On April 18, a new production of La Cage aux Folles opens on Broadway, right across the street from a hit revival of A Little Night Music. Both shows began their lives at the Menier Chocolate Factory, a tiny London theater that has become a powerhouse for revivals of American musicals.
And fun fact? It really used to be an old chocolate factory.
Located in a formerly derelict industrial building south of the Thames, the Menier sits across from a row of nondescript offices. The theater itself is minuscule, seating less than 200 people, and the audience in the first row could literally reach out and touch the actors.
But the impact of the company's productions has been huge. Sweet Charity, opening May 4, is the eighth show to transfer from the Menier to London's West End in the six years the theater has been in business. Critic Matt Wolf says the Menier constantly surprises -- by presenting big shows in an impossibly small space.
"It doesn't make sense as the musical producing factory that it's become," says Wolf, who writes for the International Herald Tribune. "And I think therein lies its strength: Because it doesn't seem plausible, the fact that it does it is very exciting."
Producer David Babani says there's a key to his theater's success: no money.
"The limitations of the space and budgets, etc., are a virtue," he says. They force people to be creative. They force people to problem-solve in incredibly exciting ways."
And Babani has been able to attract top-tier problem-solvers to his hole-in-the-wall theater for next to nothing. Legendary directors like Trevor Nunn -- he did a couple of little shows called Cats and Les Miserables -- and Hal Prince, who has 21 Tony Awards on his shelf, have worked there. Ditto Douglas Hodge, who has performed Shakespeare and Pinter at some of London's largest theaters, and who leapt at the opportunity to play the drag queen Albin in La Cage aux Folles at the Menier. The production was so well-received that it moved to the West End, where Hodge picked up an Olivier Award. The show's Broadway transfer will mark his New York debut.
"The Chocolate Factory immediately seemed to have that same crumbling, Fringe-like, awful Dickensian atmosphere that seems to lead toward good theater -- I don't know why," Hodge says."
Actress Hannah Waddingham starred in A Little Night Music at the Menier as well as in its West End transfer. She says the Chocolate Factory space is so intimate that the audience sometimes becomes a part of the action.
"In the middle of it, at the most inopportune moment, people will decide they need a pee," she laughs. "And you just think, 'Seriously, guys? I'm right here! You've just walked through two of us to get out of the room to go to the loo!'
"And then they come back, and they do that kind of crouch thing, and a couple of people go, 'Sorry, sorry, I'm sorry, I'm just going to quickly nip out,' while you're in the middle of a scene! But that's the whole charm of it."
The intimacy extends backstage, where the actors share a dressing room in the basement, with the men and women divided only by a curtain.
"Everybody is together, everybody can hear everything that's said," says producer David Babani. "It just promotes some real camaraderie, which is, again, a key factor in our shows."
Another key factor is Babani's hunger for commercial success. His theater receives no government subsidy; its income is entirely self-generated. So in addition to making theater, the Menier operates a gourmet restaurant. But it's the shows -- including a lot of American musicals -- that bring 'em in.
"I think it keeps you on your toes and, especially because we're not funded, we can't go into sort of lazy producing mode," he says. "Two flops in a row and we're closed."
But perhaps the biggest key to staying afloat is having shows move to larger -- and more lucrative -- theaters in the West End and on Broadway.
"Unlike a lot of other places, we still remain active producers," he says. "We raise money for them. ... So it makes it a very pleasurable experience, watching the follow through rather than creating something and then just giving it to somebody else to run with."
With La Cage opening on Broadway and Sweet Charity opening in the West End, all in the space of a few weeks, Babani's feeling really good.
"I get to work with my heroes; we get to make great shows," he says. "People seem to like them, and they come and they clap at the end and everything. Like, I don't know what more a guy can ask for."