We need more young producers who can take the baton from David Babani
This week Forbidden Broadway transfers from the Menier Chocolate Factory to the West End's Vaudeville Theatre, while the first show it ever transferred – Fully Committed, which was originally staged during the theatre's first year in 2004 – is revived at its original home. In between these two shows, the Menier has transferred around a dozen other shows to the West End – and three of them also to Broadway.
Which, of course, was some feat – not just that this theatre operates entirely without subsidy, but that a British creative team in each case was reinventing a Broadway show, respectively Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George and A Little Night Music, and Jerry Herman's La Cage aux Folles, so was effectively taking coals to Newcastle in taking them back there.
David Babani, co-founder of the Menier (with Danielle Tarento, now one of London's most adventurous independent theatre producers), has never been shy of a challenge. It was even before he was at the Menier that he first moved a show to the West End: he was in his first year in charge at Jermyn Street when he imported Forbidden Broadway there and then took it to the Albery in 1999.
He wasn't yet 21, and as Philip George, who directed it then and still does now, told me recently, "In your life, you frequently meet young actors, young directors and young writers, but you don't meet young producers. You're not aware of someone who is a producer when they're 21, but you were with him."
Babani, like Cameron Mackintosh before him, is a producer who was obviously born, not made, and started producing when he was still at school. But he's far from the only one of a younger generation of producers who are now solidly making their mark. Everywhere I look now I am see bold new productions being launched by young producers.
Currently at the Park Theatre, a superb revival of Richard Bean's first play Toast is playing, produced by Sarah Loader and directed by Eleanor Rhode who co-founded Snapdragon Productions in 2009 "to bring neglected and unknown works to new audiences." I have seen it twice, and am quietly knocked out by the integrity of a production that, with a stunning cast and set, could feel equally at home at the Donmar Warehouse, which of course the Park Theatre feels modelled on.
Later this month another young producer, James Quaife, will offer the British premiere of the Broadway play Next Fall at Southwark Playhouse, while just recently I was singing the praises, in every sense, of Katy Lipson's Aria Entertainment in backing not one but two of London's best musicals The Dreaming and The Return of the Soldier.
It's no accident that all of these producers have been in receipt of Stage One bursaries, the Society of London Theatre-run scheme that provides new producers with financial and practical assistance to help them to get their first productions up and running.
And this week yet another Stage One initiative has begun with the opening of a three-play season being held at the St James Theatre.
The season has kicked off with Vicky Graham's production of a brand-new play Breeders (which I reviewed for The Stage), and will be followed by a new version of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and a rediscovered Emlyn Williams play Accolade. As I said in my review:
Vicky Graham arguably takes the biggest risk in launching an untried, new play, rather than a new version of a classic or a rediscovered old play that comprise the rest of the season. And if it isn’t a complete triumph, it’s a process - like parenting itself - that can be fraught with problems, but is a risk worth taking.
Clearly, the parenting of young producers is also paying off. There are plenty of budding actors, writers, directors and even critics (though no jobs for the latter), but budding producers are the ones that are most urgently needed of all.