He’s in his early 30s, but Jamie Hendry has been producing in the West End for 10 years and now his personal project, The Wind in the Willows, is set to open at the Palladium. He tells Mark Shenton about his hopes to change the established old boys’ network rules for funding and marketing and to create new business models
Despite being just 31 years old, Jamie Hendry already has a decade of producing in the West End and on tour behind him. That stretch has included several runs for Beatles jukebox musical Let It Be and the creation of a magic show franchise – Impossible – that has had two separate West End runs and played abroad in Dubai and Singapore. But this week his most ambitious and treasured project yet reaches the London stage, after six years of development, when a new musical version of The Wind in the Willows opens at the London Palladium following a regional premiere at the Theatre Royal Plymouth last year.
Originating a new musical is, for many, the holy grail of theatre producing: the potential rewards are the greatest, but so are the possible losses. “Everyone tells you you’ll never do it – it will kill you,” notes Hendry as we chat over morning coffee in Belsize Park, near both his home and the show’s rehearsal space. “It has been a wonderful process for many, many years, but it has got close to killing me.”
The show was first announced back in 2011. “It feels like it has taken a long time only because we announced it so early. That was because the book was in the public domain and I didn’t want anyone else to have a go.”
He was 25 at the time, and a man with a mission. “I had an idea to create the show, and I was looking at everyone who could write and adapt it – it had to be a British team. Julian Fellowes was high on my list so I rang his agent, and within 36 hours he and I had breakfast at Claridge’s. Julian suggested George and Ants (Stiles and Drewe, the songwriting partnership he’d worked with already on Mary Poppins). Then they sat down with me the following day and said they’d love to do it if Julian did the book. So it all came about very organically and everyone wanted to do it with everyone else. And then I announced it, putting our cards on the table with them in the hope that no one else would then have a go.”
As producer, Hendry was shepherding the process, but was determined not to rush it. “I gave them the space of a good few years of not having a creative team attached to it, so they could look at how it worked for the stage, to play with the adaptation and music without being led by a director. We did the first two workshops without a director, and that really allowed them to create what they and I wanted to create. Then, at the end of 2013, director Rachel Kavanaugh came to see a full reading of it and we brought her on board. Directors who are most capable of doing big family shows have a love for them but can also see them through children’s eyes, and Rachel is brilliant at that.”
The exact same team of Kavanaugh, Fellowes, Stiles and Drewe are also behind the current Cameron Mackintosh-produced West End run of Half a Sixpence, which ends on September 2 at the Noel Coward Theatre after transferring from Chichester. Although Hendry had secured their services first, he had to wait his turn. “George and Ants had three shows open last year, and it messed up our schedule. We were originally planning on opening last spring, but it has been all for the good, as it meant we had everything in the right place. Being last was a blessing as they were able to get everything else done first. And we’ve now done a lot of work since opening out of town last year – a lot of cuts, changes and casting changes and the show has benefited dramatically. It’s in a wonderful place at the moment.”
It’s also attempting a new business model for a major West End musical: whereas most are capitalised and designed for open-ended runs to maximise profits, Hendry is trying something different. It has been booked, like a play, for a limited summer run only. That’s unusual, he says, “but I don’t think it should be. There’s a really lovely business model in it: you can focus a huge marketing spend over a small number of weeks and have huge visibility for that spend, rather than ensuring you have advance sales for six months down the line. And knowing when you are going to close, you can plan for where you’re going to go after that.”
He adds: “I feel it is a big family show, and everyone dreads playing September till you get a few good weeks later in the year, so why take the risk? Rather, we’re putting it on for the weeks we know there’s an audience in London. To fill a 2,500-seat house is fairly substantial.” (He has some 260,000 seats to sell across 13 weeks, and says it can recoup its £4.5 million budget at 70% capacity.)
But this is just the start of the show’s journey, not its only destination: “The business of musicals now isn’t just about the West End but a building block of everything else. It would be lovely if it’s a big success this summer to bring it back into a smaller theatre down the line. We are also working on an international tour for mid-to-late 2018, a UK tour after that, a possible Australian production and a possible US production.”
In the UK, Kenneth Grahame’s story is well-known theatrically already for Alan Bennett’s hit stage version that was originally produced at the National and has since been revived regularly. “I still have vivid memories of seeing it when I was about six, and everything coming out of the drum at the Olivier. It was a wonderful adaptation, but our script is very different – it’s modern and representative of Britain today. I don’t like to use the term musical comedy, its thrown around a lot today, but it’s a very funny musical and it absolutely appeals to all ages. It is not ‘Downton Abbey in the woods’ – it’s not a stuffy old show.”
