Life on the factory floor
“Of all the things I’ve done, whether it be movies on a very big scale or a smaller one, or whether it be big plays or small plays, or running a theatre, new musicals are the most difficult, without question.”
So says Sam Mendes, and he should know – last year he was responsible for directing Skyfall, the most successful Bond movie of all time that grossed more than £100m at the domestic UK box office alone, and over $1 billion globally. Yet now he’s at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in the middle of intensive daily rehearsals for a lavish new musical version of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
As I enter the third floor dressing room backstage that doubles as his office at 9.30am on a Friday morning, the American composing team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and the British book writer David Greig are leaving, having just had another meeting with him.
“We’re constantly in meetings, working on details like needing to take 20 seconds out of a number here, or working out a proper curtain call,” says Mendes. “I’m literally here from 8.30am to midnight every day – it occupies every inch of my attention.”
Yet for the next 45 minutes, he gives me every inch of his attention, effortlessly exuding the concentration, confidence and honesty that has put him at the very top of his profession both as a stage and film director. Now 47, he won the Oscar for best director for his first feature film, American Beauty, in 1999. He was running the Donmar Warehouse at the time, and had also directed regularly at the RSC and National Theatre, plus West End and Broadway revivals of Oliver! and Cabaret respectively.
Although his status as an international film director is now secure, he confides, too, that “theatre will always be my home”.
“That’s partly because I don’t think it is possible for anyone to feel that comfortable on a film set – by definition, they’re constantly in motion, moving and shifting, so you never put down roots,” he explains.
“Whereas in the theatre you have a base. And however long and difficult this process has been – and the hours are tough – it’s nothing like doing a Bond movie.
“For this show, I’ve either been at Jerwood Space or Drury Lane. That thing of being in motion all the time and never being able to get a rhythm in film is very difficult when you’re used to the dedicated rhythms of a theatre rehearsal room, so for me that’s my natural home. I’m happiest when I’m in one of two places – the rehearsal room for play or a musical, or the cutting room for a movie.”
So why are musicals so hard to do, not only with regards to technical matters? “There are so many primary creative voices who all have equal status,” says Mendes. “You’re not just dealing with one writer, you’re dealing with three in this case. Your designer [Mark Thompson for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory] is in large part in control of the way the show moves. Whoever said musicals are about transitions is 90% correct – the way the thing moves and flows is entirely in the hands of the designer, and then of course the choreographer is the other primary creative voice.
“Peter Darling is more than a choreographer – he provides a language of movement. So there’s these five people and then you – that’s why musicals on the whole benefit from having a strong producorial voice as well. That’s why a Cameron [Mackintosh, who produced Oliver! that Mendes directed 20 years ago at the London Palladium] is often necessary for a show – it’s so vast. There’s no question that without the experiences of Oliver! and Gypsy, my two big other mainstream, large-scale productions, neither of which were especially happy for me, I would not have been able to do this show in the way that I’ve done it.”
During his Donmar tenure, he also collaborated with Mackintosh on another new musical The Fix, written by US writers Dana P Rowe and John Dempsey – that wasn’t a happy experience either. “But I learnt an enormous amount – you always learn from your failures, you don’t learn much from your successes,” he says. “I’ve definitely thought about all three of those shows and the mistakes I made on them in the process of doing this. And I know that in terms of process I’ve not made some of the mistakes I made on those shows here, and it’s been a much more enjoyable experience as a consequence.”
Of course, one of the biggest differences between Oliver! and Gypsy on the one hand and The Fix and now Charlie on the other, is that both of the former were already written and proven successes.
“It’s a wildly different process and yet in some ways it is even more difficult to do them, because people have two legendary productions of those shows in their minds already and to eradicate it or reformat it when they’ve already been done to perfection the first time around is a very difficult burden to bear the whole time. Whereas with this, no one really knows. There’s an excitement to creating something new. It’s stressful, of course, because big things can change and you are sometimes rewriting a number or restaging and rejigging things, but you don’t have that thing of someone out there knowing how it should go.”
Lionel Bart, composer of Oliver!, and Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book of Gypsy and had himself directed a number of productions, were both still alive and very much present when Mendes did those shows. “They had a very clear memory of a rhythm of a show when it is firing on all cylinders and open and fully successful,” says Mendes. “So to watch something take baby steps on its first preview and falter and fall and die is unbelievably frustrating for them, because they know how it can work.”
Mendes prefers, however, to “pull something apart completely, as I did with Cabaret, Company and Assassins”.
