Broadway, different from the West End?

Flikr/Cristian Ungureanu

Theatre made in America. Theatre created in Britain. What is the real difference? Would you rather have New York’s Broadway or London’s West End?

American and British Theatre both have one thing in common… the desire to entertain their audiences. This is achieved in a variety of ways; whether the audience is taken on a heart-wrenching emotional journey or leave crying with laughter, the central reason for the creation and performance of high end theatre is in many people’s view to entertain the public.

Currently, twenty nine Broadway shows are running simultaneously! This is excluding Off-Broadway shows and Off Off Broadway shows. There seems to be a correlation between the scale of the country, and the scale of theatre in America. Certain Broadway productions are visually spectacular, with the focus being drawn towards elaborate set designs. Smash hit Broadway Musical Aladdin uses a large ensemble and pyrotechnic effects to make a big visual impact – unique and creative staging techniques capture the audience’s attention, both old and young. In one scene, the genie emerges from the stage floor through a small rotating trapdoor before later spinning and disappearing into the hole with a puff of smoke.

However, despite these mesmerising tricks the narrative feels lost at times. The quality of acting one would expect to see at a Broadway show is covered by the show’s overall appearance and razzmatazz, which begs the question: are Broadway productions focusing too much on gimmicks and not enough on the performance itself? Maybe so.

Other Broadway productions such as Bluegrass musical Bright Star, winner of the Best Musical and Score Outer Critics Circle Award are angled towards evoking an emotional connection between the audience and the characters.  The musical utilises the powerful lyrics characteristic of Country music to elicit strong emotional reactions from the audience, which helps to support the narrative. At the end of the first act, lead actress Carmen Cusack’s character Alice Murphy sings ‘Please, Don’t Take Him’, a song structured more like a pleading argument, begging as her new born baby is ripped from her arms. The feeling of despair and loss is felt through the absolute silence in the audience.

The flip side of intense drama is comedy. We often pigeonhole particular jokes and catchphrases as either ‘British Humour’ or ‘American Humour’, which frequently creates a divide between Broadway and West End. Broadway show Sheer Madness, a murder mystery which involves the audience to the extreme is America’s longest running comedy. For half an hour at the beginning of the show, bright flood lights shine down on the audience. The audience can see the actors onstage but are also being watched themselves: this creates a surreal atmosphere as typically in theatre, the audience remain hidden in the auditorium’s darkness. Later on they are invited to become Sherlock Holmes themselves, helping the detective by shouting out to the actors onstage, questioning the suspects. Because of these non-scripted elements, each performance is unique. The cast show their impressive improvisational skills by opening up a dialogue with the audience, making this American comedy truly special. Similar to the West End’s Mouse Trap, there is a secret which cannot be told, in order to keep the suspense for new audiences! Although the British may not always catch every comedic reference in American comedy and vice versa, both shows astoundingly long record runs demonstrates their ability to endure through their wide appeal!

So, is Broadway better than the West End? Do American accents and British accents alter the production’s effectiveness? Classifying a piece of theatre as being ‘good’ is entirely subjective. An interesting comparison would be to watch both a Broadway and West End performance of the same production; Aladdin, recently brought over from Broadway to the Prince Theatre, London might be a place to start.

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