Paul Taylor-Mills: ‘It’s hard on tour – there are so many big musicals out there’
Paul Taylor-Mills turns just 28 this year, but the fresh-faced, tanned and trendily dressed producer already has a show that is in contention for the Olivier award this year for best new musical. That show is In the Heights, which he first co-produced at Southwark Playhouse, a venue where he’s got another cult Broadway musical, Sideshow, lined up to receive its British premiere in October, while he’s overseeing a major tour of Peter Quilter’s West End and Broadway success End of the Rainbow.
Those are just some of the theatrical balls he is constantly juggling: he also produces an annual summer season of repertory theatre in Sidmouth and Windsor, plus he’s bringing Peter and the Starcatcher from Broadway to make its British debut at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate this Christmas. And he reveals, exclusively, that he’s joining Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group in an advisory capacity.
Oh, and he’s also running this year’s London Marathon, too. “It certainly helps you retain a sense of perspective, when you’re training in the pouring rain and you’re on mile five and your headphones die and you’ve got to keep going,” he says. In fact, that could well be a metaphor for producing theatre: you’re always lurching from crisis to crisis and having to solve problems as they come up – but keep on going regardless.
He’s part of a vibrant new generation of young theatremakers and producers emerging at the moment – and he has been key to bringing some of them together and giving them opportunities, such as Drew McOnie and Luke Sheppard, the choreographer and director respectively of In the Heights, which he first produced at Southwark Playhouse and is now playing an open-ended run at the King’s Cross Theatre.
When he first came up with the idea of offering the UK premiere of In the Heights in 2014 at Southwark Playhouse, he was working at the time as an in-house producer during Paul Kerryson’s final year at Curve Theatre in Leicester.
“Drew was doing the original production of Drunk [the first production by his own company] there, and I asked him if he’d want to do In the Heights. He fought me, saying: ‘No, I’m a ballet boy, the world of that show isn’t my world.’ But for some reason, and I’ve never done this before, I locked the door of my office and drilled him and said: ‘These are the reasons you need to do this.’ When he still said no, I said I wouldn’t do it either in that case. He relented, but walked out in a temper. And after the Olivier nominations, he took me aside and said: ‘Thank you for changing my life.’”
Taylor-Mills joined forces with West End producer Tristan Baker – who had originally sought to do a West End replica production of the Broadway original, but came on-board for its fringe premiere of a month-long summer run at Southwark Playhouse. “He said to me: ‘I know nothing of your Off-West End world,’ and I said I knew nothing of his, so we joined forces on the journey and had the best time,” leading to the further life the show is now having, on which they are partners again. Everyone who did the show at Southwark was offered the chance to reprise their roles at King’s Cross if they were available, and he’s proud of the fact that “this is one of the first shows to go from paying people small fees on the fringe to doing it properly, and being eligible for Oliviers [the show has been nominated for four awards this year]”.
“It’s brilliant that our little show that started out at Elephant and Castle is up there with the big boys,” he says.
They also had an offer to move it to the West End’s Playhouse Theatre, and were cautioned against doing so: “I doubt we’d be running a year later if we had, though it was tempting.” He had some powerful advisers to call on.
While doing In the Heights, he was simultaneously producing London’s first major revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton’s The Beautiful Game at the tiny Union Theatre, also in Southwark, where he’d previously cut his producing teeth with shows such as Bare, Steel Pier and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. And it was The Beautiful Game that changed Taylor-Mills’ own life: “On the press night at the Union we had Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ben Elton, Sierra Boggess, Bill Kenwright and Matthew Warchus there – a who’s who in this 50-seater theatre under a railway arch. It has such a power to punch above its weight. Sasha Regan, who runs it, has been so instrumental in my career – without her taking a punt on me in the early days, there’s no way I’d be where I am today.”
Q&A: Paul Taylor-Mills
What was your first non-theatre job? I worked in a fish and chip shop.
What was your first professional theatre job? I did a three-month internship at Salisbury Playhouse when Philip Wilson was artistic director.
What are your next jobs? Sideshow at Southwark Playhouse in October; Peter and the Starcatcher at the Royal and Derngate in December.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? It’s okay to make mistakes, as long as you only make them once.
Who or what was your biggest influence? Sonia Friedman – I’ve not worked with her, but seeing what a force of nature she is, the quality of her shows which is always second to none, and the sheer volume of them, inspires me.
