Having started out in Birmingham Rep’s press office, Chris Harper moved from the National to set up a production company with director Marianne Elliott. As their hotly anticipated, gender-swapped production of Company opens in the West End, he tells Mark Shenton about fatherhood, working with Sondheim and delighting theatregoers
There are many routes to becoming a successful theatre producer. Cameron Mackintosh was a stage hand and swept floors at Drury Lane, Bill Kenwright was an actor who set up his own touring shows, Andrew Lloyd Webber was a composer who decided to manage his own work, and Sonia Friedman and Judy Craymer were both stage managers who climbed the management ladder.
Chris Harper’s route into producing came via the press office. Birmingham-born, Harper had longed to be involved in theatre from as young as five when he saw a panto starring Norman Wisdom at the Hippodrome. When he left school, Nada Zakula, then a press and publicity agent at Birmingham Rep, gave him his first job in her department.
Today, they are still working together. Zakula is the press rep for his biggest show yet as an independent producer: Stephen Sondheim’s Company in the West End. It’s a much-anticipated production directed by Marianne Elliott, with whom he founded Elliott and Harper Productions two years ago. The show could catapult him to the top table of West End producers.
Harper’s friendship with Elliott was also forged early on, when he was heading up the marketing department at the National Theatre, and she directed Ibsen’s rarely seen Pillars of the Community there in 2005.
We meet in a tiny private room at the Gielgud Theatre named after the legendary impresario Binkie Beaumont, whose producing empire HM Tennent was based in offices above this venue. Harper’s own office is more portable: he uses a trusty smartphone when he isn’t working from home.
That’s partly practical. He’s a single dad of twins, a boy and a girl, born by a surrogate mother in America two and a half years ago, so when he isn’t at the theatre he wants to work near them. Being a parent, he says, is a lot like being a producer. “You have to nurture a show and take care of it and love it and set the ground rules and boundaries – it certainly felt like life imitating art and vice versa. And it was because of the twins that I thought of doing Company.”
He explains that they were born 10 weeks early. “My daughter was just two pounds and my son three. I was a single dad in America, and what do you do? You turn to a Sondheim song, and I would listen to Adrian Lester singing Being Alive from Company every day as I drove to the hospital, just to give me a bit of courage to get through the day, looking at them, and thinking about what was going to happen and who they might become. The song got me through some difficult weeks.”
What was your first job?
Work experience in the press department at Birmingham Rep, then at the marketing department. By the age of 20, I had worked in a producing theatre and a receiving theatre, working on plays, musicals, opera and ballet.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To have more confidence in myself. Because I didn’t go to university, I was sometimes too frightened to say what I thought and use my own voice.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
Theatre, generally – that’s totally been my education. I didn’t read books, I went to the theatre. So I learned everything I know from it. The two most influential people are Andre Ptaszynski, who I worked for in my first job in London, and Nick Starr, who took a gamble on me as a producer, for which I will be forever grateful.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Don’t be afraid: you just have to be yourself.
If you hadn’t been a producer, what would you have been?
When I was at Birmingham Hippodrome, earning £75 a week and struggling to make ends meet, I was offered a job as a plasterer, and I nearly took it, because it was really well paid. There was something appealing about making something good.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
In theatre you never known what is going to happen, and because you can’t control anything, I’m not superstitious. You just have to live in the moment.
The 47-year-old producer recalls seeing a production at the Donmar Warehouse when he was in his early 20s. “It had the most profound effect on me,” he says. “Like Bobby [Company’s lead character], I want to be in charge of my life.”
The twins were just four days old when he spoke to Elliott and suggested they stage the musical, but with a twist. “One day I was listening to Being Alive, and I thought: ‘How fantastic it would be to hear it sung by a woman.’ So I suggested Rosalie Craig to Marianne. They’d worked together on The Light Princess at the National and were friends.” Also, he says, it would fit in with Elliott’s own directorial priorities: “She’s always particularly interested in telling female stories and in the classics, and Company is a classic in the same way as Shakespeare or Shaw.”
