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Dreamgirls director Casey Nicholaw: ‘My strength is to know where a show falls apart, then fix it’

Casey Nicholaw Casey Nicholaw

Casey Nicholaw is probably the most prolific, but also one of the most personable, director/choreographers working in musical theatre right now. He must be as profoundly adept at choreographing his diary as his dance steps, since he is constantly juggling a lot of balls at once. At the time we meet, he is about to open his second show of the year in the West End – the British premiere of Dreamgirls at the Savoy joins his production of Aladdin, which opened at the Prince Edward in May, and the already long-running phenomenon that is The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales.

When Aladdin was in rehearsal for its May opening here, he also had Tuck Everlasting premiering simultaneously on Broadway, where it played alongside Mormon, Aladdin and Something Rotten, a musical that has yet to open in the UK.

Nicholaw has the infectious ebullience of a man palpably in love with what he is doing, and a seemingly boundless enthusiasm for it. “I’m a theatre man through and through,” he says, referring to his early career calling. “From day one. In 1980, when I was 17 years old and had just graduated from high school, my parents bought me a plane ticket and a suitcase to fly to London for my summer break to see shows, and I saw 17 shows in three weeks, including Sweeney Todd, Chicago, On the Twentieth Century, Glenda Jackson in a play called Rose and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Regent’s Park.”

In February 1982, after graduating from the University of California, Nicholaw arrived in Manhattan for the first time, determined to begin a career as a Broadway dancer. He recalls: “Dreamgirls was one of the first shows I saw. I could only afford a ticket for a seat to see it once, but I paid for a standing ticket to see it six more times after that.”

Amber Riley in Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg
Amber Riley in Dreamgirls at the Savoy Theatre. Photo: Brinkhoff Mogenburg

That original production was directed and choreographed by the late Michael Bennett. The former dancer became one of the theatre world’s most influential creatives from the late 1960s with Promises, Promises to A Chorus Line and Dreamgirls, before succumbing to Aids.

Nicholaw never met or worked with Bennett, though his influence is palpable: “I never forget where I come from, and that’s why this job means so much to me. When I first moved to New York it had been so inspiring, and now to be doing it in London that was so instrumental in my own growing up feels very full circle. I hope I don’t die tomorrow, but if I do, that’s my story!”

Was he intimidated when he was approached to create a new production of this iconic show?

“When Sonia [Friedman, who is producing Dreamgirls in London] told me she had the rights and asked whether I would be interested, I stopped in my tracks. My memory of the original was huge and loomed large in my head, but that was 35 years ago. So, I finally went to watch it at the Lincoln Center [where the library holds an extensive video archive of past Broadway shows]. It was the best thing I could have done. Bennett was ahead of his time when he did it, but we are now ahead of that time; 35 years ago things were very different. We are using different ideas and more sophisticated equipment. So I’ve been freed to think just of the work we’re doing and what the show needs, and how it needs to work now in this day and age. We are honouring what it says in the script. It’s meant to move in the way it moves,” he says, referring to its cinematic qualities.

That has included an extensive reworking of the show’s second act. “The challenge was to make the second act move like Act I does,” Nicholaw says. “We’ve added a brand new song, Love Love You Baby, that starts Act II; and we’ve added in Listen from the movie, too.”

Several of his Broadway productions have transferred to the West End. In addition to The Book of Mormon and Aladdin, these include The Drowsy Chaperone – the first show that he directed as well as choreographed – and Monty Python’s Spamalot, which he choreographed alongside Mike Nichols as director. But this is the first time he’s created a new production from scratch in London.

He says: “It’s been fantastic. I am lucky to have a team around me that I’ve worked with before, like Sonia and Pam [Skinner, Friedman’s executive producer], and Alison Pollard [associate director, who also worked on Mormon and Spamalot], designers Tim Hatley and Hugh Vanstone [sets and lighting, respectively, for Spamalot] and musical director Nick Finlow [The Book of Mormon]. London is one of my favourite cities, and to be here with my London family is awesome.”


Q&A: Casey Nicholaw

What was your first non-theatre job? I’ve had so many survival jobs: I was a waiter and did temp jobs. It took me a long time to get my union card.

What was your first professional theatre job? My first acting job was a community theatre show at the Old Globe in San Diego. My first paid job was at the New London Barn Playhouse in New Hampshire. I was paid $150 to do 10 shows for the whole summer. It cost me more to fly there.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Let go of things more easily. I love it here when people say “get on with it”. In the US we say “get over it”, but that’s more negative. You must just keep moving forward.

Who or what was your biggest influence? Mike Nichols was like my theatre dad. He was always there for me. Among choreographers, I love Susan Stroman and Graciela Danielle.

