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How Brit Drew McOnie reworked Australian film classic Strictly Ballroom

Sam Lips and Gemma Sutton in rehearsals for Strictly Ballroom. Photo: Anthony Robling
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Bringing beloved properties from one genre to another, particularly films to musicals, is a fraught process. On the one hand, title recognition can help sell tickets; on the other, people can rent, stream or buy the DVD for much less than the price of a theatre ticket, so it needs to be extra special.

For every The Lion King, The Producers or Billy Elliot that makes the transition to blockbuster sell-out success on stage, there’s a Carrie (which closed on Broadway after five performances in 1988, after transferring from Stratford-upon-Avon), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (a Broadway musical version in 1966 didn’t even get to its first night, but closed after just four previews) or The Red Shoes (which closed on Broadway after five performances in 1993).

Of course, even previous failures on those titles don’t deter producers: there have been two separate straight play versions of Breakfast at Tiffany’s at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket (in 2009 and 2016), and next month Matthew Bourne will premiere his new stage version of The Red Shoes at Sadler’s Wells for his New Adventures company (see Backstage, p40).

Drew McOnie in rehearsals. Photo: Anthony Robling
Drew McOnie in rehearsals. Photo: Anthony Robling

In the coming months, the acclaimed film-to-stage version of the 1951 movie musical classic An American in Paris, which starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, will transfer from Broadway to the West End’s Dominion Theatre. It is directed and choreographed by British dance maestro Christopher Wheeldon. And previews for a new stage version of Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 film debut Strictly Ballroom have just begun at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds before its official opening on December 6.

It’s probably no coincidence that these three are all dance-based films, brought to the stage by major British choreographers doubling up as directors. Drew McOnie, who won the Olivier for best choreographer this year for his dance work on In the Heights (currently at the King’s Cross Theatre), is the youngest of them at just 31. He directly inherits the creative mantle of Luhrmann, who staged its 2014 stage premiere in Sydney, Australia – it was subsequently also seen in Melbourne – and has now given his blessing to McOnie to take it further.

Carmen Pavlovic, chief executive of Global Creatures, the Australian-based production company producing its transfer to the stage, explains why and how the show has now made the journey to Leeds.

“Like all new shows, we got a certain way into the process and asked ourselves what we do better or differently with a second draft of the show, and I spent time with Baz in New York talking about what it would look like. We wanted to deepen the storytelling and its emotional beats, and play a bit with the tone of the production, to find its heart while preserving the essence of the film. It was quite a delicate balance of not going too far in either direction.”

At the moment, Luhrmann is heavily committed to the Netflix musical series The Get Down, so wasn’t available. “We talked about the reality of the work ahead and how we could take Baz’s work further, which takes a certain kind of person,” adds Pavlovic. “Drew came on to my radar, as I could see he was really gaining a lot of momentum in the UK, and I invited him to see it in Australia.”

McOnie picks up the story. “We spoke about it on the Wednesday, and I was on a flight to Melbourne on the Friday and had to be back in London to recast In the Heights on Sunday morning. So I was there for two nights. I was longer on the plane than I was on the ground. It being a flight to Australia, the film was on the in-flight entertainment, so I watched it twice, and cried both times.

“It was a film that meant a lot to me – it had a really big influence on me growing up, and had a big impact on me becoming what I am now. At a very young age, I was a competitive Latin and ballroom dancer before I went into ballet and modern. The story centres around a maverick young dancer who wanted to be a choreographer and have his own voice in the world, so I really related to it. When I first heard it was happening in Australia, I’d been very jealous – I’d said for years and years that it should be a musical and that if it was, I wanted first dibs. But then when I heard it was the original film team doing it, I couldn’t complain.”

But now he was being solicited for his opinion and possible involvement. He had dinner with Pavlovic after he saw the show: “I had such a physical reaction to it. There were so many things that were extraordinary about it and so many things that I wanted to get my hands on.”

