Mark Shenton’s top 10 musical theatre directors
Last week I listed my favourite directors of the classics, and today it’s the turn of directors whose work in musicals I am a particular fan of. Many directors now straddle both territories – in days gone by, even Peter Brook directed Irma La Douce, but it was Trevor Nunn’s great success (financial as well as artistic) with Cats, then Starlight Express and Les Miserables, that encouraged a whole raft of great British theatre directors to also chase the golden goose that a successful musical could mean to their personal fortunes. For some, this was successful (think Nick Hytner and Miss Saigon, or Phyllida Lloyd and Mamma Mia!), but for others it resulted in ignominy – think of Terry Hands and Carrie for the Royal Shakespeare Company, Peter Hall and Jean Seberg for the National, or people who foundered in the credibility stakes, as Adrian Noble did with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (not least for coinciding with his resignation from the helm of the RSC) or Declan Donnellan with the ill-fated Martin Guerre.
But here are 10 directors whose work is all seen regularly in the West End and/or on Broadway musicals, and I always look forward to seeing – plus a few names I’m watching closely for future possibilities. Of course, musicals are a high-stakes game, and no success, however great, can insulate a director against subsequent failure: after creating what has now become the most commercially successful musical of all time in The Lion King, Julie Taymor also directed Broadway’s costliest flop to date, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.
1. Hal Prince
The reigning granddaddy of Broadway is Hal Prince, now 89 – and still working. He has won 21 Tony Awards, more than any other individual, including eight for directing. He was Sondheim’s director of choice through the 70s, directing the original productions of such seminal masterpieces as Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures and Sweeney Todd; he also directed the original productions of Lloyd Webber’s two best shows, Evita and The Phantom of the Opera (the latter of which is now the longest running musical in Broadway history). He also directed the original productions of Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret, Zorba and Kiss of the Spiderwoman, so has had a huge impact on three of the greatest composers of musicals in the 20th century. Later this year, Manhattan Theatre Club will offer the New York premiere of Prince of Broadway, which will feature scenes from the six decades of shows he has worked on, co-directed by Prince with Susan Stroman.
2. Trevor Nunn
No slouch when it comes to hit musicals, Trevor Nunn first hit the big time as director of the original London production of Cats, soon followed by such mega hits as Starlight Express and especially Les Miserables (co-directed with John Caird, and still running in the West End where it is the longest running musical of all time) He would also go on to direct the original West End productions of Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love and Sunset Boulevard, but had serious misfires with The Baker’s Wife and Gone With the Wind. He’s also done some notable revivals, including National Theatre productions of Oklahoma!, South Pacific and Anything Goes, and A Little Night Music at the Menier that transferred to the West End and Broadway. He recently directed the world premiere of Stephen Schwartz’s Schikaneder in Vienna.
3. Susan Stroman
Stro, as she is universally known in the business, began as a choreographer before becoming a director/choreographer, whose hits have included Crazy for You (choreography only) and The Producers (directing and choreographing) that together helped to re-establish Broadway as a generator of hit musical comedies again after years of British dominance of the form. She also did innovative work with Contact, a dance-based show, and made waves as choreographer for Trevor Nunn’s National Theatre production of Oklahoma! in 1998 that subsequently went to Broadway. I’ve also loved her productions of Kander and Ebb’s The Scottsboro Boys and Andrew Lippa’s Big Fish. This year she will revisit Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein that she also staged for Broadway for a new West End production at the Garrick in October.
4. Casey Nicholaw
The ebullient dancer turned choreographer and now director Casey Nicholaw has become one of the most prolific director/choreographers working today. Last year he had four shows playing simultaneously on Broadway, and he currently has three in the West End (The Book of Mormon, Disney’s Aladdin and Dreamgirls). He’s also easily one of the most personable, too, as you can see from his interview with The Stage.
5. Michael Grandage
Even before he took over as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, Michael Grandage had made a major mark there with his production of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along there in 2000 (with Daniel Evans, Julian Ovenden and Samantha Spiro). His musicals since then have been highly selective, but always a winner: Grand Hotel in 2004, Guys and Dolls (for the Donmar but directly into the West End in 2005), and a stunning revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita in 2006. He’s now lined up to direct a movie version of Guys and Dolls, but also is deep in preparation for this summer’s premiere of a stage version of Disney’s Frozen that’s having a pre-Broadway engagement this summer in Denver (from August 17 to October 1), then heading to Broadway in spring 2018 at the St James Theatre.
6. Matthew Warchus
Now helming the Old Vic, Matthew Warchus is a genius stager of new musicals, as witness his work on a pair of Tim Minchin musicals, Matilda (still running in the West End) and Groundhog Day (now on Broadway). But he’s also done innovative work on such shows as Our House and Ghost the Musical, which marked him out as a man of vision.
7. Jerry Mitchell
Another former dancer turned choreographer and now director as well, Jerry Mitchell has done sterling work, often alongside director Jack O’Brien, on shows like Hairspray, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Catch Me if You Can and the original Love Never Dies. But as a director/choreographer he has come into his own, working on shows like Legally Blonde and Kinky Boots.
8. Michael Mayer
The best director of rock-based musicals around, Michael Mayer directed the stage version of Green Day’s American Idiot, probably the greatest rock musical I’ve ever seen, as well as the astonishingly fresh Spring Awakening. He’s currently represented in the UK by the tour of his West End production of Funny Girl.
9. Michael Greif
A director who came to prominence for his production of the smash hit original Broadway Rent in the mid-90s – the Hamilton of its day – Michael Greif has continued to make his presence felt on Broadway with two of the most heartfelt shows of the century so far: Next to Normal and currently Dear Evan Hansen.
10. Thomas Kail
Making a late entry to this list as director of Hamilton, the biggest musical in the world right now, Thomas Kail may be yet to test his musical theatre credentials fully – but its clear that he’s here to stay.
And some to watch
Already on my list of classical directors whose work is essential to see, his musicals so far have also been consistently interesting but have failed to become hits. I loved American Psycho last year on Broadway but it bombed, as did his West End foray with Made in Dagenham in 2014.
Seemingly on a fast track to world domination, there hardly a busier new choreographer-turned-director on the West End block now. I first noticed him at the Union Theatre a few years ago, and then as choreographer of a stunning ArtsEd student production of Kiss of the Spiderwoman; but in the past couple of years he has come into his own as choreographer of In the Heights, the dazzling Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (returning there this summer) and director/choreographer of the current The Wild Party at The Other Palace Theatre. He’s also directing and choreographing this summer’s revival of On the Town at Regent’s Park, too.
Another Union Theatre alumnus, Michael Strassen has done superb productions there of shows as diverse as Pacific Overtures, Company, The Baker’s Wife and The Fix. His work demands to be seen on bigger stages.
A young director who has assisted Warchus on Matilda, Luke Sheppard is now coming into his own with such calling cards as directing the British premiere of In the Heights, originally at Southwark Playhouse before transferring to King’s Cross; next up in June is Working, also at Southwark Playhouse.
After a striking production of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World at the St James Theatre in 2015, Adam Lenson returns there (now renamed the Other Palace) to direct the premiere of Duncan Sheik’s new musical Whisper House in April.