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Mark Shenton’s week: The rise of Kenny Wax, the West End’s new president

Kenny Wax. Photo: Alastair Muir Kenny Wax. Photo: Alastair Muir
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The appointment of Kenny Wax this week to the top position of president of the Society of London Theatre caps a rise that has seen him really hit his stride as a major player in the West End, on the touring road and beyond, all the way to Broadway. (He is currently represented in New York by the transfer of The Play That Goes Wrong that he first took an interest in when it was a one-act show at Trafalgar Studios then enhanced for a tour and brought to the Duchess).

I should declare an interest even as I declare how inordinately proud of him I am: he and I first met at Dewynters in the late 1980s, where he was initially a humble foot messenger (these were the days before email and even faxes, so he’d hand-deliver packages of artwork for approval by clients direct to their offices), before he became a media buying assistant.

All the while, he was doing odd jobs in theatre elsewhere, such as ushering at Drury Lane and followspot-operating on Cats. I remember fondly when he produced his first show, a little one-night musical revue at the King’s Head called Kicking the Clouds Away. He subsequently went to work for Imagination, where he was responsible for bringing the Broadway musical Once on this Island to the West End, but was always determined to make it on his own.

His first big solo project was shepherding an original British musical called Maddie from a try-out at Salisbury Playhouse in 1996 to a full West End run at the Lyric in 1997. It failed, and as he told me in 2015: “Looking back, it was a ridiculously optimistic thing to do. I don’t love the show any less, but were I to do it now, I’d do it very differently. Part of producing is about choosing a good property and a great director and team, but choosing the journey the show goes on is also very important.”

And Kenny has duly gone on quite a journey. Like all producers, he’s had his knock-backs – a West End revival of Neil LaBute’s play The Shape of Things at the Ambassadors in 2004 was also a fast flop – but each time he was undaunted and regrouped, refocusing his attentions on lucrative touring children’s shows in which he cornered a market.

But he has also learned how to play the West End game, too, and didn’t rush into it when he brought a stage version of Top Hat to the stage in 2011. He launched it out-of-town as part of a tour in Milton Keynes, and I remember going to see one of its first performances. After the show, I gave him some notes: I told him that he had a show there, but he needed a new book writer (It was co-credited to director Matthew White and someone called Howard Jacques). What I didn’t know was that Jacques was a pseudonym for himself. Oops!

He took the show back to the drawing board after its first tour, and then toured it again in early 2012 before finally opening at the Aldwych in April that year. It subsequently won the Olivier for best musical in 2013 –  after which it toured successfully again.

But it is with the Mischief franchise that Wax has finally found his cash cow. Last Christmas he had three of the company’s shows running simultaneously in the West End. It was good, old-fashioned producing: he’d seen an early version of their first, independently produced show The Play That Goes Wrong at Trafalgar Studios 2, and offered to enhance it for a regional tour that he booked.

The rest is now history. Plays that go wrong are now the bread and butter of what has taken Wax to the top of the producing tree.

Flying the flag for diversity

In the wake of David Lan’s announcement to step down from running the Young Vic, I wrote a column in which I suggested six possible candidates to replace him. This was by no means intended to be a comprehensive survey of everyone who might be eligible to throw their hat in the ring or who might be considered, but just a few suggestions.

I’ve duly been taken to task by Simeilia Hodge-Dallaway, founder and executive manager of Artistic Directors of the Future, accusing my list of “being dated, lazy and a prime example of how the industry contributes to the invisibility of culturally diverse leaders”.

Actually, diversity is a subject I have regularly drawn attention to and championed in my journalism, celebrating it wherever it appears. After seeing Sheffield’s recent production of Julius Caesar, for instance, I noted it had a striking contemporaneity, “and that was to do with the obviously intentional colour, gender and disability blindness of its casting. It was remarkably unremarkable that this was taking place; no particular attention was drawn to any of it, just an easy acceptance that these actors were drawn from all sectors of society.”

And yes, of course artistic leadership needs to reflect that, and increasingly is. Just last week, Nadia Fall was appointed to replace Kerry Michael at Stratford East. Hodge-Dallaway states that it’s “completely baffling to me how such a list can be printed in 2017, when there are exemplary, culturally diverse leaders such as Kwame Kwei-Armah, Madani Younis, Kully Thiarai and Indhu Rubasingham running mainstream institutions.” The fact that Kwei-Armah is running such an institution in the US need not detain us; but each of these are already in a job. Five of the six candidates I proposed don’t (or, in the case of Emma Rice, soon won’t).

My list was purely a starting point. I’m glad that she’s added to it now – and an awareness of such issues is definitely important. It is Hodge-Dallaway’s campaigning role to increase that visibility. But she shouldn’t simply write off the list I’ve provided as seemingly “safe” choices. That’s extremely disrespectful, too, to the work that the likes of Joe Hill-Gibbins, Carrie Cracknell, Simon Stone and Richard Jones have put in at the Young Vic, or Emma Rice and Tom Morris elsewhere. If there’s anything they have in common, it is that none of them are ‘safe’.

Theatrical representations of disability

For all the talk of diversity on our stages, there’s usually little recognition of disability within that spectrum. So it was doubly refreshing to catch the current tour of The Who’s Tommy at Stratford East recently, a co-production between the New Wolsey Theatre and disabled theatre consortium Ramps on the Moon.

The Stage’s Fergus Morgan wrote in his review: “The concept is inspired. A musical about a young child shocked into ‘deafness, dumbness and blindness’ by the death of his dapper RAF dad, staged by disabled and non-disabled performers. Michael’s cast – some in wheelchairs, some with hearing aids, some voiced by back-up singers – knock the stuffing out of Pete Townshend’s score, finding layer upon layer of parallelism without ever sacrificing drama or drive.”

After seeing it, I tweeted: “The Who’s TOMMY is given blazing staging at @stratfordeast that appropriately stretches diversity casting to include deaf/disabled actors.”

Due to an unfortunate autocorrect error, deaf in that tweet got changed to dead when I first wrote it! As a friend commented on Facebook, “Dead? Now that IS diverse.” And as another replied, “Everybody has a right to work…”

As I also tweeted: “Use of deaf & disabled actors in The Who’s TOMMY @stratfordeast shouldn’t be as surprising as it is but it’s a thrill to see nonetheless.”

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