Jamie Wilson: ‘New musicals are what I came into the business to do’
The West End commercial theatre producing network was long dominated by the same set of people: Michael Codron, Duncan C Weldon, Paul Elliott, Bill Kenwright, Robert Fox, Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber – all of them men, and all well over 60. Now the axis has shifted: the biggest producer right now is Sonia Friedman, her landlady for Harry Potter is Nica Burns and the current president of the Society of London Theatre is Caro Newling of Neal Street Productions.
The closed shop that used to be the West End isn’t nearly so closed anymore: younger producers are actively encouraged to join the market place, particularly thanks to SOLT-led initiatives such as Stage One.
Two of the fastest-rising producers happen to share a first name: Jamie Hendry, 31, has just brought back the magic show franchise he created with Impossible to the West End and is currently in rehearsals for a new musical version of The Wind in the Willows launching at Plymouth next month. Jamie Wilson, just 28, is yet to have a West End show bear his name, but has just opened two major musical revivals in the regions, both of which have earned him five-star reviews in these pages.
I dubbed the production of the Gershwin classic Crazy for You that he launched at Newbury’s Watermill Theatre “irrepressibly inventive”, while Pat Ashworth called Sister Act, now on tour after premiering at Leicester’s Curve, “a wild and wonderful new production”.
Wilson also has two major new musicals in development – a new stage version of An Officer and a Gentleman, which has just been workshopped in Leicester, and Nativity, which he is lining up to premiere at Birmingham Rep next year.
No wonder he’s more than a little bit busy at the moment: even his personal life has had to go on the back-burner.
“I did have a partner but we split up earlier this year after two and a half years,” he tells me, sitting in his smart but minimalist office on Wardour Street in the heart of the West End. “I was happy in the relationship for a long time, but I’m not actively looking for another now – I have a lot going on that I have to concentrate on,” he admits. “I could be with a partner tonight, for example, but I want to get to Leicester before we start teching Sister Act,” he says, the day before the get-in begins there.
Q&A: Jamie Wilson
What was your first job? Backstage theatre technician at Leatherhead Theatre.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? If you are passionate and confident, you will make it in this business. You don’t have to have gone to university or have academic skills – I didn’t and don’t. When I look at a CV, I look at what someone has been doing and their passion.
Who or what is your biggest influence? Paul Elliott. He taught me that to do a clever, classy, groundbreaking play like Stones in His Pockets, you might have to do a panto to pay for the development and take the risk on that.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Auditioning with Craig Revel Horwood is hilarious – people are very nervous, but he doesn’t understand that. They should pretend we’re all naked to take the stress out of it.
If you hadn’t been a producer, what would you have been? Maybe a teacher. I love doing workshops on producing.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? I always thank a theatre when I leave, if it has been good to me.
Wilson’s primary focus is on the shows he’s producing. It’s all-consuming, though he also tells me that Mark Goucher, the West End producer with whom he was an apprentice in his early 20s, taught him the importance of having a life beyond the theatre – “otherwise it will eat you up”. He explains that there’s a good business reason for having a life outside the theatre: “You have to stay engaged to learn what is popular. So I listen to Chris Evans, for example.”
He’s still young, of course, but started even younger. At 16, he went on a scholarship to Laine Theatre Arts in Epsom: “I loved every minute of it, but I got kicked out six months in, because I couldn’t dance. I realised I couldn’t do it – I was too interfering in every other department.
“When I was 17, I put on a charity show for Cancer Research UK at Epsom Playhouse. It was a big experiment to see if producing was what I wanted to do. We had a 100-piece orchestra and I got the performing rights from Cameron Mackintosh to do the flying sequence from The Witches of Eastwick at the end of Act I. It turned out to be a big lesson: the day of the show coincided with the World Cup quarter-final. We didn’t have a very good house and lost money. But it gave me the confidence to write to producers in London seeking advice. And Paul Elliott was one of the first to come back to me, telling me that in showbusiness you have to love the business as much as the show, otherwise it doesn’t add up.”
Fast-forward 10 years, and today Elliott is one of Wilson’s tenants in the office suite he presides over. In the same offices are Elliott’s long-time producing partner Duncan C Weldon and Dirty Dancing producer Karl Sydow.