Pavlovic was clearly impressed. She says: “I immediately saw that this story was in his blood and his instincts were just so strong for it. Baz has always revolutionised everything he has done, and I felt we had to match that with the spirit of a new generation of theatremaker. That felt like an exciting choice for me.”

Describing his trip to New York, McOnie says: “I was terrified. I went in so prepared about the script that I could answer any question about it, but we talked very little about it. He was much more interested in me as as a person and my taste and experience, and what the story meant to both of us. It’s a story by dancers about dancers for dancers – dance is a metaphor for life.”

Luhrmann gave McOnie his blessing – and just as importantly, freedom to create, too. “He’s been very trusting with me. I’ve been lucky. So many shows that come from this heritage are difficult when you get into the creative process, because the original creators want to protect something rather than ignite something.”

Igniting his cast is exactly what McOnie puts a premium on in the rehearsal room.

“I know the script and music inside out, and I could do the one-man, word-for-word version of it, but it’s very much in my style to make it up in the room. For instance, we have Fernando Mira [the sole member of the original Australian cast] who is an exceptional flamenco dancer, and it would be foolish of me not to use him. My knowledge is A-level standard – why not utilise his brilliance? There are many moments in this where the cast are so much better than I could ever be. So you want to set them free rather than going in with your own interpretations: a lot is being made up in the room. New songs are also coming and going, and it is changing daily, so I don’t want to come married to an idea and not listen to the piece.”

McOnie’s having to work fast. He’s had just six weeks in the rehearsal room. But that’s also why the production team has brought the show to West Yorkshire Playhouse.


Film-to-stage shows opening soon

The Red Shoes Matthew Bourne directs and choreographs a new stage version of the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale, best known through Powell and Pressburger’s 1948 film. It runs at Sadler’s Wells from December 6 to January 29 (profile of designer Lez Brotherston, Backstage, p40).

An American in Paris Christopher Wheeldon directs and choreographs a new stage version of the 1951 film that starred Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, transferring to London’s Dominion Theatre from March 4, after premiering successfully on Broadway in 2015.

Death Takes a Holiday The stage musical version of the 1934 film classic receives its UK premiere at London’s Charing Cross Theatre from January 16, having originally played Off-Broadway in 2011.

He adds: “It is quite an animal as a show. There are so many different strands together. Obviously, it has been a terrifying and exhilarating opportunity for me, but I wanted to go somewhere with an in-house artistic team that would feel comfortable with me. Having worked at Curve [in Leicester], I’m a strong believer in regional theatre – it has given me the breaks that led to a happy career.

“James Brining, the artistic director here, is extraordinary and generous and has a sense of humour. So I’ve been sitting with someone who has a keen dramaturgical eye, is a serious play director, has a passion for musical theatre and has been a friend through the process. It’s a very trusting environment, not to mention that the sets are being built and the costumes made in the building. Every tea break, I nip over to talk to the set builders, props supervisor and carpenters – it’s so much better than endless emails. We’re making a show together – it’s a complete luxury.”

Making sure it all stays on track is Suzi Cubbage, who is head of production at West Yorkshire Playhouse and has worked there for the last 35 years. “My job is juggling the balls and spinning the plates and making sure that everyone stays calm and focused. I won’t have sleepless nights or throw my teddy out,” she says – even when everyone else might be.

That has not happened, yet. “It’s been a really seamless journey together,” says Pavlovic. “Baz has given Drew his blessing to kick it down the road, so Drew has a lovely amount of freedom, but also his blessing and friendship; it has brought a very nice spirit to the show.”

Profile: Strictly Ballroom

Venue: West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Dates: November 30-January 21, PN December 6
Director/choreographer: Drew McOnie
Cast includes: Sam Lips, Gemma Sutton, Tamsin Carroll, Stephen Matthews, Julius D’Silva, Richard Grieve
Producers: Global Creatures (CEO, Carmen Pavlovic, pictured above), West Yorkshire Playhouse (artistic director, James Brining)
Rehearsals: Six weeks
Budget: £1.75 million
Ticket prices: £13.50-£45

Strictly Ballroom runs at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds from November 30 to January 21

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