What does a director do? He/She tells the actors where to stand, tells them not to bump into the furniture. Well that at least is the common misconception. A Director does much more than that, a director manages the whole artistic side of the project and it’s best to get a good one.
Directors in my view broadly come in three grades.
The Dictator: Top of the range autocrat who knows what he/she wants and how to get it. They are the true auteur of the production and will mercilessly bulldoze anyone who gets in their way. They don’t give a damn who gets bloodied buttocks from the savage mistress that is Musical Theatre.
The Chairman: A democrat who ‘chairs’ the creative team, often a vegetarian, always happy to listen to reason, sees other peoples point of view, recognises the producer’s anxiety about the budget, understands the leading lady’s unwillingness to wear blue, is concerned about the band’s comfort, and doesn’t sleep with the turns.
The Flounder: A hopeless inadequate, out of his/her depth and the reason for this is that they may never have directed a West End musical before. It’s truly amazing the number of productions that are staged with someone at the helm who really doesn’t have the right experience and when the going gets tough (and the going doesn’t get much tougher than on a West End Musical) they crack. ‘Flounders’ tend to alcohol and drug abuse. They are prone to paranoia and self pity and at the end of the day they cast about for a scapegoat (normally the sound designer) to blame as the production careers downhill towards the cliff edge.
Quotes from the directorial front line:
The delightful George Roman expressed his lack of confidence in the product (in this case the lamentable 1988 Sherlock Holmes - The Musical at the Cambridge) as follows, “Jesus Christ this is shit! Why the fuck are we doing this?” This particular production held my personal ‘Golden Klunker’ award for many years.
Trevor Nunn: after the fire alarm went off twice in ten minutes on the first day of the ‘tech’ of Porgy & Bess at the Savoy, each time requiring a full evacuation of the building: “Ted! call the producers, we’re moving theatres”.
Nicholas Hytner: in the middle of a 1980 tech of Britten’s Turn of the Screw which was overdesigned, understaffed and out of control: “Why does it have to be like this?” A howl of directorial anguish, that sad to say was greeted by insensitive guffaws from backstage.
Anonymous: (for legal reasons but from the director of a musical currently running in the West End): “I don’t know what to do. I really don’t know what to do. I could go to the airport I suppose”. A sentiment shared by all of us at some point our career.
Project Model – Maintenance!
The producers of Maintenance! have offered the director’s position to some of the top names from both the West End and Broadway. All declined possibly put off by the general vacuousness of the concept or by composer Gunther Eisenkopf’s unnerving sense of humour. The final short list has come down to two names, the veteran Ronny Duveteen, whose recent production of Lilac Time at Chichester got reviews like “This is a load of camp old tosh, but I loved it” (Petersfield Evening Argus), and Kevin McHarrowing whose all-black production of Murder at the Vicarage at the Tricycle was well regarded and whose 14 hour production of The Long March, the story of Mao’s creation of the Peoples Republic told in words and music got reviews like “An ideal family show for the festive season” (China Peoples Daily, circulation 1.2 billion). The latter played over 3 nights at Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre and Ernest Bigelow, the only member of the public who managed to stick it out through all 3 parts, said when interviewed later “Fantastic! An emotional roller-coaster. There were moments when I didn’t know if I was asleep or awake”.
The producers, Alvin Toxteth and Samuel J Bloodlust together with composer Gunther Eisenkopf met Duveteen for lunch and were impressed by his experience and wealth of anecdote. In fact by the time they hit the brandy at about 3.00pm they had only got as far as Duveteen’s early career as a dancer in Binkie Mottram’s Talk of the Town revue Footlight Floozies of 1964. By that point Eisenkopf was looking increasingly irritable and eventually broke into Duveteens’s anecdote stream shouting “If you don’t get your hand off my knee I vill focking kill you”. Toxteth sensing a clash between the German’s Heavy Metal background and Duveteen’s cosier showbiz origins hastily broke the meeting up. The producers’ doubts about his suitability were reinforced on their return to the office where PA Charlotte Gore-Wincanton reported rumours that Duveteen had outstanding legal issues arising from a recent holiday in Thailand.
The following day the group was joined by book writer Dermot O’Dainty for lunch with Kevin McHarrowing. Things went much better apart from Eisenkopf’s failure to understand much of McHarrowing’s heavily accented Glaswegian account of his early struggles to find sense and meaning in his Gorbals childhood. By 3.00pm they had got to the bit where McHarrowing’s Uncles Jimmy and Dougal hold up a Paisley bookies shop in order to raise money to build a set for their favourite nephew’s production of The Good Person of Szechwan at the local church hall. At this point O’Dainty broke in saying, ”Great! Fascinating, but what did you think about the script?” McHarrowing made his pitch. (I won’t bore the reader rendering his words into Glaswegian but just take it from me that like all Glaswegians he sounded uncouth and a little bit whiney).
“Well fellers when I opened the script my first thought, and I guess anybody’s first thought, when they read the script was ‘These people are insane. These people are stark raving mad.’ At first sight the idea that you could base a musical on the Haynes Owners Workshop Manual for the 1989 Skoda Favorit is just plain daft but then as I read on I started to think perhaps these guys are on to something. The Skoda represents that something in our lives that we all strive for but when we achieve it we find that it just doesn’t work for us. Am I right?” At that point Eisenkopf and O’Dainty, who were so drunk when they conceived the piece, that they have no idea what the show is about, nod sagely. “And then I realised all of us in some form or other already own a Skoda and that the Skoda represents in emotional and cultural terms a return to….” McHarrowing continued in similar vein for some time and I won’t reproduce the remainder of his pitch here as it also forms part of his ‘First Day of Rehearsal Speech’ which I am planning to offer as a podcast. At the end of his preamble he produced 6 model Skodas that he had bought at Hamleys that morning, and proceeded to demonstrate to the production team his idea for the “Skoda Fandango Finale”. As he described the final moments he paused and looked round the evidently impressed production team and asked quietly “Guess what my first car was?” “A Skoda” whispered O’Dainty. McHarrowing nodded and this barefaced lie (his first car had been a Cortina that Uncle Dougal gave him once it had been wiped of fingerprints) got him the job.