Drew McOnie: ‘I hardly sleep when I’ve got an exciting job on the go’
From an early age Drew McOnie knew he was different. While his classmates kicked a ball around during playtime, the choreographer-to-be put on shows, seeing the goalpost as more of a proscenium arch than the destination for a well-aimed kick. He assured his protesting peers they were welcome to use the goalpost at the other end of the pitch.
“All the other kids thought I was bonkers,” the irrepressibly cheerful McOnie admits. “Nobody else wanted to join in, so they were always one-man shows. I did a one-man Joseph after seeing it at the London Palladium. I was just happy in my own head.”
Twenty-five years on, he appears happier than ever in his own head, having achieved an extraordinary body of work by the age of 30 that recently propelled him into the The Stage 100. Last year alone he was acclaimed for his work on Oklahoma!, Bugsy Malone, In the Heights, Hairspray and The Lorax.
He is currently working on his most ambitious show to date – an original reworking of Jekyll and Hyde as a full-length dance drama, with a new score by Grant Olding, for the Old Vic in May. “I’ve got the box model of the set in my flat,” he confides. “I get up early and play around with the little model dancers Soutra [Gilmour, the designer] has made me. I’m so excited about it I can’t sleep.”
For most of us, choreography is as complex and mystifying as musical composition – how is it possible to orchestrate so many bodies to look like a unified whole? – but for McOnie it has always been second nature. “I started leaping around at home at a very young age. Both my parents always loved music and I used to push the sofa against the lounge door so no one would come in and bounce around to my dad’s CD collection. I always had a lot of excess energy.”
Growing up outside Walsall, near Birmingham, McOnie’s mother Pam was a nurse, his father Ian worked for a plastics company, so they naturally found their only son’s unbridled passion for dance “a little confusing,” as he puts it. At the urging of his primary school teacher, he attended a freestyle dance class with his cousin and fell in love with it. When they put on a dance show he insisted on doing a solo. “They despaired of me ever learning the steps I was taught. I always used to say I’d forgotten them, but the truth was I just wanted to do my own thing.”
At nine, he was cast as The Boy in the original run of The Snowman at Birmingham Rep, which then transferred to the West End. “It was a massive, life-changing experience at that age,” he recalls. “The choreographer Robert North was incredibly generous and invited me to contribute ideas in rehearsal. He allowed me to have a creative voice at nine years old. I remember asking him what his job was, and I couldn’t quite believe he did this all day long and got paid for it. I made him write down the word choreographer so I could show my parents. This was it. This was what I wanted to be.”
By this time McOnie’s parents realised it wasn’t a passing whim or something he’d grow out of. The story of his interview and audition for the Arts Educational School in Tring, Hertfordshire, is worthy of a stand-up routine and involves his mum having to buy emergency kit from the village charity shop, including Dennis the Menace boxer shorts and a pair of black ladies’ tights, as they had left his audition outfit at home, along with the sheet music he was to dance to. He concludes: “Afterwards we drove home in silence, knowing it had all gone horribly, horribly wrong.”
As it turned out, he was offered a place and a scholarship to Tring, so his unconventional appearance in tights and boxer shorts clearly wasn’t enough to distract them from the raw talent on display.
Q&A: Drew McOnie
What was your first non-theatre job? Fitting shoes in a dance shop in Birmingham, run by my parents.
What was your first professional theatre job? Cats in Dusseldorf.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? Enjoy the moment.
Who was your biggest influence? Jerome Robbins, Matthew Bourne and Jill Tookey [artistic director of the National Youth Ballet].
What’s your best advice for auditions? Don’t try to be the person you think they want – be yourself.
If you hadn’t been a choreographer, what would you have become? Probably a costume designer.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? I never open good luck cards until after press night.
McOnie’s time at ArtsEd was cut short with an offer to join the cast of Cats in Dusseldorf, Germany, at the age of 17, another life-changing experience for the tyro choreographer. On returning to the UK after a year in Cats, he landed a role in Matthew Bourne’s original production of Edward Scissorhands. “I got to see how Matthew made a show from scratch, which was incredibly exciting. Because of Matthew’s generosity I felt as if I was an integral part of the creative process. He taught me how to serve a narrative purpose, how to develop my own voice in terms of dance.
“When you start out as a choreographer, a large part of your time is spent imitating other people and paying homage to the people you admire, but if you are going to progress you have to work out what your defining identity is as an artist, and Matthew helped me enormously to understand the importance of being myself.”
In 2011, he was a competitor in the TV talent show So You Think You Can Dance, which required him to try out different dance styles, and to work with various choreographers, including Kate Prince and Rafael Bonachela. “It wasn’t a pleasant experience for me because the character they wanted me to play wasn’t true to my own personality. But I’m not sorry I did it: I learnt a lot and it taught me how to deal with people under pressure.”
As a dancer, McOnie’s aim was always to work with the best choreographers, to see how they worked, to pick up their tricks, to store information and insights for future reference. “My original plan was to go the conventional route of dance captain, assistant choreographer, associate choreographer, then if I worked really hard I’d turn 50 and someone would give me a break. But I just didn’t have the patience. I get impatient and frustrated if I’m not creating something of my own.”