It’s been far from plain-sailing getting there: one early enterprise, Robin Cousins’ Ice, lost money. Wilson says: “We went from selling out at the Norwich Theatre Royal to doing terrible business at the Lowry.” He’s also served his time on the one-nighter touring and weekly touring circuit with people like Bruce Forsyth. “And Rolf Harris for a number of years,” he adds, “but I don’t talk about that anymore, for obvious reasons.” But he learnt a lot along the way, and finally struck gold with a touring production of Calamity Jane that he took on the road after launching it at the Watermill.
“Calamity Jane was the first show I managed to do exactly how I wanted it be done,” Wilson says. “Jodie Prenger had never toured a show, playing the leading lady role that people wanted to see her in. She’d not done Nancy [in Oliver!] on the road. A few theatres didn’t take the show, thinking she wouldn’t sell, but she really captured the imagination of the public and did really good business.” Which is just as well, because Ice had done so badly, he says: “I didn’t have the guts to go back to my investors for money for it. But Paul Elliott and Duncan Weldon came in with me and took the risk, and I took a loan. I always put money into my own shows; the partners who work with me know that I have a big personal stake in it.”
That amplifies his sense of risk and responsibility, but also the potential rewards: the show was meant to tour for 12 weeks, and ended up touring for 54. It was so successful that he was finally able to establish an investment pot to develop new work. “My bank manager said I was the only person he knew with quite a large company but no reserves, so I had to sort that out.”
Jamie Wilson’s top tips for aspiring producers
1. It’s showbusiness – you need to learn how the business works as much as the show.
2. You have to know your market and aim a show at it.
3. Get on with it – don’t go to every party or event. It’s not that I don’t like them, but I’d rather be getting on with the work than talking about it.
Now it looks as if he has two more likely hits in his portfolio. Crazy for You was conceived for the Watermill, but he is planning a future touring life for it. “I saw the DVD of the original production – you can’t compete with it, it’s incredible, so if you can’t do the biggest version, I thought: ‘Do the smallest’.” With Tom Chambers starring in it, he’s having no trouble planning a tour, but it’s a year or so down the line: “We’re going to have a 12-month selling period, to create the momentum for it and find out who is booking to see it. But we’ll also start at an advantage as we’ll already have an electronic press kit and production shots to promote it with.”
Sister Act is a lot bigger. It has a cast of 20, most of whom also play musical instruments, but also five extra musicians. “Craig Revel Horwood, who is directing it, loves actor-muso shows, but I didn’t want this to be pigeonholed in that category, so I said to him: ‘Why not make it both and have a full band as well?’ So it has more players than at the London Palladium, but it’s also very different from the original.”
With a cast led by Alexandra Burke, Wilson tells me it already has advance sales of more than £7 million for the 50-week tour he’s booked it for, and a few theatres are already sold out.
“That’s the power of Craig and Alex and this title that has really worked. I’d love to bring it to the West End after the tour.”
Wilson has his sights set on the West End. “You’ve got to have the right show. I looked at it for Calamity Jane, but I couldn’t see how it would work, and I didn’t want it to come in and be a disaster and lose all the money I’d made on the tour. Besides, as Paul [Elliott] says, it’s a marathon, it’s not a race, and he’s been brilliant teaching me about the business.”
Now, he’s determined to realise his next ambition. “I’ve always wanted to produce new musicals. That’s what I came into the business to do, but you can’t just do them. You have to learn how to look after a company and build up trust with theatres.”
Wilson is now in that position. His company is helping Sydow on the tour booking for Dirty Dancing as well – and he’s got a bounce in his step as he talks enthusiastically about the shows now in development. He’s particularly fired up about Nativity: “I woke up one morning at Christmas, and Chris Evans was singing songs from the film and talking about it as if it was this next big thing. I mentioned it to my accountant, and he told me that his family watched it every year and his kids knew all the songs. I watched it again – there’s a critic that Alan Carr plays, and I want to say he’s based on you!”
Apparently I should take that as a compliment, but I’m certainly intrigued. Wilson knows how to tease, but – more importantly – he also knows how to deliver.
CV: Jamie Wilson
Born: 1988, London
Training: Laine Theatre Arts
Landmark productions: Tell Me on a Sunday (touring with Claire Sweeney, 2010; Jodie Prenger, 2016), Robin Cousins’ Ice (touring, 2014), Calamity Jane (Watermill Theatre, Newbury, 2014, then touring), Crazy for You (Watermill, 2016), Sister Act (Curve, Leicester, 2016, then touring)