What was your first job? I’ve never been employed.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out? There really are no rules, and you don’t have to conform to what the industry thinks you should do. Your view as a 21-year-old is as valuable as anyone else’s. If you come to the table as a young producer, you are representing a demographic that’s not represented by anyone else and your view is as important.
Who or what is your biggest influence? Cameron Mackintosh is wonderful and if I could create in my career three or four musicals that have longevity that would be incredible, but you’ve got to be very lucky.
What’s your best piece of advice for auditions? Pick a short song and nothing from Wicked.
If you hadn’t been a producer, what would you have done? I’d have been a sound engineer or production manager.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals? No – just that you’ve got to enjoy what you’re doing, however difficult anything is. If you’re not having fun doing this, there’s no point.
It’s certainly true that there’s nothing stuffy about Hendry, even though he’s the son of a Cambridge University professor who was brought up in London and went to St Paul’s boys school. Like many a theatre animal, he’s a pragmatist first and foremost; he started off producing music shows at school and, at 16, he was set on being a sound engineer, “so I went off touring with Rod Stewart. I wrote to Wembley Arena saying I wanted to learn how to do it. They got me in and Rod Stewart happened to be in there and I met his crew and got a gig. I don’t think I ever got paid for it, but I had a lot of fun doing it – we’d rock up at an arena at six in the morning and there’d be nothing there, then by 3pm there was a full set and video walls, we’d put on a full show, and by 2am it was empty again. It was incredible watching 17,000 people have a great time.”
He then went to study at Warwick University, and started dabbling in theatre, including production-managing at Warwick Arts Centre on a production of A Chorus Line. “I was bored with music where you had to create it every night and then it was gone – I wanted to create something that had a bit of life. Then in the summer of 2007 I took a student production of Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years to Edinburgh – and I convinced Nica Burns to give me the Apollo for it for two nights before it went there. I made more money in two nights in the West End than the whole summer in Edinburgh.”
It led to a call from Nick Salmon, who was launching the Stage One apprentice producing scheme, and who suggested he applied. It led to a 15-month placement with Sonia Friedman – “and I learned everything there is to learn about putting shows on. We had a deal that I could come in on raising money for them, with the slight cushion of seeing where the money was going – I was in the room. It was not a huge amount of money back then – £50,000 or £100,000 – but Sonia was a great mentor, and having that support behind me was a great way to start raising commercial money.”
He duly raised some money and was billed as a co-producer on West End runs of That Face, Under the Blue Sky, No Man’s Land, La Cage Aux Folles and Legally Blonde. “I really got to learn on the job.”
He started small – “but those numbers keep getting bigger and bigger. You start with raising £10,000 or £15,000, as I did for The Last Five Years, then £50,000, then you’re raising £5 million – and you have to work out how to get there”. For The Wind in the Willows, he tried something else again: soliciting crowdfunding from the theatregoing public. “The scheme was an experiment. We did it so early in process, so it was not about needing cash quickly. Thousands of people signed up to get all the information, and said they wanted to be contacted in future, and more than 400 people invested in the show, putting in between £1,000 and £5,000.”
It has built interest in the show, but as he points out: “It’s not right for every show – it has to be a show that captures the imagination of the general public without the need for a star to be attached to it. Here, we had a great title, the fact that it’s a musical and Julian is on board.”
Familiarity has also been key to his first big solo project as a producer, when he brought a US Beatles tribute show, originally called Rain, to the West End, rebranded as Let It Be.
“We completely restaged it with a British cast and rebranded it. Everything lined up. It was Olympics year, and we created some wonderful artwork around the Union Jack, and the whole of Regent Street and Leicester Square had Union Jacks everywhere and it looked like it was promoting the show. And people wanted to hear that music – everything from Sgt Pepper’s onwards – that the Beatles had never performed live. We only know it as studio albums, so to create that live experience was amazing and it became an overnight hit.
“We moved it from the Prince of Wales to the Savoy, then toured it, then went to the Garrick, toured again and took it back to the Garrick. We’ve also played it in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Singapore – and had a wonderful four years. As a producer, it’s a solid show that allowed me to spend time creating big musicals. I’ve 10 people on staff full time and have had for the last five or six years, so I need an income to pay them and that has to come from profitable shows.”
Another franchise show he created subsequently was the magic show Impossible. “I’d seen how The Illusionists were doing around the world, so I said, ‘let’s do a magic show’. The Noel Coward Theatre came available at eight or nine weeks notice, so I had a very short time to put a show together from nothing, in a world we didn’t understand. But it did amazing business that summer, we’ve toured the UK and the world with it and brought it back to the West End – it’s a universal piece of entertainment, there’s no language barrier and you can sit it anywhere. It’s not high art, but it’s a lot of fun and people want to see it – and it allowed us time to do a big musical, which is really where my passion is.”
