As he clocks up a quarter of a century as a producer, Colin Ingram is sending a new production of Grease on tour and preparing a blockbuster stage adaptation of Back to the Future. He talks to Nick Smurthwaite
What makes a good producer? Self belief, tenacity, nerves of steel and a gambler’s certainty that the horse you’ve backed will romp to victory.
With 25 years’ producing experience behind him – and Cameron Mackintosh for a mentor – Glasgow-born Colin Ingram is bringing these qualities to bear on his biggest punt to date: a musical version of the 1985 film Back to the Future, which will open at the Manchester Opera House early next year.
Before then, Ingram is focusing on the first new production of Grease for 25 years, opening at the Leeds Grand this week, ahead of a 17-week UK tour. He says: “We’re going back to some of the original 1972 Broadway material, to make it a bit grittier. I want the cast to look like real high-school kids, so most of them are in their 20s. Arlene Phillips, who’s doing the choreography, has reverted to a lot of dance moves from the 1950s to make it look more authentic.”
It is to the 1950s that Marty McFly is also transported in Back to the Future, one of Universal Studios’ most profitable film franchises.
A stage musical version has been talked about for decades and Ingram has been quietly laying the foundations since 2012 when he first met Hollywood veteran Robert Zemeckis, Oscar-winning director of all three Back to the Future films, and now an associate producer of the musical.
“I was quite intimidated to meet Bob Zemeckis at his studio in northern California,” Ingram says. “He talked for half an hour about protecting the franchise, and I talked about my experience of adapting Ghost for the stage. It felt as if I was being auditioned for the part of producer of the show. Luckily, his associate Bob Gale – who wrote all three Back to the Future films, as well as the book for the musical – had recently seen Ghost and loved it. When you’re dealing with people like Bob Zemeckis and Bob Gale, a degree of diplomacy is required.”
Ghost has been an enormous global hit for Ingram over the past eight years, with productions in France, Denmark, Germany, Australia and the US already, and five new international productions in the pipeline. When it opened in London in 2011, The Stage’s review described it as “one of the two best new musicals of the year” and “a genuinely involving and gripping entertainment”.
The worldwide success of Ghost came as a massive relief to the producer after his disheartening experience with Gone With the Wind, directed by Trevor Nunn, at the New London Theatre in 2007. Hammered by the critics, it ran for 12 weeks and lost most of its £4m production costs.
Is it true that you learn more from your failures than your triumphs? “You learn from both,” says Ingram, “but Gone With the Wind definitely taught me that all big musicals need extensive workshopping, and ideally an out-of-town tryout. That’s what I did with Ghost, and that’s why we’re doing Back to the Future in Manchester before it comes to London. You’ve got to sort out the problems before you open a big musical because the cost of changing things at the 11th hour is prohibitive.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working as a court runner for a London law firm.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Production administrator on Les Misérables.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Not to take things so personally.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Cameron Mackintosh, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Nick Allott and my dad.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Make us remember you. I’m looking at attitude and who will be a good company member.
If you hadn’t been a producer, what would you have been?
An architect or a chat-show host.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I wear my dad’s cufflinks.
Growing up in Glasgow in the 1980s, Ingram’s parents would take the whole family on trips to London to see big musicals. “It was the height of the success of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh, so we saw things like Starlight Express and Cats. I loved the bright lights and the glamour of the West End. Actually it was seeing the original production of Cats that made me want to work in the theatre.”
Ingram went to the University of Edinburgh to study law, but says he spent a lot more time putting on shows than poring over legal tomes. It was there he formed the Edinburgh University Footlights and co-wrote two musicals with his friend Ross Macfarlane, now a Scottish judge.
Even after he left university, and started working for the Edinburgh office of the financial services group Price Waterhouse (now PwC), Ingram continued to direct and produce shows for the Footlights. When it came to making a decision between a career in finance and a career in the theatre, it was a no-brainer.
With the confidence of youth, he arranged interviews with the Really Useful Group and Cameron Mackintosh Ltd on the same day trip to London. When he told Mackintosh that RUG was interested in hiring him, Mackintosh offered him a job as associate producer on the spot.
“At that time, Cameron had five shows in the West End so I had to grow up really quickly,” he says. “Cameron was all about the detail – from whether the front-of-house pictures were curling at the edges to every aspect of casting. He raised the quality of production to a level that had never been seen before. Yes, he was tough and if you screwed up you got a bollocking, but I took so much away from that experience.”
At 25, Ingram was put in charge of the London production of Les Misérables, and in the six years he worked for Mackintosh he also worked on Oliver!, The Phantom of the Opera and Trevor Nunn’s acclaimed 1998 revival of Oklahoma! at the National Theatre, which starred Hugh Jackman.
He ran the London office of Disney Stage Productions for two years, looking after The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, before helping to set up Old Vic Productions, with Sally Greene and David Liddiment. “Part of my job was to raise money to produce Billy Elliot, so I spent a lot of time schmoozing big fund managers. It was a very busy time for me. We were trying to do the impossible – start a theatre company doing four shows a year without any subsidy.”
Such a wealth of production experience gave Ingram the confidence to branch out on his own with his company InTheatre, with business partner Peter Kane, his main investor on Gone With the Wind. “If investors see how hard you work to make something a success, they will come back and work with you again, even if they’ve lost money. The year after Gone With the Wind, Peter invested in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which had three separate incarnations between 2009 and 2016.”
“I believe the community of independent producers should help one another. There is more collaboration and investment between the producers of my generation. I invited some of my fellow independent producers to the most recent workshop of Back to the Future, and the feedback I had was really useful.”
“Young people coming out of drama college or university think they can plunge straight in the deep end. I was never like that. It took me until I was 36 before I decided I had enough experience of all aspects of theatre production to be able to branch out on
my own. It is a tough business and you have to know what you’re doing.”
The two big musicals currently in development with his own company are both adaptations of well-known titles. He says his “core market” – to which all his ideas are directed – is a 42-year-old woman. “As the years roll by, and influences change, so does my 42-year-old woman. She is now harking back to the 1990s and 2000s. You have to evolve along with your audience.”
His “small but efficient” company consists of four people – two of them production co-ordinators – with Ingram doing the bulk of the work himself, preferring to do deals in person, not by email or text. “I rely a lot on people like Neil Adleman, my lawyer, and Amanda Malpass, my publicist, not just for their professional expertise, but also for their therapeutic powers. I don’t want to be surrounded by yes-men.”
With so much at stake, does he find it difficult to switch off? “I struggle with that, yes, but I have a young family. Children are a great distraction from work, and my wife is not in the business. I don’t socialise a lot in the evenings, and I try not to spend all my time on my devices when I’m home, although it is difficult when you’re on call 24-7.”
He continues: “My mantra for being a producer – apart from making sure you’ve had plenty of experience – is that you have to be brilliant for 10 minutes a day, and those ten minutes are really important. In meetings at that level, you have to know what’s important to the people you’re trying to impress.”
Born: Glasgow, 1969
Training: University of Edinburgh, 1987-90
• Les Miserables, Palace Theatre (1994-2000)
• Phantom of the Opera, Her Majesty’s (1995-98)
• Oklahoma!, National Theatre (1998)
• The Lion King, Lyceum (2000-02)
• Aladdin, Old Vic (2004)
• Hamlet, Old Vic (2004)
• Billy Elliot, Victoria Palace (2005)
• Movin’ Out, Apollo Victoria, (2006)
• Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Theatre Royal Haymarket (2009)
• Ghost the Musical, Piccadilly Theatre (2011)
Grease opens at Leeds Grand Theatre on June 19, and is then touring until October. greasethemusicalontour.com