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Putting big shows on small stages

In the Heights at the King’s Cross Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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When In the Heights walked away with three awards at this year’s Oliviers it brought into focus a growing trend in musical theatre development. The show may be booking until late October at the 994-seat King’s Cross venue but it originated for a fleeting six-week run at the 240-seat Southwark Playhouse. Throughout London’s vibrant fringe and beyond, major West End and Broadway shows are being creatively re-imagined for much smaller stages.

It’s not a new phenomenon, as the 180-seat Menier Chocolate Factory has been regularly producing West End and Broadway transfers since 2005. Today, however, a network of producers and creatives are successfully programming British premieres of Broadway and Off-Broadway hits that never quite made it to the West End. While Theatreland seems replete with jukebox musicals and revivals, musical theatre enthusiasts are turning to the fringe for originality and innovation.

Producer Paul Taylor-Mills, for instance, has not only achieved critical and commercial success with In the Heights, he is also responsible for recent productions of Carrie, Steel Pier and The Beautiful Game, the latter in the intimate 50-seat Union in Southwark.

“I think the fringe and the West End serve two very different audiences,” he says. “The West End as far as I am concerned is made up predominantly of shows for tourists. We can see that from the long-running shows such as Phantom, Mamma Mia! and The Lion King. I guess we are providing an alternative to those big brands, for the growing community of people who enjoy musicals and are perhaps looking for something a little left-field.”

He adds: “The risks are pretty much the same as in the West End, only the financial implications on the fringe are a lot lower. However, the process by which I open a show at, say the Union, which has about 60 seats or Greenwich with 420 seats, is no different. I don’t cut corners, so there is no difference in the investment of time.”

Having created such an impact with In the Heights, Taylor-Mills has been invited to join the Really Useful Group to advise and support the programming at the 312-seat St James Theatre in Victoria. With plans afoot by Cameron Mackintosh to transform the 440-seat Ambassadors into a home for mid-scale musicals – renamed the Sondheim – it seems that a new landscape of musical theatre is rapidly taking shape a little closer to Shaftesbury Avenue. The stakes were raised when it was announced that director Thom Southerland would be taking the artistic helm of the 265-seat Charing Cross. Southerland is a veteran of scaling down the blockbusters since directing Annie Get Your Gun at the Union in 2008.

 A small-scale  production of Titanic also ran at Southwark Playhouse in 2013
A small-scale production of Titanic also ran at Southwark Playhouse in 2013

“I think we had 12 in the cast and it was an actor-musician production,” he says. “I remember talking to the rights holders to the show and they were so shocked. Nobody had ever wanted to do it on that small a scale before. But they found a new appreciation for the piece, which in turn inspired me to create more musicals with a similar approach.”

It evidently became a passion for Southerland as he continued to mount major musical revivals and premieres at the Union, the Broadway Studio Catford, Landor, Finborough, Trafalgar and Riverside Studios before an exceptional run at the Southwark Playhouse with Titanic, Grand Hotel and most recently Grey Gardens.

“Initially the biggest problem when adapting a big musical will be the score,” he explains. “If the score has been written for a 40-piece orchestra, we have to try to scale that down without it sounding cheap. I think you have to be very careful of the pieces that you choose. They have to still be able to hold their artistic merit while being played by a reduced orchestra.”

He continues: “Another challenge of course is people’s preconceived ideas of what the show should be. With Titanic, people were so shocked that we were trying to condense a vast musical into the tiny Southwark space. You are constantly battling against the idea that Titanic or Grand Hotel should live on a big West End stage. To begin with it was very difficult to get permission. Understandably rights holders are very protective of their valuable material – they don’t want somebody who’ll make a bad job of it and damage the reputation of the property. The more people that take the risk, however, the more popular it has become.”

So popular, in fact, that Southerland’s production of Grand Hotel has played in Tokyo, while Titanic played Tokyo and Toronto before a revival opens his first season at the Charing Cross Theatre.

Big musicals will often mean big casts, so the size of a small venue may dictate how many actors can appear in an ensemble. One director who is not afraid of larger casts is Rob McWhir, whose productions of Follies, Curtains and Ragtime were re-imagined for the 50-seat Landor in Clapham.

“The size and the diversity of the cast for Ragtime was a challenge for such a small venue and with the budget that we had,” he reveals. “There’s not just diversity reflected through characters but also through the music, referencing ragtime, jazz, Jewish cadences and classical. Musical director George Dyer had to choose what he thought were the instruments that could best achieve that range of diverse sounds.”

What are the advantages of putting on these big shows in such an intimate space?

“I think the audience gets a much better understanding of the story of the piece,” McWhir says. “Obviously the actors are so much closer, so you see every flicker of emotion. The emotional journey is so much clearer in a small space – the most important benefit of doing something on a small scale. It can change the audience perception of the show completely.”


How the fringe is adapting Broadway’s mega-musicals

In the Heights
Broadway premiere: Richard Rodgers, 2008

Capacity: 1,319
Cast: 23
Run: 1,184 performances
UK premiere: Southwark Playhouse, 2014
Capacity: 240
Cast: 19
Run: 4 weeks
UK transfer: Kings Cross, 2015
Capacity: 994
Cast: 19
Booking until October 2016

Broadway premiere: Lunt-Fontanne, 1997

Capacity: 1,509
Cast: 37
Run: 804 performances
UK premiere: Southwark Playhouse, 2013
Capacity: 240
Cast: 20
Run: 48 performances
UK transfer: Charing Cross, 2016
Capacity: 26
Cast: 20
Runs until August 2016

Broadway premiere: Winter Garden, 1971

Capacity: 1,526
Cast: 47
Run: 522 performances
West End premiere: Shaftesbury, 1987
Capacity: 1,400
Cast: 41
Run: 644 performances

Fringe premiere: Landor, 2006
Capacity: 50
Cast: 29
Run: 40 performances

For Follies, McWhir had to write a treatment and send it to Sondheim, because it had never been allowed to be performed without the full orchestra. His production was based around a baby grand piano.

“It stripped away everything except the raw emotion that the characters were feeling, which was absolutely stunning. Suddenly the songs became less about the lush orchestrations and more about what they were singing,” McWhir says.

As the phenomenon of scaled-down musicals lights up the London fringe, the question arises as to whether there is an appetite for this sort of product outside the M25. Producer Katy Lipson believes there is, and is currently in the process of opening a production of Parade at the modest 120-seat Hope Mill Studio in Manchester.

“As a Manchester-born producer, this opportunity came up to collaborate with this new theatre run by Joseph Houston, William Whelton and director James Baker,” she says. “We all knew each other and came together, thinking this would be a perfect chance to introduce Manchester to some great new musical theatre. Of course, there are the large, commercial houses programming plays and big musicals but, we thought, how will they get to see those Ordinary Days, those Spring Awakenings, those Parades? These important shows are unlikely to pop up at the Opera House, Lowry or Palace.”

For those happy to relegate fringe theatre as inconsequential to the commercial sector, you only have to consider the phenomenal success of the Menier Chocolate Factory. Could the St James or Charing Cross match that pint-size theatrical powerhouse in terms of quality and output? That remains to be seen, but there is certainly a whole generation of producers and creatives thoroughly versed in the art of shaping big musicals to intimate spaces.

In the Heights is running at the King’s Cross Theatre, London: Titanic runs at London’s Charing Cross Theatre from May 28 to August 6

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