He’s the producer behind smash-hit musical Come from Away and now a very different beast: David Mamet’s new work, which has already attracted controversy for its Weinstein-based protagonist. John Brant talks to Tim Bano
There could hardly be two more different productions playing in the West End at the moment than Come from Away and Bitter Wheat. The first is a deeply moving musical about how, out of the horror of the events of September 11, 2001, extraordinary acts of community and humanity were born. Written by a husband-and-wife team, it’s full of heart, and no starry names carry it. Bitter Wheat is a new play by David Mamet about an abusive Hollywood executive played by John Malkovich.
But there is something that unites them: John Brant. As part of Smith and Brant Theatricals, he is the producer of both shows, and a leading figure in the world of theatre – in the past 12 months he has also produced True West with Kit Harington and Johnny Flynn, and Abigail’s Party with Jodie Prenger.
Since Come from Away opened in London, it has been nominated for eight Olivier Awards, winning four, along with almost universal five-star reviews. But Brant almost didn’t produce it. “I’m the guy who did everything possible to not be involved with it,” he jokes.
Ultimately, for Brant, producing theatre is about making money. “We are a business, and we are a business that makes money, and we are a business that brings money into this country.” The trouble with Come from Away is that, on paper, it’s a hard sell: a Canadian folk musical set on the day of the September 11 terror attacks.
After various jobs in the East End of London, where he grew up – delivery driver, doorman, assistant in a leather wholesaler – Brant trained as an actor in New York. He returned to the UK in 2009 and met a man called Joseph Smith at a conference. They stayed in touch while Brant did bits of teaching and directing, until one day in 2012, over a drink in Borough Market, Smith said: “I’m bringing Sweeney Todd into the West End. You’d be quite a good producer, do you want to raise some money for it?”
This was the production that had run in Chichester with Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball. “I don’t know whether it was the bravado of youth or something, but I said: ‘Yeah, I’ll give it a go.’ I managed to do it, and became an associate on that production.” He started working under Smith, teaching and directing on the side, and a year later they founded their company Smith and Brant Theatricals.
‘It’s important that when we general-manage we also have skin in the game’
But how did Brant, from zero, get to the point where he’d raised enough money to impress an established West End producer? “Well, I’d met a couple of people you’d probably call ‘traditional investors’, through workshops and directing things they did the finance for, and just kind of started there. I put in some money myself, if I’m honest, and the rest was a bit of beg, borrow and stealing off various people. Really I had no idea what to do, but I thought: ‘Well, just give it a go.’ ”
One of those investors had just left a job in private equity, so he had a lot of money and wanted to explore alternative ways of investing. “Especially after the global financial crisis, a lot of those guys who had invested in stocks and bonds and futures and shares realised that they’d invested all their money and actually hadn’t got anything back from it. He was looking for things that would not only hopefully make him some money but also would provide interest and experience.”
Considering that the long and noble history of the West End flop, or even the West End break-even, is far greater than that of the huge money-spinning successes, was Brant surprised that people from the financial sector saw theatre as a safer means of investment than traditional routes?
“Well, yes, but people who have money have money because they are not stupid. So people who are investing in theatre on a regular basis are not doing it because they’re philanthropic. They are doing it because they do make money in the end. They might not make loads, but these people look at it differently. They’re not looking to put some money in a show and never work again. What they’re doing is going: ‘Actually, over a period of time can I make 8%, 12% or 15%? And if that means I have to lose 50% of my money on that but make 80% on this, then it will all work out in the end.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first professional theatre job?
Drama teaching assistant.
What’s your next job?
Bitter Wheat, producer and general manager.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Have a belief in yourself and your instincts.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Talent shows have bred a feeling among young performers that those behind the desk are there to ridicule, that they are not your friends. That is not true. Every single person behind a casting desk, every time the door opens, all they are thinking is: ‘I hope this is the one, I hope this is the one.’ It’s really important for performers when starting out or when they’ve had a rough patch to remember that behind the table are a bunch of people who want you to be amazing and are rooting for you. So just go for it, because, frankly, three minutes of a bad audition? You’ll get over it. But it could be a three-minute audition that changes your life.
What would you have been if not a producer?
I wish I could say a footballer, but that dream ended when my dad told me: ‘You’re good, kid, but you’re not that good.’ I think I would have ended up in a kind of private equity world.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
I don’t believe in traditional rituals. But when I was doing my A levels my sister gave me this little lucky bear dressed in a nurse’s outfit – she’s a nurse – and I carried that for the Oliviers and the press night of Come from Away. And when that show opened at the Abbey in Dublin, every time I watched it I had a Polaroid of me and my nan in my pocket. My nan was born in Ireland in 1910. And from 1914 to 1918 she was in the workhouse because they were a very poor family. So the Ireland show was massive for me. So it’s more those little personal things rather than turn around three times, spit and walk out the door backwards.
