Life Magazine: Theatre waiting in the wings

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Life Magazine: Theatre waiting in the wings

Theatre shutdowns affect us all, but they’ve devastated those who work in the business. We ask the industry’s most important people about what they miss most about LIVE performance

Brigit Grant is the Jewish News Supplements Editor

The cast of Les Misérables 2019 
The cast of Les Misérables 2019 

In March, French composer Claude-Michel Schönberg was due to appear for the first time at JW3.

That the event was a sell-out is no surprise, as the creator of the musicals Les Misérables and Miss Saigon has millions of fans worldwide.

Since then, he been teaching his Royal Academy of Music students online.

First theatre memory?                                                                                                 

“It was in my home town of Brittany, where a local company used to play the repertoire. I did not miss one show from Calderón to Beckett, the French authors and Shakespeare.”

Fell in love with musical theatre?                                                                       

“When I was five and my parents took me to see Madam Butterfly and Carmen at the Paris Opera. I decided then, that I wanted to be an opera composer.”

Favourite musical? 

Claude-Michel Schönberg

“Show Boat. The innovation of the subject in those days (1924); the style of the music, the perfection of Ol’ Man River has not been topped since.” 

Moments of theatrical pride?

“The achievement of the Les Mis Concert in 2019 at the Gielgud was one of the proudest moments in my life as we did not know if a concert in such a traditional theatre was workable. And the reaction of the audience was incredible at each performance by our dream team.”

What have you missed most about theatre?

“As every venue is closed, I’ve not been anywhere during the crisis and I miss it a lot. Most of all, I miss direct contact with people. I’ve been doing a lot of Q&As and masterclasses on Zoom, but the lack of proximity, of communion, human warmth, of sharing together is crucial for me and no technical alternative can replace it.”

The composer with his Royal Academy of Music students

What is your first recollection of Herbert Kretzmer (Les Mis English-Jewish lyricist who died in October) 

“The first time I met Herbie was in [theatre producer] Cameron [Mackintosh]’s first little office. It was a surprise because we were then looking for a Jean Valjean and he entered the room. I thought: ‘Here he is!’ Herbie looked the part.”

What do you enjoy about teaching at the Royal Academy?

“I try to help [students] find their own way. It’s a wonderful moment when somebody enters the room and you know you see before you a person with great potential talent. I give to them, but I take their youth, their enthusiasm and freshness. I feel it is not the end, but passing the baton to another generation.”

Claude-Michel, Alain Boublil and Herbert Kretzmer

Describe your perfect West End theatre night

“I enjoy attending and afterwards to be able to have dinner with the actors, singers or musicians and talk about the experience of the evening. Not only congratulations, but constructive criticism and more general speaking about the arts with somebody who understands the job.”

Where will you go first when theatre resumes?

“When this weird period is over, I shall probably go to the opening night of the reprise of Les Mis, but there are so many shows I would like to see live and not streamed on a TV screen. My priority will be a night at the Royal Opera House.”

Schoenberg and Boubil’s Miss Saigon

Nica Burns OBE, has more than 30 years’ experience in the theatre and is a multi award-winning producer of more than 100 productions.

From acting to becoming the Donmar’s artistic director, she founded Nimax Theatres in 2005 with her business partner, Max Weitzenhoffer, and now owns six theatres, including a new one being built on Charing Cross Road.

With Everybody’s Talking About Jamie and 2019’s multi Olivier award winning Emilia among her productions, Nica has been both a spokesperson and generally battling to save the  desperate theatrical community. 

First theatre memory?

Nica Burns

“I was about six when my mother took me to the Royal Opera House to see a matinee of The Nutcracker. I fell in love with ballet, classical music and creating new worlds. This beautiful, grand special building had magic that started my lifelong love affair with everything to do with theatre. I was so enthralle,d my mother took me to the stage door to watch the ballet dancers come out. To me, they were fairy creatures and I wanted to be a person who could walk through that door into an inside that held so many possibilities.”

To produce a play, do you have to love it at first sight?

“Yes. Sometimes I might read a play that I think is really good, but I can’t see a production in my head.  I then pass it on to a producer colleague who I think will be the best person to guide it to production.”

Nica with Gemma Arterton

Moments of theatrical pride?”

“To this day, I’m still proud of my very first production. As a young actress, I had read a short novel called Dulcima by HE Bates.

I thought it would be great as a play and to play her. So I sent it to Colin Watkeys whose leading lady I had been at university, and asked if he’d work on it. We wrote it together – he directed and I starred – and took it to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. I put up my life savings at the time, which was £600, and learned everything about producing.

“We had a fantastic review in The Scotsman on day three, meaning we sold out, making £48, which Colin and I split. I’ve never forgotten that £24 profit share or the thrill of waiting to go on stage for the first performance. Knowing I’d made it happen was exhilarating and I’m so proud of taking the initiative that kickstarted my career as an entrepreneur.  From little acorns…”

Did you go into theatres during lockdown?

Obviously my six – the Palace, Lyric, Garrick, Vaudeville, Apollo and Duchess. But on 14 August, I went to Regent’s Park to see the first performance of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Nica with Samantha Spiro and Shobna Gulati

I was so excited to be back seeing live theatre again. The atmosphere in the auditorium was visceral – the entire audience was thrilled to be there.
I remember thinking how fitting it was that the first performance post-Covid was by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who has been such an inspiring leader during lockdown.”

