Adam Lenson: ‘I want to show people that a musical isn’t just one thing’
Musicals specialist Adam Lenson recently directed Duncan Sheik’s Whisper House at the Other Palace. His production of Superhero, a one-man musical about fatherhood, opens at Southwark Playhouse this week and The Quentin Dentin Show is currently running at Tristan Bates Theatre. He tells Tim Bano about expanding the form of musical theatre
You were originally training as a doctor – what happened?
At university, I realised it wasn’t for me. I was interested in the big, philosophical reasons for being a doctor, like the meaning of life. I was interested in people, but realised that a career in medicine is something that you have to be entirely devoted to. I got into student theatre and I realised that those questions about why we’re here, why we’re alive and interpersonal connections could be found in theatre. I’ve always loved science and communicating with people, and directing is a mixture of those things.
Why do you direct musical theatre?
I became interested in the fact that the majority of musical theatre was in a bubble that kept it away from other types of theatre. I remember falling in love with Stephen Sondheim’s work as a teenager: the tonal complexity of it, the integration. It was asking really complicated questions and using music in a seamless way. I started off in theatre assisting on commercial West End musicals and on plays as a way of gaining a skill set. I didn’t want to hem myself in. Over the last two or three years something changed. I suddenly realised that rather than being apologetic for musical theatre, I would pour my energy and resources and thought into it and try to expand it.
Why were you apologetic about it?
Sondheim always says that content should dictate form and I think often in musical theatre it’s the reverse. People say: “Oh, it’s a musical. It has to have a certain sort of sound, a certain story, a certain audience – usually family.” As all we’re talking about is integrating music and text, I wondered why we shouldn’t be able to tell all sorts of stories in all sorts of genres for diverse audiences? People either say they love musicals or hate them but both groups have a very fixed idea of what a musical is. When I said I wanted to make musicals, I didn’t want people to think, ‘You’re going to make broadly commercial, family entertainment.’
What work do you want to make?
Work that presses against the boundaries of people’s expectations. This year, I’ve directed a 1924-set farce called The Sorrows of Satan, a contemporary piece called Whisper House by Duncan Sheik, then The Quentin Dentin Show – a sort of sci-fi, surrealistic rock musical. Now I’m doing a social-realist musical called Superhero. They’re not stylistically similar, but what links them together is their sense of pushing against the received notion of what a musical is, while still caring deeply about what musicals have been. It hasn’t been – potentially stupidly – about what will make me the most popular or successful. Doing revivals or clever deconstructions of what people already know is an easier path than doing new work. My overarching aim at the moment is to keep providing myself and theatregoers with evidence that a musical isn’t just one thing.
CV: Adam Lenson
Training: Medicine at Cambridge University, then mentored by Terry Johnson
First professional role: Ordinary Days, Finborough Theatre, 2008
Agent: Simon Blakey