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Mark Shenton: Will Hope Mill Theatre become Manchester’s Menier Chocolate Factory?

Hope Mill Theatre, Manchester
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London’s Menier Chocolate Factory has become one of London’s biggest success stories, supplying more shows to the West End and Broadway than even the National or Royal Shakespeare Company.

It’s a model that independent producer Katy Lipson is taking inspiration from, as she forges a new relationship with Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre, likewise founded in a former industrial building.

“I want Hope Mill to be a Menier,” she told me recently over breakfast in a Manhattan diner. She was in New York scouting new shows as part of the annual National Alliance for Musical Theatre festival. Now in its fourth year, Lipson’s From Page to Stage festival opens in London this week.

Lipson is nothing if not prolific: she currently produces a portfolio of about 10 shows a year, plus the annual festival. Recent titles she has produced include Vanities: The Musical (at Trafalgar Studios), Twist of Lemmon (St James Studio), Bar Mitzvah Boy (Upstairs at the Gatehouse), See What I Wanna See (Jermyn Street Theatre), The Adventures of Pinocchio and The Who’s Tommy (Greenwich Theatre), Miss-Leading Ladies (St James Studio) and new musical The House of Mirrors and Hearts, all in London. But earlier this year she also joined forces for the first time with the Hope Mill in Manchester for a searing revival of Jason Robert Brown’s Parade, which was one of the best shows I’ve seen all year.

When co-founders Joseph Houston and William Whelton took over the lease of the Mill, they invited Lipson to see it. “I’m a Manchester girl anyway, and when I walked into that beautiful building I immediately thought it was very special. At the same time, I was having conversations with James Baker, a Manchester-based director who was doing exciting things, including productions of Spring Awakening and The Last Five Years in Manchester. He wanted to do Parade, and we started to look at finding a space together – and, meanwhile, Hope Mill was looking to do an in-house show. I agreed to co-produce it with them. We wanted a show that would pack a punch and had profile, and after the success of it, I offered to be their resident producer and to advise them on every production they do in-house. I will bring titles to the table, then get the rights.”

The early success of Parade was acknowledged recently when Hope Mill won the theatre and performance category at this year’s Hospital Club awards (for which I am one of the judges). Next week Lipson is co-producing a revival at Hope Mill of the 1960s Broadway classic Hair, which I’ll be reviewing on November 15.

Today, Lipson is announcing the in-house programme for 2017, which includes three musicals: “I’m very much of the opinion that a season announcement is very exciting – it’s better than drip feeding shows for a venue that is building its reputation.” Instead, it is a powerful statement of intent, she says: “After Hair, we are not doing any shows that have ever been to Manchester before.”

The city already has a thriving theatrical culture, including two large commercial houses – the Palace and Opera House – and three funded producing theatres, the Royal Exchange, Contact and Home. But until now it has lacked the fringe-theatre provision a venue such as the Hope Mill provides. “We are able to do things much more cheaply – the theatre leases at much lower rates than, say, Southwark Playhouse in London – and we have a willing audience and no competition. I hope we can introduce composers whose work hasn’t been seen much outside London, such as Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Ahrens and Flaherty, and Adam Gwon, in front of audiences there.”

The 2017 season opens with the UK premiere of Yank!, an Off-Broadway Second World War love story with book and lyrics by David Zellnik and music by his brother Joseph, which runs from March 9 to April 8. James Baker (who was responsible for Parade at Hope Mill) will direct. “Someone brought it to me and I fell in love with it,” Lipson says of her reason for wanting to do it.

It is followed by a revival of Tim Connor and Susannah Pearse’s British musical The Stationmaster, based on Horvath’s play Judgement Day, running from September 7-30. “It’s in the same world as Parade in terms of intensity and darkness, and an example of a great new British writer we’ve found.” Connor’s Heart of Winter will also receive a showcase as part of this year’s From Page to Stage Festival, running November 11-19. Finally, the theatre will offer the UK premiere of the 2005 Broadway musical version of Louisa May Alcott’s novel Little Women (running from November 9 to December 9).

Musicals may frequently be stuck in the past, but Lipson is determined to take them – and their audiences – into a bold new future. As part of the festival this year, she is also offering the British premiere of a short new musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, currently represented in London by In the Heights and also responsible for the London-bound smash-hit Hamilton. It’s called 21 Chump Street and runs for just 14 minutes. “There’s no other place where you could showcase that. And it helps us attract publicity to the season.”

If all this isn’t enough, Lipson is taking From Stage to Page to the next level. Next August it will take over the Other Palace Theatre (as the St James is being rebranded), to stage a three-week season of 25 musicals in the main house, studio and bar. “I then have an option on what to take further to full productions after we see how audiences react.” She is also joining forces to co-produce two major musicals: in January, she will join with Senbla to stage a London revival of Burt Bacharach’s only Broadway musical Promises Promises (at Southwark Playhouse from January 13), and in April she collaborates with Music and Lyrics and United Theatrical to co-produce a major UK national tour of Andrew Lippa’s 2010 Broadway musical The Addams Family, kicking off at Edinburgh Playhouse.

Lipson is definitely a name to watch and these shows should be, too.

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