What’s your best advice for auditions? Be yourself and be as prepared as you can be.
If you hadn’t been a producer, what would you have been? I started off as actor then started directing, so I might be doing that.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions? On opening nights I always get the cast into a big circle to hold hands.
Kenwright came on-board to offer Taylor-Mills a chance to expand his summer rep season at Sidmouth by taking it to the Theatre Royal, Windsor: “It’s the last standing weekly repertory company – we do Noel Coward, Alan Ayckbourn and Francis Durbridge plays, and it’s so much fun. Bill has been super generous, putting us on a guaranteed fee to go to Windsor, and access to all his sets, props and costumes, too.”
Kenwright also placed a pet project with him to revive one of the most notorious musical flops of all time, the 1980s musical Carrie that the Royal Shakespeare Company had staged at Stratford and then for one notorious weekend only on Broadway. “We did that at Southwark, too, and we’re still talking now about what its future life might be.”
But Lloyd Webber has opened an even bigger door to him. After seeing and admiring The Beautiful Game, he invited the company to privately workshop a new version of the show; and has now also brought him in as an advisory producer at the RUG offices on St Martin’s Lane, giving him desk space and allowing him to continue working on his own productions while also supporting the programming and incubation of new work at the St James Theatre in Victoria that Lloyd Webber has recently bought. “It’s a game-changer for me,” says Taylor-Mills – “the glass ceiling has been lifted off me, and we’re going to look at how the St James model works.”
West End’s old boy’s network of producers that used to be led by Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh, Kenwright, Robert Fox and Michael Codron is definitely embracing newcomers such as Taylor-Mills, but what is also interesting are the age-old lessons that each passes on to the next.
For instance, virtually every producer – and there’s also the likes of Mark Goucher, Kenny Wax, Michael Harrison and Kim Poster as good evidence of this – have cut their teeth as touring producers, taking shows on the road. Taylor-Mills may have begun his producing career on the fringe, but he has also added extensive touring and regional premieres to his portfolio. He does an annual Christmas production of The Miracle of 34th Street – last year also restaging it simultaneously in Dubai – and is currently taking End of the Rainbow, about the final months of Judy Garland’s life, on the road.
Paul Taylor-Mills’ top tips for an aspiring producer
• Always ask for advice – it’s okay to admit defeat, everyone is very receptive and wants to help.
• It’s a lifestyle, so only get into it if you can’t imagine doing anything else.
• Spend at least one day a week doing something completely unrelated to the theatre – you need to keep perspective on what is important. We’re only making theatre, not saving lives.
“The costs of touring are lower than if you’re going to bring a show to the West End, and you have the opportunity to try it out on a variety of different audiences. But the touring market is also completely different. We are talking at the moment about how In the Heights, a show that has so much appeal with trendy London theatregoers, will resonate in the regions. It’s also very hard out there – there are so many big musicals. At the moment we have End of the Rainbow following Jersey Boys, Hairspray and Mary Poppins – a few weeks ago I was in Manchester and I was able to catch Mary Poppins, Cats and Shrek all on the same weekend. What chance does my little show have? People will only be able to afford to see one – especially when tickets for the big musicals can be £70.”
But he’s also undeterred – and sometimes the spotlight isn’t quite so harsh in the regions. He’s offering the UK premiere of the Broadway hit Peter and Starcatcher in Northampton this Christmas: “We want to see what the baby is like, and we don’t want to name the child before it is born. It’s a brand-new production of it. But sometimes the attention you get with a show at Southwark is unbelievable and terrifying – the first preview of Carrie was like a press night. These venues now have the power to dictate interest, and people want to see them straight away. So Northampton feels safer.”
CV: Paul Taylor-Mills
Born: 1987, Birmingham
Training: Bath Spa University; National Youth Theatre
Landmark productions: Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Union Theatre (2011), Steel Pier, Union Theatre (2012), Rent, Greenwich Theatre (2012), Bare, Union Theatre (2013), The Beautiful Game, Union Theatre (2014), In the Heights, Southwark Playhouse (2014), Bat Boy: The Musical, Southwark Playhouse (2015), Carrie the Musical, Southwark Playhouse (2015), Casa Valentina, Southwark Playhouse (2015), In the Heights, King’s Cross Theatre (2016), End of the Rainbow (2016)
In the Heights is booking at the King’s Cross Theatre, London, until October 30. intheheightslondon.com End of the Rainbow is touring the UK until July 9.