From the West End and Broadway to Europe with love...
On a recent trip to Europe I started to think about the theatre markets outside of the UK and the USA. Of course, the sheer number of theatres and the abundance of artistic quality in the West End and on Broadway make those territories the undisputed world leaders, but what about our friends across the Channel? Alongside home-grown European productions, West End and Broadway titles have steadily built a dominant presence in the largest theatres on the continent over the last decade. But does West End or Broadway success guarantee a hit in any given European territory? How does each of these territories decide exactly which title would work best for their respective audiences? And how do they differ from each other?
Stage Entertainment is the undisputed leader of theatrical entertainment in mainland Europe, producing the biggest musicals in The Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Italy and France. They are more often than not the go-to destination for companies such as Disney Theatrical or Cirque du Soleil, who are looking to licence their musical titles in the hopes of a European invasion. They also have a hand in producing top shows in the West End (Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, for example) and on Broadway (Anastasia, now on a US Tour). Browsing through the company’s website, I was struck how almost all of the current titles offered by Stage Entertainment originally premiered in London or New York and are now entertaining European audiences in their respective mother tongues. The current slate includes productions of Take That's The Band, Blue Man Group, Jim Steinman's Bat Out of Hell, Ghost the Musical, Cirque du Soleil's Paramour, and Disney's The Lion King, just to name a few.
On returning to London, I reached out to Stage Entertainment’s Director of Communications, Stephan Jaekel, to ask if he wouldn’t mind sharing insight into how the company makes its decisions on which musicals to licence for each of its European territories. Stephan’s response was so insightful, in fact, that I felt it might be of interest to our readers, who are curious about the business workings of this industry, and that we should present it here as a Q&A…
- What are the main factors when considering which shows to import from London (or New York) to Stage Entertainment’s European territories of Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and France in general?
Generally speaking, we try to aim at titles with at least a “basic relevance for continental European audiences”. What does this mean precisely? It means that the sheer title of a show as such already needs to give our audiences the reassurance of seeing something that sounds familiar and like music. Thus, we are usually not interested in shows with a distinct UK or US DNA. If the book or the music/score are “only” popular and well-known in these countries, chances are we will not even go to workshops or to running the show. Sometimes, however, the artistic execution of a new show is so extraordinary that we overrule ourselves and give it a try, bearing in mind the extra marketing risk.
To give a couple of examples:
- Most of the Disney Theatrical titles are universally well known and reach out to wide target groups. Thus, we are happy about the close and decade-long bonds between our two companies, and beyond our joint successes in many SE countries, we could even prove to provide additional audiences: When transferring the not so successful Tarzan from Broadway to The Netherlands and Germany, we were able to add a couple of changes – and it ran for more than a decade! Or when we presented the new Hunchback of Notre Dame by Scott Schwartz in Berlin, Munich, and Stuttgart with much success, whilst Disney is still reluctant to bring that rather sombre show to the West End or NYC.
- When we were invited to the Pretty Woman workshop in the US, we knew almost beforehand that we´d like to acquire that licence, as the underlying film title was extremely popular in Germany, and in other European countries. The stage version convinced us artistically as well – and the presales in Germany support our assumptions and prior market research which predict a secure hit show.
- We´re currently in preparations to bring Hamilton to our territories. With a story that on surface seems to be completely devoted and limited to US and UK audiences, we will have to be smart in our positioning and marketing approach. We would not even have bothered doing so if the show itself were just on an average artistic level. But given its towering quality and its milestone character in the artistic elopement of the musical genre itself, Stage Entertainment clearly didn´t want to be left behind. So we're now embracing the challenge to present a title with which 98% of our audiences associate a Formula One racing car driver and stare at us in complete disbelief when we say it´s cool to watch the first US Secretary of Finance on stage.
- Do these European territories vary greatly from each other in terms of theatrical taste?
Yes, they do. Every country has a slightly different theatrical background which influences audience preferences. In France, we observe that pure theatrical aesthetics like offered in Chicago are highly welcomed, as well as “grands spectacles.” Tanz der Vampire, Germany´s smash hit musical with more than 8 million visitors so far, failed in Paris, due to its specific humour. Spain cherishes traditional, classic shows like Anastasia as much as lively ones like Mamma Mia! Titles need to have certain name recognition, however, to attract national visitors there. In The Netherlands, we probably have the widest target taste, open to many different styles of musicals.
- How does Stage Entertainment decide which production might have the most success in a particular country?
We base our decisions on several pillars, i.e. experience from past shows, comparisons of figures between the countries, external market research and internal questionnaires. The ladder makes use of the yearlong bundled expertise of all of our colleagues. Every country proposes their favourite titles; the decision about the overall portfolio is made at Board level in Amsterdam, based on each country’s underlying business plan proposals.
- Over the last decade, which imported productions far exceeded your expectations in Europe and which ones underachieved and why?
As I mentioned earlier, Tarzan was a hugely positive surprise for us. In contrast, Titanic didn´t make it in Hamburg. One explanation was that people in a maritime city don’t like to see a ship sink!!! The more logical explanation, however, is probably that the Maury Yeston musical doesn´t follow the famous film storyline, as it originated before the cinema blockbuster – the audience expected to see the “Kate Winslet/Leonardo Di Caprio” love story angle. And as for Wicked, which we presented in both Germany and The Netherlands, we knew from the start it wouldn´t quite mirror the American/English popularity, since The Wizard of Oz is almost unknown on the continent. We were more than happy though to see that our productions did recoup thanks to the outstanding artistic quality of the show.
For more information, check out the www.stage-entertainment.com website.
(Photo credits: Tarzan by Morris Mac Matzen / Chicago by Jeremy Daniel / Hamilton by Joan Marcus / Wicked by Alastair Muir)