What’s your best advice for auditions? Show us who you are, as opposed to someone else. Don’t worry about missing that note. It’s never about that, but the potential the director sees. And don’t take it personally – it’s about making a connection, and every director has different tastes.

If you hadn’t been a director/choreographer, what would you have been? A landscape architect – I love gardening, but I don’t do it much as I’m never at home.

Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? On opening night I always go to McDonald’s. There’s never time to eat before the show. I always make sure I go out before I get dressed up and eat so I don’t get hungry during the show.

With musicals being the big beasts they are, Nicholaw needs to have a team around him that he can rely on and trust. He spends a lot of time before rehearsals beginning to plot what he’s going to do: “I’m really prepared, but will throw a lot of it out when I’m working with the actors, as we discover it together. I don’t usually block everything until we are working on it, though I do have to have the numbers worked out ahead of time as often I won’t be in the room with my associate choreographer, who will be teaching the cast the steps [John MacInnes, who worked with him on The Book of Mormon, Aladdin and Something Rotten]. He knows everything I want and will do the teaching so that I can swap between the rooms. The key to being able to do something this quickly is to have a good associate director and associate choreographer, so while I’m in one room I can have someone running the other one.”

Gavin Creel (centre) and the cast of The Book of Mormon. Photo: Joan Marcus
Gavin Creel (centre) and the cast of The Book of Mormon. Photo: Joan Marcus

What about the challenges of casting in the UK? How does that compare to his experiences at home?

“I’ve actually found casting pretty darn easy, I have to say. Years ago people would say you’re not going to get as good a set of dancers [in London], but I’ve never found that. Everyone is always so prepared at auditions, and I absolutely love that. Though it’s always a bit jarring to hear everyone come in with British accents then speak in American ones for the shows I’ve done.”

For Dreamgirls, a key to the show was the casting of the lead role of Effie White, the lead singer with the Dreams trio who in the show’s plot is passed over on stage and in life by the group’s manager in favour of Deena Jones.

“We did the casting a year ahead of starting rehearsals, as we weren’t sure how easy it would be, and Sonia didn’t want to go ahead until we knew we had the right person for Effie. Then my agent suggested Amber Riley, as he also represents her, and my brain just screamed ‘yes’ straight away. She’s really risen to the occasion. There’s nothing more rewarding than to see people grow and understand their characters and suddenly get it into their bodies. I feel this cast have really done that. It’s been really emotional to see.”

Nicholaw wears his heart on his sleeve. Discussing the failure of The Drowsy Chaperone to resonate in the UK (it ran for less than three months in the West End), he says: “That one is a heartbreaker and baffling to me. I thought that because of its music-hall feel it would do well. Audiences who saw it loved it, but people just didn’t come. You never know – you can’t predict.”


Casey Nicholaw’s top tip for aspiring directors

Watch everything. When I was in the ensemble, I used to watch everyone creating, as opposed to sitting on the side reading a magazine. It helped me figure out how it’s done, and what I liked and didn’t like.

The Book of Mormon, on the other hand, seems to have been a success wherever it has played; and as soon as he opens Dreamgirls, he heads to Australia to launch it in Melbourne.

“I just loved working on in it,” Nicholaw says. The secret to the success of a show is its construction. He tells a revealing story of how Aladdin took three rounds to get right: he first did it in Seattle, “where we saw it had great potential but a lot needed to change”, then again in Toronto, “which didn’t go well”. He explains: “It just wasn’t working. So we rewrote about a third of the show, and cut things and moved others around. I’ve never worked harder than in those two months. But that’s one of my biggest strengths – to look at something and know where it falls apart and then to try to fix it. But you can’t always.”

He’s philosophical about failure, but also reluctant to talk about it. He describes the one play he directed on Broadway, To Be Or Not to Be, as a “horrible experience, and it made me realise that I don’t want to do that again, and that’s okay”.

Meanwhile, he’s already got his next big show in development. From Dreamgirls, he is moving on to Mean Girls, a new musical based on the 2004 film of the same name written by Tina Fey, featuring music by Fey’s husband Jeff Richmond and lyrics by Nell Benjamin. “It’s going to be awesome,” he promises, ending on an upbeat note.

CV: Casey Nicholaw

Born: 1962, San Diego
Training: University of California
Landmark productions: As performer: Crazy for You (1992), Victor/Victoria (1995), Saturday Night Fever (1999), Seussical (2000), Thoroughly Modern Millie (2002)
As director/choreographer: Spamalot (2005, choreography only), The Drowsy Chaperone (2006), Elf (2010), The Book of Mormon (2011), Aladdin (2014), Something Rotten (2015), Dreamgirls (2016)
Awards: Tony award for best direction of a musical for The Book of Mormon (2011)
Agent: Joe Machota at CAA

Dreamgirls is running at London’s Savoy Theatre

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