The turning point was entering an original piece for the annual Resolution showcase at the Place, which is open to bright, new choreographic talent. “I got nine dancers together, unpaid, a soundtrack of Judy Garland numbers, very mainstream showbiz, sequins, smoke machine, the lot. All the other contributors were highbrow contemporary dance pieces. I thought we’d be laughed off the stage. But it ended up going down really well, and it launched me as a choreographer. I started to be considered for shows with other choreographers 20 years my senior.”
At this point it is probably worth pointing out that McOnie looks a lot younger than his 30 years. Being confident and accomplished, this doesn’t bother him unduly but it has led to some amusing misunderstandings. He says he returned to teach at Tring in 2014 and got told off for wearing his cap in the dining room, having been taken for a student. While directing another student production he was shouted at by a member of staff for dancing on a table. In both instances, he says he quietly did as he was told.
McOnie’s first big main stage show was Chicago at the Leicester Curve in 2013, directed by Paul Kerryson. “It was clear to me from the start that I had to do my own thing,” McOnie recalls. “It was a big risk for Paul because I’d never worked on a show on that scale, and it was the first time Chicago had been comprehensively re-choreographed since the original. What I suggested was probably a bit crazy with hindsight, but Paul let me run with it. It was a big deal for me because it was the first time I’d been mentioned in reviews.”
Dominic Cavendish in The Daily Telegraph described “this energetic, flashbulb bright, flesh-baring account embraces carnal activity with fervour”, while The Guardian’s Clare Brennan said McOnie’s work was “as radiant and precise as the neon displays around Times Square”.
“Any musical is a collaboration and Drew is a great collaborator and communicator,” says Kerryson. “He doesn’t seem to do much preparation, he does everything on the hoof, building everything as he goes along. I wanted our production to be different from London’s and I knew straight away that he could achieve that, and the choreography in Chicago is absolutely key to its success. Not only he is immensely talented but he has the personality and communication skills to get the best out of people, which is almost more important than the steps. Dancers would kill to work with him now.”
Around the same time as Chicago, McOnie felt emboldened to start his own company, partly as a platform to develop his original narrative-led work, and partly to offer employment to those “incredibly gifted musical theatre dancers who haven’t had the exposure or the careers they deserve”.
The debut show of the McOnie Company was Drunk, in which a single girl muses in song and dance on her chequered love life. The aim of the show – and his company – was to blur the lines between musical theatre and contemporary dance, as well as promoting the idea of music theatre choreography as a stand-alone art form. In her review for The Stage, Katie Columbus wrote: “Drew McOnie proves that sophisticated choreography, a multilayered concept and new music can sit comfortably together.”
It’s all about commitment. Be the first to arrive at the dance studio and the last to leave.
Learn to accept criticism and grow positively from it.
To have a lasting career, you need to be patient and realise it is a hard slog.
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Always be polite, courteous and humble. People are more inclined to help you if you’re nice to get along with.
Last year’s extremely demanding and varied workload included recreating a couple of classic shows in his own style – Oklahoma! and Hairspray – as well as original choreography for the frenetic salsa-meets-hip-hop musical In the Heights and a revival of Bugsy Malone at the Lyric Hammersmith. Each presented its own challenge, but McOnie was probably most in awe of Oklahoma! because of its iconic status in the musical theatre world. Both he and director Rachel Kavanaugh wanted to look at the show anew while at the same time paying homage to the original.
The icing on McOnie’s cake last year was a commission from newly appointed Old Vic boss Matthew Warchus to create an original dance drama for his first season. “Matthew had enjoyed Drunk and In the Heights and he asked if I had any other ideas for original shows. I was completely unprepared yet, in a sense, I’d been preparing for that invitation since I was six years old.
“I’ve reimagined the story of Jekyll and Hyde as this hugely visual dance thriller, set in late 1950s London. I hope I’ve found a way of presenting the story that gets round its predictability. I’ve never written anything as complex or extended as this before.”
He will follow Jekyll and Hyde with a fresh choreographic spin on Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and the European premiere of Kinky Boots in Sweden.
Though he can barely contain his excitement, he demurs from telling me about his next big commission, as yet unannounced, happening towards the end of this year. No doubt that is also keeping him awake at night. “I haven’t had a holiday in a very long time and I hardly sleep at all when I’ve got an exciting job on the go,” he says, adding reassuringly, “I thrive on it. There can be few people in the world who are happier than I am right now.”
CV: Drew McOnie
Born: Portsmouth, 1985
Training: Arts Educational School, 1995-2001
Career highlights: The Boy in The Snowman, Birmingham Rep (1994), Mr Mistopheles in Cats, Dusseldorf, Germany (2002), Joins Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures Company (2004), Appears on So You Think You Can Dance (2011), Launches the McOnie Company (2014)
Landmark productions: Chicago at Leicester Curve (2013), Drunk at London’s Bridewell Theatre (2014), Oklahoma! (national tour, 2015), Bugsy Malone at the Lyric Hammersmith (2015), In the Heights at Southwark Playhouse (2015), Hairspray (national tour, 2015), The Lorax at London’s Old Vic (2015)
Agent: Alastair Lindsay Renton, Curtis Brown
Jekyll and Hyde opens at London’s Old Vic on May 20. Jesus Christ Superstar runs at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London from July 15 to August 27