Translating Your Musical From English to English

A scene from the stunning new musical, Matilda, currently playing on London's West End.

I’ve been on a fact finding field trip to London this week!

I’ve had the great pleasure of seeing several exciting shows and have been meeting with my producing counterparts and industry colleagues here in the UK, many of whom are responsible for making the West End the theater mecca that it is!

As far as NEW musicals, the talk of the town is the brand new hit musical, MATILDA! Based on the book by Roald Dahl and produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, this fantastic show is taking the West End by storm. Though it’s technically a story for children, the writers and designers have found that magical combination of artistry and entertainment to appeal to all ages.

Plans are already underway to bring Matilda to Broadway and over the course of several conversations (over tea and scones!) with the show’s producers about this very subject, one key question kept coming up for discussion:

Should the show be “translated” from British to American for Broadway?

This is a question that many new musicals have had to ask as it’s not uncommon to Americanize British subject matter for Broadway, and vice versa for the West End.

For example, when the British film The Full Monty was made into a musical it was re-set in Buffalo, NYC.

When the jukebox stage musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert transferred from the West End to Broadway, several songs were switched out (e.g., Madonna instead of Kylie Minogue) to better appeal to Americans.

Billy Elliot, on the other hand, stayed very British when it moved to Broadway.

Whether to translate your show from English to American (or the other way around) is a very difficult question, particularly when your show’s a hit. The alchemy that goes into creating an exceptional musical is delicate and making the wrong adjustments can change a hit to a flop faster than you can cross the Atlantic. Then again, some things really are lost in translation between English and American audiences (especially when it comes to comedy).

In the case of Matilda, I think it should be kept exactly as it is. It works beautifully and I hope you all get to see it on one side of the pond or the other. It’s just a hunch but it seems to me that a show about British school children, one of whom is extraordinarily special, sounds like something Americans might like…(paging JK Rowling)!


P.S. If you read this blog, I have no doubt you saw NBC’s new show SMASH weeks ago when it hit the web. If you’ve been living under a rock for the past few weeks, watch it NOW! A major TV show about the very thing that we do, namely, writing and producing new musicals, is quite the coup. It’s in all of our best interest to support it!


  1. Being one who likes integrity of the authors and holds audience intelligence at high regards, keep intentions and views the same. Unfortunately, high stakes of the business, has proven this to be quite a “Pipedream”. Here’s a question for you Brisa, do the British creatives have reasons why American produced musicals have had successful runs once crossing the ponds; ie “Hello, Dolly!”, “Chorus Line”. Are they driven by the star or are European audiences more curious how Americans view themselves?

  2. Well they didn’t change Mary Poppins to an American story and it’s still running……
    (The reason Fully Monty was changed, methinks, is that the dialect was very hard to understand…….)
    We like the Brits hereabouts……

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