“And in the case of the first two, I got the book writers to rewrite certain scenes, once they understood that conceptually the framework for the whole thing was different,” he adds. “Someone dubbed them revisals, not revivals. Sondheim is astonishing at embracing new productions of his work of all sorts – he’s seen every Sweeney Todd under the sun, from John Doyle’s with actor-musicians to the Royal Opera House, but he has faith that the piece will survive, and it can have any number of different productions because the play will always be great. You enter a strange grey area when you do a new production of something like Gypsy, but you have to use the Jerome Robbins choreography. That’s where I should have said no, because then it’s not a new production – it’s a half-new production. And you will only be frustrated, because it is not in the framework of a Robbins production. So you have to risk losing everything in order to win big with something like Cabaret. If you don’t, and I learnt my lesson on Gypsy, what you get is a half-way house that pleases nobody.”
When Mendes’ production of Oliver! was restaged at Drury Lane in 2009, Mendes was otherwise engaged: “I was doing the Bridge Project at the time and Revolutionary Road, so I was completely in New York and only saw it once it opened.”
So Rupert Goold was asked to follow in his footsteps and restage it instead, which must have been an even harder task.
“I said to Cameron to use a proper director please, not an assistant or resident director, but I felt for Rupert – he was doing it with [choreographer] Matthew Bourne and [designer] Anthony Ward in the room with him. At least I didn’t have Jerry Robbins in the room. And all of them and Cameron had a sense of it firing on all cylinders at the Palladium, but here was a new cast, a new director, a new theatre, so it would have to take baby steps first and it takes a while to get up there.”
That’s echoed in the journey that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has undergone. And right now he says the show is finally coming together. “The show landed for the first time last night, and you could feel it. The audience leapt to their feet at the end. I said that at the end of the third week of previews we’d have a show, and we’re just approaching that now. We turned a corner last night.”
The previous day the spectacular glass elevator was finally put into the show, as well as another moment that he won’t divulge for fear of spoiling it, “but it was the loudest gasp I’ve ever heard an audience make”, he adds.
It’s a show that he has built from the ground up. In its current incarnation, it has been in gestation since 2009. “It goes back even further than that,” says Mendes. “When I was at university I tried to get the rights to do a version on the Edinburgh Fringe. And then I tried again at Chichester when I running the Minerva to do the first proper stage production, though there’d been a touring version of a play before with songs where the Oompa-Loompa’s were. Then I tried again when Trevor Nunn was running the National and I said, ‘I’d like to do it in the Olivier Theatre in the realm of The Wind in the Willows Christmas show’, but again we couldn’t get the rights. They were being held by Warner Brothers, who wanted to make another film version.”
That was duly done in 2005, when Tim Burton directed Johnny Depp as Willy Wonka. “Then Warners surfaced with it. Just after we’d produced Shrek on Broadway with Dreamworks, we got a call from them to see if we were interested in partnering in producing it for the stage. Obviously Disney were trailblazers for studios going into the theatre, and Wicked has been a monster smash for Universal – now there’s a wholesale raid on the back catalogue. Some things happening right now are absolutely made to be musicals, like Bullets over Broadway and Groundhog Day and I can’t wait to see them. They’re great ideas for musicals – others aren’t such good ones.”
Why is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in the former camp? “This has just always seemed to have the shape of a stage piece for me,” he says. “There’s the straight line of the narrative, the competition aspect of it with the really clear goal that he has to win a ticket, and then the introduction of this great iconic character Willy Wonka who takes it to another level, and the sense that this domestic story that suddenly becomes epic.”
Translating it to the stage, of course, involved finding and putting together a team to do so, and that began with the writers. “Warners let me put the whole thing together with Caro Newling, my producing partner of nearly 25 years. My brief was always to some degree to find a team capable of writing a classical musical – one that is more Rodgers and Hammerstein than Kander and Ebb. It’s not metatheatrical – Willy is not the emcee of the evening and there isn’t direct address to the audience. It’s a journey into a world – the curtain comes up on a boy in the freezing cold on a rubbish dump and you believe in that boy and that world. And it is up to us, the storytellers, to make you believe in it in all its 360 degrees. There are no direct contemporary references or ones to other shows that has become a kind of disease recently.”
That includes Shrek, that Mendes’ company Neal Street Productions co-produced (but he didn’t direct). “But that lived in a different universe – Shrek the Movie lived in a world of pop culture, so it was appropriate that the show did, too. Dahl is different – he exists in a kind of parallel universe, somewhere between 1930 and the current day.”