Every time Brant puts on a show, he explains, he’s essentially setting up a medium-sized new business. So there’s always going to be risk. What he has to do is mitigate it as much as possible and, crucially, have faith in the show. He insists there has only ever been one instance when he approached investors to fund a show he wasn’t convinced about. “I’m not telling you the name of the show, but I would never ever do it again.”
That experience was also a vital lesson for Brant. If a show loses money now, he can sleep easy knowing that he did the best he could, and that he raised the money in good faith.
But when Come from Away came along, Brant wasn’t sure he could be fully behind a musical about 9/11. In 2015, he was producing Memphis in the West End, and halfway through the run his American co-producers mentioned that they were looking at a new musical being workshopped in the States. Then they mentioned it again. And again and again, until Brant caved.
“I asked: ‘What’s it about?’ They said: ‘9/11.’ I was like: ‘Okay… so is it a play?’ ‘No, a musical.’ I did what everyone else does, and went: ‘Are you crazy? This sounds absolutely bonkers.’ Thank God they had just a bit of patience, and I respected them enough to believe them.” Brant flew over to La Jolla in California, saw the show, and instantly realised how brilliant it was.
It resonated in a way that, he reckons, has only increased with time. When he first saw it in 2015, he recognised it as “a phenomenal piece of art”, but is convinced that now “it’s a different show because Trump is leader. It’s a different show because Trump put in that Muslim ban very early on in his presidency.
“It’s a different show over here because of the attacks we’ve experienced recently, but also because we’re split as a society and we’re going through a huge change with Brexit, which is dividing not uniting. So at the moment people want to see a show that represents the antithesis of that. It’s a really beautiful show to be a part of.”
Now there’s Weinstein. Or rather “a very badly behaved movie mogul” named Barney Fein in David Mamet’s new play Bitter Wheat. Unlike Come from Away, Brant needed very little persuading about Bitter Wheat.
Jeffrey Richards, Mamet’s producer for the past 13 or so years, sent Brant an email saying: “I’ve doing a new Mamet play, and John Malkovich is signed up. Would you like to be general manager?” Brant said yes, but that he’d like to produce too – “it’s really important when we general-manage that we also have skin in the game” – and Richards agreed.
He recognises it’s a raw topic. “Look, it is a controversial subject, which has been systematic in the movie industry and in plenty of industries for years. It’s not going to be to everyone’s taste. I don’t think anything David Mamet has ever written really is, and he wouldn’t apologise for that, and nor should he. But I think theatre is quite a good medium to get a conversation going and to hold the mirror up to what’s going on. And if it continues a conversation maybe about the #MeToo movement, but really about the abuse of power, that can only be a good thing.”
Brant admits there was controversy when the show went on sale: “People judged it. But people don’t know what’s in it. I’ve no problem with people having an opinion and judging it, but I think it’s important that you see it. And if you see it and you don’t like it, that’s absolutely fine. And if you have really strong feelings about it, that’s absolutely fine.”
So if a musical like Come from Away has the power to heal a divided nation – even in just a tiny way – does he feel a sense of social responsibility when choosing what plays to produce?
“You have to feel that, of course. But you’re also always just coming from your own perspective. I don’t think it’s socially irresponsible to put on a play about the movie industry. We’re not being irresponsible by putting anyone on stage. We’re not putting anyone in harm’s way. And we’re not saying: ‘This is how it should be.’ We’re just telling a story in a moment. And I don’t think that’s exploitative particularly.”
He adds that he didn’t get involved with Come from Away to be socially responsible. “We wanted people to see it not only because of the real story, but also because we think it’s a fantastic musical and a fantastic piece of art. It always needs to go back to the story you’re trying to tell.”
Born: Hornsey, 1981
Training: American Academy of Dramatic Arts, New York, 2007
• Sweeney Todd, Adelphi Theatre, London (2012)
• Memphis, Shaftesbury Theatre, London (2014)
• True West, Vaudeville Theatre, London (2018)
• Come from Away, Phoenix Theatre, London (2019)
•Bitter Wheat, Garrick Theatre, London (2019)
• Olivier for best new musical, Come from Away (2019)
• Olivier for best new musical, Memphis the Musical (2015)
Bitter Wheat runs at the Garrick Theatre, London, from June 7-September 14. Visit bitterwheatplay.com for details