Tom Stoppard on a Roll: From Coast of Utopia to Rock 'n' Roll

October 21, 2007–Last season, New York theater-goers saw Tom Stoppard's three-play cycle about 19th century Russian intellectuals, “The Coast of Utopia.” Now hot on its heels comes “Rock 'n' Roll,” a similarly intellectual play that originated at London's Royal Court and began Broadway previews at the Jacobs Theater October 19.

Producers Sonia Friedman and Bob Boyett, encouraged by a strong advance of about $3 million, see the attention directed at the Tony-sweeping “Coast” as help.

Like “Utopia,” “Rock 'n' Roll” also focuses on historical subject matter: the Czechoslovakian communism, as reflected through 30 years in the lives of a Czech dissident and a British scholar clinging to his country's Communist Party.

It's not a risk-free proposition. Whereas “Utopia” was produced under the nonprofit auspices of Lincoln Center Theater, “Rock” is a commercial production capitalized at around $2.7 million. (LCT, however, is involved as an associate presenter.)

Stoppard is on a roll on both sides of the Atlantic. Last season, “Utopia” was the play to beat, and no show did, as the epic took home seven Tonys. “Utopia” became a must-see, while press coverage over the production's seven-month run ranged from rave reviews to more critical one.

“Rock 'n' Roll” was winning raves from the West End transfer of the original 2006 Court production. Friedman notes that the team behind the Brit incarnation of “Rock” was so certain the limited run at the Court couldn't match demand that the commercial transfer was in the works even before the Court engagement opened.

The U.S. incarnation is essentially the same production, with Trevor Nunn directing five of the Brit version's original thesps, including Brian Cox, Rufus Sewell and Sinead Cusack.

“Rock” also is more of a known quantity compared with “Utopia,” which underwent fairly thorough revisions between its original 2002 production at the National and the LCT staging last season.

The play is only undergoing minor trims and edits, toward the end of the play. The design of the show also remains consistent, although Friedman points out it's been “Broadwayed” to fit the larger New York venue.

And while “Coast of Utopia” might seem an abstract concept to most people, everyone instantly recognizes rock 'n' roll–the title itself is alluring.

The music used in the play also elevates accessibility. Most theatergoers won't recognize Syd Barrett's “Golden Hair” or “The Universe Symphony and Melody” by dissident Czech band Plastic People of the Universe, but they will Pink Floyd's “Wish You Were Here,” the Rolling Stones' “It's Only Rock 'n' Roll” or U2's “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.”

Still, even Stoppard understands it doesn't hurt to have a little help with the complicated history of the play. Thus, the producers have bought extra pages in the Playbill to accommodate an eight-page section, compiled by Stoppard, that explains the context of the events of the play.

Due to Equity provisions, “Rock” can run for a maximum of 30 weeks, with an initial limited engagement planned for 22-26 weeks. Producers are marketing mainly to habitual playgoers, including the group of interested ticket buyers who have seen transfers of Royal National Theater shows such as “The History Boys” and “Jumpers.”

Interest in Stoppard is at a high right now, but there could potentially be too much of a good thing, hence the gap between his two plays on Broadway.