From two adjoining townhouses on London’s Bedford Square, theater mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh is fitting 10 musicals into a globe-spanning, seven-year plan that will land “Les Misérables” in Tokyo and “Mary Poppins” in Dubai. Over on Charing Cross Road, Ambassador Theater Group is gearing up to open the newest addition to its portfolio of venues, the Hudson Theatre on Broadway, in an expansion of a network that stretches across 38 houses in Britain, seven in the U.S., and one in Sydney. And in a warren of offices above the West End’s Duke of York’s Theatre, Sonia Friedman, one half of the transatlantic producing team behind “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” finds herself at the helm of a play that seems as likely to run in Shanghai as it does on Broadway.
Evolving far beyond the twin flagships of New York and London, the international theater industry is a thriving business that has propelled huge worldwide earnings for shows like “The Lion King” (more than $7 billion), “Phantom” ($6 billion), “Les Miz” ($5.5 billion), and “Wicked” ($4.2 billion). Although the bulk of grosses and profits tend to derive from North America and the U.K., some 30% of total revenue (or more, depending on the show) can come from international earnings.
Following a global model minted in the 1980s by Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group via uber-hits like “Cats,” theater producers now find themselves mapping out tours that begin in Johannesburg on their way to Manila and Seoul, licensing shows to Hamburg and Vienna, and keeping an eye on the tipping-point market in China.
Because of their proximity to the robust theater markets in continental Europe — and perhaps because Mackintosh and Webber, the de-facto creators of the global market, are British — the London theater industry seems particularly attuned to the challenges and rewards of international stage business. In 2014, the U.K. government enacted a hefty tax incentive for stage producers, in part to counteract runaway production around the world. Meanwhile, the subsidized National Theatre is proving that plays can have the same international reach as musicals, with globe-traveling productions of “War Horse” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”
Worldwide theater producing comes with its own headaches, ranging from additional costs of flights and freight, to the visas and work permits required by multinational companies. Run lengths must be carefully considered, based on how developed each market is. And in many cases, border-crossing productions must be flexible enough to be reconfigured for markets that don’t have state-of-the-art opera houses. (“Mamma Mia!” has played everywhere from a bullfighting ring to an indoor tennis court.)
There’s also the volatility of politics and the economy. Two prime examples: Brexit and the election of Donald Trump.
Most in the industry consider it too soon to gauge the fallout from the most recent political shakeups. At the moment, the most concrete effect of Brexit has been the currency shift, according to Thomas Schumacher, the president and producer at Disney Theatrical Productions. The weak pound has spurred tourist-driven ticket sales for U.K. productions like “The Lion King” and “Aladdin,” but it also means that Disney’s take-home in dollars is less.
“For our gross business, it was nicer to have the strong pound,” he says. “But for ticket sales — how fantastic.”
Disney has planted productions as far afield as Hamburg (“The Lion King”), Sydney (“Aladdin”), and Shanghai (a Mandarin-language “Lion King”). It’s a long way from the 1980s, when the British mega-musicals first stoked a global appetite for productions of big-name hits direct from Broadway or the West End.
“In those old days, we would send international producers a script and, if they wanted it, copies of the design, and they’d do a local production based on yours,” says Mackintosh, whose first production of “Cats” opened on the West End in 1981. “But with ‘Cats,’ people would say, ‘No, we want you to come and do our production.’ ” That spurred him and Lloyd Webber to exert greater control over all their musicals, as “Phantom,” “Les Miz,” and “Miss Saigon” snowballed into battering-ram brands that can still open up new markets around the world.
Meanwhile, theater’s popularity in general has grown on the back of digital culture, largely credited for raising the perceived value of live experiences, while social media has fed the market by enabling real-time buzz for Broadway’s “Hamilton” or Benedict Cumberbatch’s West End “Hamlet” to spread from Buenos Aires to Singapore. “The word-of-mouth opportunities now are global,” notes Adam Kenwright, ATG’s executive vice president.
All these factors have made stage producing a massive game of connect-the-dots.
“There’s a very nice theater in Istanbul, and now you have an opera house in Dubai; I suspect there will be one in Abu Dhabi, and there’s discussion about one in Malta,” says Mackintosh. “You start to get four decent auditoriums in the region, which means you can put an international tour there before you jump into South Africa and into the Asian circuit we’ve already built up.”
The giant potential of China, where the growing middle class is shifting its consumption patterns toward travel and entertainment, has long been on the industry’s radar. Top-notch theater venues have sprouted up all over that nation, but many U.K. and U.S. theater producers have found the market slow to flourish, due to cultural and bureaucratic differences.
The solution for many has been to seek out reliable partners on the ground. “Shanghai has ambitions to be the Broadway of Asia, and we hope we’ll be able to help support those ambitions,” says Max Alexander, Really Useful managing director.
Meanwhile, plays have begun to travel around the world almost as widely as musicals. A partnership between the national theaters of London and China brought “War Horse” to Beijing earlier this year. And while “Harry Potter” is only in the early stages of expansion (with Broadway lined up for spring 2018), it looks poised to travel even farther, due to the brand’s global appeal coupled with the production’s bold, visual theatricality (a trait it shares with “War Horse”).
“There’s always been this sense that there has to be a song in order for a show to work in Germany or in Japan or in a foreign language, but now people are wrapping their heads around the fact that it doesn’t have to be a musical in order for it to be universal,” says Friedman, who co-produces “Harry Potter” with New York-based Colin Callender. “It’s a huge pleasure for us that we’ve created a piece of theater that can have universal appeal but doesn’t rely on an aria.”
In the current climate, some producers are betting that major new productions can be birthed in places outside New York or London. Take “Schikaneder,” a musical that just wrapped up its German-language premiere in Vienna, with a score by “Wicked” hit-maker Stephen Schwartz and staged by “Cats” and “Les Miz” director Trevor Nunn.
Christian Struppeck, the book writer and the artistic director of the producing organization, Vereinigte Bühnen Wien, believes the show, given its international creative team, could go far.
“It’s starting to open up,” he says.