Elliott thought it might work, but wondered how they would convince Sondheim to agree. Elliott already knew him – he’d seen a lot of her work and she’d even been to dinner at his house – so she approached him. The composer was initially unenthused by the idea but, Harper says: “He has also said that if someone as brilliant as Marianne approaches you, you think about it.” Sondheim suggested Elliott workshop the show to see if the idea would be successful and “had something to say about women in 2018 and would make a connection with an audience today”.
They filmed the workshop. Afterwards, the young cameraman asked if it was a new musical. When they told him it dated from 1970, and that Bobbie (as Bobby is renamed) was a man in the original version, he asked: “How would that work?”
They told Sondheim the story, which, Harper says, “was a big help to make him understand that there’s a whole new generation of both men and women that this story can talk to”. Harper delivered the recording to Sondheim’s New York home personally and the housekeeper answered the door saying how much they were looking forward to seeing it. Elliott instructed Sondheim to watch it with some young people and women. “That’s exactly what he did. And he allowed us to continue. He was genuinely involved after that.”
Very few textual changes have been made. One of Sondheim’s biggest concerns was maintaining the integrity of George Furth’s original script, especially because the writer was no longer alive to approve amendments. But Rick Pappas, representing Furth’s estate, was very helpful, Harper says, and apart from reassigning the genders of Bobby and Amy – the character who sings I’m Not Getting Married Today and who has now become Jamie, part of a same-sex couple – “all the words are Furth’s”.
• You have to put in the hours.
• Think 10 steps ahead.
• Learn how to be instinctive about things. I now have an instinct for what might work with audiences, having had some shows that didn’t work as well as others – that’s something you learn.
When we meet, Sondheim had just been over to see the first previews, and told them he thought Furth would have loved it. “I feel we’ve really honoured the work, but in many ways it also feels like a new musical yet full of songs that people do know,” Harper says. “And audiences are having the time of their lives… that’s why you do it. You want to share the story and the hope is that it connects with audiences in the same way that [Elliott’s productions of] War Horse or Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time did.”
Harper identified the hallmarks of his business partner’s work: “Her productions have a generous spirit of warmth, love and connection; they come from a place of love and emotion. And Company says so much about who we are and what we want to do.”
They had originally planned for it to be Elliott and Harper Productions’ first offering. “But then the way Follies [at the National] landed, we didn’t want to go up against it,” Harper says. He’d spent 12 years at the NT, first as head of marketing – he was Nicholas Hytner and Nick Starr’s first new appointment when they joined in 2003.
Harper went to work for commercial producers Stage Entertainment, before returning to the National as in-house producer for the global roll-outs of War Horse and then Curious Incident. When Hytner and Starr announced their plans to leave the National, Elliott and Harper Productions was born. “We decided it was time to do our own thing and to stretch our own wings, to be in charge of our own destinies. The National is an incredible place, but it’s right for people to move on and let others be involved in the brilliance of that building.”
So, the company launched last October with the London premiere of Simon Stephens’ play Heisenberg directed by Elliott. It wasn’t a commercial success: “You can’t have hits all the time, that’s the law of averages, but it’s a play I was really proud of doing, and Marianne’s production was beautiful and moving. It’s a shame that it wasn’t the runaway monster success we’ve been used to, but I thought it had something to say.”
And that’s exactly what Harper has proved today: that he has something to say, and the work he has made happen helps him to say it.
Born: 1971, Stourbridge, West Midlands
• War Horse, National Theatre (2007-09); West End (2009-16); Broadway (2011-13); UK and US tours
• The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, NT (2012); West End (2013-17); Broadway (2014-16); UK and US tours
• Heisenberg, Wyndham’s Theatre (2017)
• The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, West Yorkshire Playhouse (2017)
• Angels in America, Broadway transfer (2018)
• Company, Gielgud Theatre (2018)
Company runs at London’s Gielgud Theatre until December 22