collectively known as The Right Size, and their squashed sidekick, Toby Jones, may be paying hilarious homage to Morecambe and Wise when the show was in London, but in America all references to the English comic duo have been skillfully excised. The hope is that if this comedy is able to leap the gulf in humor between Britain and the U.S., then theoretically it could play anywhere. The result, however, is that "The Play What I Wrote," comes off as a lame, harmless comedy; with all the edge in it smoothed off, the show has posted a closing notice for Sunday, June 15.

In a similar vein, Australian producers have hired "Bent" playwright Martin Sherman to revise "The Boy from Oz," which originated in Sydney in 1998, for its New York opening-just as Charles Busch ("Tale of the Allergist's Wife") has revised the Boy George musical "Taboo" for its fall 2003 debut on Broadway. "This is a universal showbiz story," "Oz's" Australian producer Ben Gannon told Variety. "Just as you don't have to know a lot about Fanny Brice to enjoy 'Funny Girl' or a lot about Gypsy Rose Lee to enjoy 'Gypsy,' you don't have to know a lot about Peter Allen for 'The Boy from Oz.'"

It would be wrong, however, to equate globalization today with, say, neo-colonialism or cultural homogenization. How else do you explain the popularity of Indian composer A.R. Rahman's "Bombay Dreams" in London? Andrew Lloyd Webber's latest venture draws its inspiration from the lavish romantic fantasias of India's colorful, magical and hugely prolific film industry-or Bollywood, as Westerners call it, to the consternation of many Indian filmmakers--with all its melodic songs, melodramatic sparkles and dreamy-lavish soft-shoe. It has been Webber's obsession for the past two to three years to give Rahman a worldwide platform.

"Bringing Rahman's talent and this musical to Broadway brings my own dreams for this project full-circle," Webber said in an official statement. "Increasingly, I became interested in contemporary popular Indian music and the direction it was taking. One look on the Net revealed that Rahman was a phenomenon in Asia where he's known as the Asian Mozart. Rahman was born in 1966. His father was a Hindu and a musician. Rahman himself converted to Islam as a result of a family tragedy. That is when he took his name. His scores have been composed for some of India's most successful films including 'Lagaan,' which was nominated for Best Foreign Film in the 2002 Oscars. With album sales of over 100 million, his albums have sold more than Britney Spears and Madonna combined. Soon my house was full of them."

In seasons past, New York City has mainly been a busy commercial thoroughfare-coeval with urban capitals like London, Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam-for famous stars, foreign companies, international productions and most especially British theatre artists who are seeking to establish their international credits in the United States.

In a season rife with musical versions of popular movies and British-led revivals of American classics, Deborah Warner's blood-spattered staging of "Medea," with Fiona Shaw portraying a very unhappy housewife, is the only production with an international pedigree that followed the conventional model. As is intimated by the Celtic footwork of the chorus women and the disturbing musical rhythms that punctuated the show's climactic moments, Medea was born in Dublin's The Abbey Theater, the national theatre in Ireland, in 2000. The show's producers did not have Broadway in mind as part its original plan. But following a sold-out run in London's West End, Warner's production traveled to six cities in the United States in 2002, stopping first at the Brooklyn Academy of Music where the critical response proved so phenomenal that Broadway producer Roger Berlind quickly instigated a commercial transfer. Since its limited engagement on Broadway, "Medea" has crossed the Atlantic once again to perform in other international parts, notably Paris.

"Medea," however, may just be the exception that proves the new ethos. As different cultures converge and find new expression on Broadway stages, it may be an increasing rarity to find on Broadway direct commercial transfers of foreign productions, with the original cast and crew firmly intact. And yet far from resembling the West End on tour, what seems to be happening on Broadway is at the level of what the cultural studies theorist Stuart Hall has called "the global popular." In other words, it is in the very nature of popular cultural forms like television, films, the Internet and perhaps even the Broadway stage to take something that may be extremely local-people, ideas, images or music that reflect a specific taste or identity of a particular region--and yet very easily give them a kind of universal currency.

This process is never just one way; cultural influences run in many directions. Aided by new technologies and new media, the tides of Broadway's new global culture is all about accelerated movement, for when theatre artists move around the world, they take their cultures with them. Globalization on Broadway may erode some borders that separate "us versus them," but what we are witnessing is not the imposition of one national culture. (Did you know that the first movie to show in Kabul after the Taliban fled Afghanistan's capital last year was a Bollywood epic?)

As real as the barriers of culture and language are, these crisscrosses of cultural flows also opens up a world of possibilities. Broadway's cosmopolitanism encourages theatergoers night after night to consciously inhabit more than one culture-and not to think as being limited primarily to one culture alone. It raises the very exciting possibility that we can imagine ourselves belonging on the world stage. [RG

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