Hendry is keenly aware of the responsibilities and burdens of being a producer, especially one operating without another business partner. “It means I can make decisions faster – I can be very flexible with how I approach things, but I also don’t have the sounding board of a partner by my side. I rely on my team, rather than someone from the other side of the table, and have to absorb all the risks.”
Noting his already greying temples, he says: “Producing is an incredibly stressful job. It’s something I can and do deal with, but I have sleepless nights every week, worrying about how the box office is doing, what’s going on in the rehearsal room and where funding for the next project is – everything is a worry, and it’s all down to me. My staff are wonderful, but they’re all employed – they’re all paid every week regardless of how anything goes. As 100% owner of my company, that responsibility is mine and mine alone.”
Though corporate entities, particularly film companies, have moved into theatre producing over the last decade, he points out that “if you take Disney out, corporations have never produced a hit show. It’s always individuals, whose life is on the line. We don’t have anything to fall back on, but our shows live and die on what we’re thinking and what moves we make.”
It’s a business, but it’s also something more. “I used to struggle with the West End and the business of producing not acting strictly as a business. One of the problems of theatre being bought up by big private equity companies is that they don’t work as just businesses, there has to be some heart in there and some risk-taking. But we have to operate as a business, and can’t put shows on where investors can’t get their money back. The finances have to stack up, you have to mitigate risk, have a future plan, a business for now, for next year and for 10 years down the line.”
• Find an experienced producer you respect and feel can respect you in return, and go and work with them and learn the trade by producing on the job.
• Go and meet would-be investors, whether you have a show running or not, and get them excited about what you’re doing.
• Try to keep weekends for your family. I leave the house at 10am and I’m often in the theatre until 11pm. It’s really tough
The West End is still, he believes, an old boys’ (and sometimes girls’) network. “Ten years ago I thought the club might evolve, but it hasn’t one bit. We have exactly the same problems as New York – lots of people produce fantastic work in smaller venues or on the road, but there aren’t more than a couple of West End producers I could go and co-produce a show with. But every time you book a theatre, every time you get out the other end and have paid all the bills and kept everyone happy, you have another notch on your post for credibility down the line.”
As producer, he has to keep a keen eye on every moving part of a show. Particularly important, he feels, is marketing: “Once a show opens it is the only way you can affect anything – it is the single area where you spend the most amount of money. If you’re not fully engaged and understand where the conversions to ticket buyers come from, you’re throwing money down the drain.
“I don’t think, as an industry, we understand it well enough – we’re five or 10 years behind the curve. If we put an advert on the side of a bus, we have no idea how many tickets that will sell – it’s all anecdotal. I prefer to spend money online and on social media, which can pinpoint where it is getting to, rather than running an ad in the Telegraph – but we’re still buying ads in the Telegraph, because that’s what the industry does.”
It’s shocking that we’ve had only two big new musicals in the West End this year, whereas in New York they’ve had 13 or 14
The theatre industry has remained buoyant in the face of the recession, but he notes that though it didn’t hit theatres, “it stopped shows being funded and developed, so four or five years on that development time frame saw no new British musicals being done. It’s shocking that we’ve had only two big new musicals in the West End this year, whereas in New York they’ve had 13 or 14.”
He’s not being complacent though. “I have two musicals in development now that are around 18 or 24 months out from being done. And I’ve also commissioned a new adaptation of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist from Tom Basden that I’m hoping to open next year.”
He’s also changing the rules again. “I’m always trying to mitigate risk as much as can. If I’m creating a new show I want to make sure there’s an outlet for them beyond a season in the West End or a UK tour so there’s a bit of longevity and a guarantee down the line. We’ve flipped our business model to one where we work out where a show goes and then build it for that, rather than building the show we want to build and then wondering where it is going to go.”
Born: 1985, London
Training: Warwick University
Landmark productions: Let It Be, Prince of Wales (2012, then touring and West End seasons to 2015), Impossible, Noel Coward Theatre (2015, then touring and international dates), The Wind in the Willows, Plymouth (2016) and London Palladium (2017)
Awards: Olivier awards for: best musical revival, La Cage Aux Folles (2009); best new musical, Spring Awakening (2010); best new musical, Legally Blonde (2011), Finalist for Price Waterhouse Cooper emerging entrepreneur of the year (2016)
The Wind in the Willows runs at London Palladium until September 9