As Mendes scouted for writers, he met a number of teams before choosing Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who of course had a big Broadway smash with Hairspray but have also both worked in film: “I already knew them which helped, and they were just up for it. They have an amazing way of working – they work at incredible speed, and understand that if something isn’t right to adjust the brief and write a different song.”
[pullquote]What I loved about the Donmar is what I love about Neal Street – there are talented people constantly working through the building. That’s part of the joy of producing other people’s work – to see how they do it[/pullquote]
Then, as book writer, he brought on David Greig, the Scottish playwright; “He’s the polar opposite of Scott and Marc as a personality. They’re marinated in musical theatre, whereas for David it is relatively new. I wanted somebody who could preserve the pure heart of the book and of Charlie himself and not deliver it as sentimental, and could fight for the simple values at the centre of the story without overstating them. It’s a very delicate job and a complex one. The book-writer has such a peculiar job – usually they have a huge structural requirement, but with a book like this, the structural layout is there already. You can’t move scenes because everything happens sequentially. If I were a playwright, I’d have climaxes in my head, but for a book-writer, all those big scenes are the songwriters’ stuff, and they have to write the other stuff – everything leading up to that moment and leading away from it. David has the perfect personality for a book-writer. He’s incredibly watchful and he listens, he has very strong opinions but doesn’t speak unless he has something to say, and he’s very calming and focused and gentle so he’s a great personality to have around. And he writes brilliantly for the kids.”
Another part of the creative team turns out to be the leading man, Douglas Hodge as Willy Wonka. “He’s been amazing. He directs, he writes music and has made albums, and now he’s flourishing in this new arena of musicals. He’s got the enthusiasm of a 22-year-old newcomer, but he’s got the experience of someone who’s done 25 years of solid theatre, as well as great television and film. For him, this is a flowering, and I wanted that collaboration with my leading actor in a way that he could create the role.”
It’s also the first time they’ve worked together. By contrast, Mendes moves on, after Charlie, to return to the National Theatre to direct his old friend Simon Russell Beale in the title role of King Lear.
“It’s my tenth collaboration with him, and we’ve talked about it for a while. I asked him to do it after I saw him in Galileo – Lear needs the energy of a younger man, vocally and physically, particularly as we’re doing it in the Olivier, which is also the only major subsidised theatre space I’ve not worked in before.”
With the news that Nick Hytner is stepping down from running the National Theatre in 2015, he admits that he’s tempted by the job but has not applied. “How can you not be interested? It’s the most amazing job. But it’s a simple thing for me, and if I run the National Theatre I can’t direct movies. It’s no more complicated than that. I love directing movies as well as plays. Anyone who seriously does the job has to do it for ten years, or the very minimum five, and you can’t just go away and direct movies. I did it at the Donmar, but that’s a 250 seat theatre that does just five shows a year. The National Theatre is the National Theatre. I had a very brief conversation with them, but put it this way, the first line of the person who discussed me doing it was, ‘You don’t want to do this, do you?’ It was basically phrased that at the moment it would seem unlikely that I’d want to do this. That’s assuming they would even offer it to me, but it needs the kind of dedication that the two Nicks have shown, and it shows you what two remarkable people can do when they are fully dedicated to a single institution. The reality is that they’ve taken it to such a level and set it up so brilliantly for the next generation with all the development and capital work. They have to have somebody who is fully dedicated to it, because otherwise it will drop off.”
So instead he is consolidating his energies around Neal Street Productions, the independent theatre, film and television production company he co-founded in 2003 with Newling (for theatre) and Pippa Harris (for film and television). “It has really taken off in the last two years. On the theatre side we’ve mainly done Shrek and Charlie, but we also have our fingers in Merrily We Roll Along and co-produced Sunday in the Park with George [both transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory] and The Browning Version and David Hare’s South Downs [transferred from Chichester], so we have a thriving theatre arm.
“At the same time we’ve also got an extraordinary explosion in television production – we’ve produced Call the Midwife and The Hollow Crown, that won BAFTAs for Ben Whishaw and Simon Russell Beale, and we’re co-producing the John Logan series Penny Dreadful with Showtime. So there’s an enormous amount suddenly happening, and it’s great.
“What I loved about the Donmar is what I love about Neal Street – there are talented people constantly working through the building. That’s part of the joy of producing other people’s work – to see how they do it.”
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is now previewing at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, London, where it opens on June 25, www.charlieandthechocolatefactory.com
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