What do Mary Poppins and Jerry Springer have in common? More, perhaps, than you'd expect. They are both the subjects of current West End shows inspired by phenomenally successful American institutions (the 1964 Disney film and the cult TV programme), which are both destined to arrive eventually in New York. And just as the movie version of Mary Poppins presented an English archetype for American audiences, Jerry Springer: the opera presents an American phenomenon for the delectation (and censure) of English audiences. Taken together, these shows raise the vexing question of how and why some shows find audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, while others do not.
Indeed, the problem of transferring a show from a British to a US stage seems to have been largely solved in recent decades, mainly through the efforts of Cameron Mackintosh and his associates. With the likes of Les Miserables, they have created an era reminiscent of the British invasion of US musical theatres by Gilbert and Sullivan, launched by HMS Pinafore in 1878. The success of these shows, and those between, may be put down to their having more "universal" qualities, or to their managing to find the strand of common ground that still exists between the two cultures. While this is occasionally the case, such explanations ignore the basic differences in how even successful shows are understood on either side of the great divide.
Take Pinafore. Gilbert surely imagined the show as a satirical tale about the harm that could befall national institutions - in this case, the "Queen's Navee" - if tradition, rank and class were overturned, if commoners were given command of nobility and captains were made to answer to their crews. To English audiences, with Mr W H Smith's appointment as First Lord of the Admiralty still in the news, the cautionary intent was clear. Yet most Americans would have relished the deft way that Pinafore pointed out the arbitrariness of class, lampooned those in power and presented an effeminised British navy at a time when command of the seas was still very much an issue. In effect, audiences on either side of the Atlantic were responding to two different shows.
To some extent, this is to be expected with politically pointed material, as home-grown critiques of one's own are bound to be taken differently from critiques of or by others. Even when both sides manage to misunderstand a show, those misunderstandings will not be the same. Americans did not receive Sondheim and Weidman's fiercely patriotic Assassins kindly the first time around in 1991, with many believing that the show actually advocated assassination. London critics did not make this mistake, but many wrongly saw the show as a full-scale indictment of America.
Even shows dealing with less politically hot topics are received differently. Henry Higgins - created by George Bernard Shaw in Pygmalion but given musical life by Lerner and Loewe in My Fair Lady - will seem much more obviously homosexual to British audiences than to Americans, who are generally less familiar with, say, the euphemistic term "confirmed bachelor". While English and US audiences alike have preferred to understand Shaw's work as a Cinderella story, it is no accident that it was a US musical that satisfied this preference. Thus My Fair Lady insists, in the climactic "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face", on Higgins's latent heterosexuality by suggesting that he might learn to "sing" in order to keep Eliza. No wonder Lerner and Loewe worked so hard to convince Rex Harrison to take on the role: not only was he ideally suited to performing songs without ever quite singing, but he also projected precisely the kind of personality that leaves Americans in doubt as to whether someone is a typical upper-class Brit or a homosexual.
What these examples demonstrate is that shows grounded in one culture undergo a process of translation when staged across the Atlantic, even if the language remains (more or less) the same. This not only explains why some shows do not make the jump successfully, having lost too much in translation, but also suggests that more than lost meaning is involved. Pinafore actually gained meanings in America because some elements of the show resonated so strongly with US culture that they drowned out the rest. Assassins, in presenting its title characters as shameful villains yet encouraging a degree of sympathetic understanding, allowed for a view of the show in England - with its tight rein on firearms - that was unlikely in the US: that the country's assassins are the full realisation of its cultural values. And My Fair Lady allows its American audience a view of Higgins as a heterosexual in need of rescue while remaining true enough to Shaw that most British audiences are not troubled by the shift in perspective.
What does this tell us about the current hit shows? The UK staging of Jerry Springer, like the transatlantic receptions of Assassins and Pinafore before it, owes its success in part to a stereotyped representation of others. Despite the show's offensively reductive account of America, however, its spirit of absurdity probably brings it close enough to Pinafore for it to achieve some popularity in the US. Mary Poppins has had a more complex journey, from the matter-of-fact absurdities of the books (set in London but written by an Australian), through the sentimentality of the Disney film, to the refashioned show for English audiences. While this convoluted history makes the success of the show's crossing to America harder to predict, the creators of Mary Poppins seem to have learned a lesson from My Fair Lady's success, adding dimensions (such as Mr Banks's back story) to gratify local tastes, while letting the more familiar original remain plainly in view, to be recognised and appreciated upon its eventual voyage "home".
Raymond Knapp is a professor of musicology at UCLA. His new book, The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity, is published by Princeton University Press