What smells conjure up theatre?

“For me, my response is emotional first.  The buzz before the curtain up. Laughter.  The moment everyone’s emotion creates utter silence, the charisma of an individual performance.  Smell is too far down the list!”

Are your dreams peppered with productions?

“Yes, I’m developing a number of new productions and dream about them. I have a subconscious that mulls things through as I sleep. I often wake up going: ‘That’s the way to do it.’”

When theatre resumes, where will you spend opening night?

“We are reopening all six theatres sequentially from tomorrow (4 December) and I’ll be going to all the dress rehearsals. The first dress is today (3 December) at the Garrick for Deathdrop, which is absolutely hilarious and a piece of fun for Christmas.Tomorrow, it’s the dress rehearsal for the fantastic musical Six (Kenny Wax is producer) and, that same afternoon, I’ll see the dress for Potted Panto playing daytimes at the Garrick for family audiences. And thereafter, I will be visiting daily and seeing shows. Of course I have to put in a plug for the musical I produced at the Apollo, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, which reopens 12 December.

What new shows are coming?

“Ah, that would be telling! I am working on some exciting new productions, but we are not ready to share at this stage.”

Nica at the second birthday of Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, with star Layton Williams, director Jonathan Butterell and composer Dan Gillespie Sells

 When lockdown started, theatre producer Kenny Wax was braced for the opening night of his show SIX on Broadway. He is the force behind the Mischief Theatre plays, many great family shows such as The Tiger Who Came To Tea and a plethora of others, including producing the world-premiere of Top Hat. As the president of the Society of London theatre, he continues to fight for the survival of the industry.


What is your first memory of theatre? 

“My Auntie Pat took me to see Gypsy at the Wythenshawe Forum in Manchester (now closed down). I was smitten with the art form. I saw Imelda Staunton play the title role at the Savoy a couple of years ago.
It’s still a bittersweet classic musical. Growing up in Manchester, I enjoyed wonderful productions at the Royal Exchange and have very fond memories of Leaping Ginger and The Three Musketeers, both starring Robert Lindsay.” 

Do you have to love a play from the first reading? 

Kenny Wax

“Yes, there has to be some spark of magic. When I first saw SIX, I absolutely loved the freshness and originality of the writing. I hoped we could develop it from a student production into a fully-fledged commercial musical and we have. Despite the running time being only 80 mins, I’ve never heard anyone leave the theatre saying they hadn’t had value for money.” 

Proudest theatre moment(s)?

“Olivier Award wins in the Best Musical category for Top Hat and Once On This Island some years earlier are high on the list. But getting five nominations for SIX is right up there, alongside opening SIX on Broadway. We’ve also had great success with the Mischief Theatre / Goes Wrong shows and built an incredible brand with productions, which have been enjoyed on every continent on the planet. And we have a new Goes Wrong TV series we’ve just started shooting, with all the Covid regulations. It will be broadcast next spring.” 

Did you enter many theatres during lockdown? 

“I was interviewed for the reopening of SIX in the Lyric Theatre, which is currently in the middle of a major refurbishment programme so I was able to access the newly-painted ceiling while the scaffolding was in place. The Lyric’s owner, Nica Burns, has done an amazing job restoring this theatre at such a challenging time.”

Henry VIII’s wives as a girl band in SIX the musical, which reopens this month

How has the absence of theatre affected you?

“My priority is protecting my workforce. I have 20 staff in the office. At the time of writing, we haven’t made anyone redundant. If we get the shows up and running in November and December (The Play that Goes Wrong and Magic Goes Wrong will reopen shortly too) then I should be able to safeguard the workforce. I also have 250-300 people working on our productions. When we open, it will be with social distancing throughout the auditorium, so even sell-out performances will make very slim margins. But at least we get everyone back to work.”

The Play That Goes Wrong

What feeling conjures up theatre for you?

“The moment when the house lights dim and the orchestra strikes up. That split second of anticipation is one of the most magical in theatre.”

Do you dream about productions?

“I try not to take work thoughts to bed, but I’m very excited about a handful of new shows we are planning to produce next year, including two major musicals. One of the shows, Identical, is based on the book, which became two very popular Disney movies called The Parent Trap. It was meant to open in Nottingham last summer, and we’re hoping to open next summer.

“We have to cast four pairs of identical twins for the show. Girls should be about 10 years old, in case anyone can help. We’re also planning to bring a hilarious new comedy over from France that sold out at the Edinburgh Festival last year.

Read more of the Life Magazine!

“I’ve commissioned a historical play (which sounds very dry, but it is based on a true story) and will in fact be a great piece of family entertainment. I’ve also commissioned a brilliant new kids’ show called Fantastically Great Women Who Changed The World based on a picture book by Kate Pankhurst. And if the surname is familiar, it’s because Kate is a distant relative of Emmeline. The songs are being composed by one of the UK’s most successful female pop song writers.”

When theatre fully resumes, where will you spend opening night? 

“I think it will be a very emotional evening for everyone. Most will not have performed for eight months! A couple of weeks later, the touring production of SIX is scheduled to open at the Lowry in Manchester unless Salford City Council closes us down. Most recently, I was at the first night of Adam Kay’s diary recollections, This Is Going To Hurt, at the Apollo, which was great fun and very moving at the end.”



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