The late eighties and early nineties were the Golden Age of the one-off kamikaze musical. A steady stream of would be producers arrived at Heathrow, each with a suitcase full of money and each announced to the world at large and Theatreland in particular “I have a great idea for a musical”. Many of these poor deluded souls found their way to our offices in Bedford St. Among many others we churned out Carrie, Metropolis, Sherlock Holmes – The Musical, Which Witch, Children of Eden, Winnie, and these are the shows are that actually made it onto the stage, many mercifully did not. In every case there was a preliminary production meeting where the man with the suitcase full of money set out his stall, where possibilities were assessed and flights of fancy shot down. The worst moment at these early encounters was when the budding Ziegfield would pull a cassette from his pocket and play us some of the music. Normally the experience that followed ranged from embarrassing to excruciating but worst of all was the time that we were summoned to a very camp Chelsea apartment to discuss ‘Always’ , the Edward & Wallis-Simpson musical. The producer, who I think was also the author, seated us in comfy armchairs and then proceeded, with the aid of a cassette player and a few deftly arranged props, to perform the entire musical for us at point blank range. Another example of man’s inhumanity to man. Unsurprisingly, since our efforts not to giggle failed, we didn’t get that job.
The next phase in production meetings is much more businesslike, schedules, budgets, staffing etc are discussed but still in a relatively small forum. At this point realistic production and running budgets are set up, which in theory bear some relation to the show’s earning capacity and should predict a recoupment of the courageous investors’ money at some point in the next hundred years. As the production progresses layer upon layer of detail is added and the numbers of attendees at the meetings increase as the number of days before Previews dwindles. By the time rehearsals start the turn out at a production meeting will easily outnumber a matinee house in Scarborough. They come armed with fresh notepads and sharp pencils ready to fight for a few square feet of wing space or a couple of hours of stage time, they come to have the importance of their role in the Grand Plan recognised. Fat chance.
Project Model – Maintenance!
Production Manager Stewart Cowless’s first introduction to Maintenance! comes about as a result of a call from producer Alvin Toxteth. “Stewart I have a project I’d like you to look at. I think you’ll agree that it’s quite remarkable. Can you come and see us?” After checking Toxteth’s provisional production schedule against his commitments Cowless finds that he is only booked on two other shows at the time in question and cheerfully agrees to a meet. As he walks into the offices of Jolly Good Musicals Ltd he is greeted by Kevin Whimper, the General Manager. “Stewie I hope you’ve got your prescription pad with you. They’re all in need of medication in there” he says, gesturing at Toxteth’s inner sanctum.
With a wry smile Cowless goes into Toxteth’s office where he is introduced to an enormous pony-tailed man wearing black jeans and a black leather waistcoat over a white shirt, there is a fair amount of metalwork hanging round his neck. This is composer Gunther Eisenkopf who greets him with a bone crushing handshake before waving over the book and lyric writer Dermot O’Dainty. O’Dainty looks tiny beside Eisenkopf, he is a dapper charming figure familiar from TV panel games and pet food commercials.
“Ah, so you are the man who is going to make it all work” says O’Dainty
“Something like that”
Alvin Toxteth ushers them into chairs around his desk and starts to describe the project .to Cowless, who has had some warning from Kevin Whimper about the wackier aspects of the production and is ready to play a straight bat to whatever may come at him. However the limits of his self control are tested when Eisenkopf hits the button on a CD player and plays some of the songs, explaining as he does the effect that his East German upbringing and the neglect of his Stasi officer father has had on him. At one point he appears to wipe away a tear and Cowless, who judges the music to be dreadful, the up-tempo numbers a cross between Status Quo and the Ramones but less interesting, the ballads sounding like the dirges that Portugal enters for the Eurovision Song Contest, realises that an anodyne “Oh that’s fantastic! I particularly like the one with the tuba intro”. Isn’t going to cut it, but he is an old campaigner and knows how to handle this sort of stuff. He looks Eisenkopf dead in the eye and says earnestly, “It’s like an orange isn’t it. You know what I mean when I say it’s like an orange? I mean that your music has an outer skin that initially is hard to peel and gets under your fingernails but when you have peeled it you have the exhilaration of the juice”. Eisenkopf’s English is not quite good enough to take in what Cowless has said but he senses a compliment and beams happily. O’Dainty nods his head slowly and Alvin Toxteth eyes his production manager suspiciously. The meeting moves on to more practical matters and an hour and a half later Cowless is back on the street convinced that this particular project will die the death sooner rather than later.
Much to his surprise Maintenance! does continue to flourish, a creative team is put in place, budgets finalised, staff employed and Cowless himself signs a contract to steer the show into the Piccadilly Theatre.
During the first week of rehearsals the first full on production meeting is called with all the newly appointed HODs, stage management, and creative team invited. Cowless, who normally chairs these events, is a believer in the theory that you should never call a meeting unless you can be sure of its outcome. During the days preceding the meeting he methodically works his way round the various departments and creatives making sure that there will be no ambushes and that everything should go smoothly. The meeting convenes after rehearsals in the Parish Hall of the Church of Our Lady of Cheerful Countenance, the stage management arrange chairs in a large circle, the attendance will be good, even the marketing team are coming.
Eventually everyone takes a seat, opens their notebooks, and Cowless starts the production meeting.
“Thanks for coming everybody. This shouldn’t take too long if we all crack through it, as some of you will know I am Chairman of the Society for the Prevention of Long Meetings “ There are a couple of polite chuckles at this feeble attempt at humour.
“OK so I suggest that we take a quick look at the schedule then go round the room to pick up on any individual concerns or niggles.”
“Well if it’s the schedule that we are talking about I’m going to jump in first” says director Kevin McHarrowing. “This schedule is totally unworkable. I thought I made it clear at the outset that this is not a crappy formulaic juke box musical that you can just throw on the stage. These rehearsals need to have an emotional core, the cast will need to find their moral space on the stage. These are artists not squaddies who need to be drilled into submission”
Cowless, who has always thought of musical ensembles in exactly the latter terms, is about to reply when choreographer Bobby Brasso breaks in.
“Listen guys I’m the last person to deny anyone their moral space but I need placing time and I just don’t see it in this schedule.”
The floodgates open.
“Stewie dear we can’t do a costume parade in two hours. And we need to do it under the proper lights” chips in Buzz Phelps.
“No chance! We will barely have the rig in the air by the time that’s scheduled. When am I supposed to focus? In the middle of the bloody night I suppose! I need a decent blackout and no chippies banging about.”
As soon as Geoff Osram has finished sound designer Ian Geek plunges in.
“Stewart I don’t know what’s going on here but I can’t EQ the system, set the defaults on the digbys and defib the AJBs in two sessions and I certainly can’t do it until all the masking is in place and we certainly need to have the company in wigs from the Day 1 of the Tech”.
Wig mistress Natalie Tongs is aghast “Sorry but we weren’t expecting to have wigs until the second week of the tech at the earliest”.
Harry Redeye the video designer: “Look old chap we need line-up time and obviously we can’t do it while Geoff’s focussing but I’m sure you can find us a slot.”
Stage Manager Rowena Pettifer diffidently puts her toe into the increasingly stormy waters, “Look I don’t want to be difficult or anything but I don’t think we can start the tech on the Tuesday there will be too many Health & Safety issues to resolve before we can have the company on stage.”
“Bugger Health & Safety” says Alvin Toxteth succinctly. There is a short pause while everyone considers his point, a point that all can agree with.
“Er the photocall doesn’t seem to have made it onto the schedule. We need all the principals for 4 hours on the morning before the first Dress Rehearsal and when are we doing the EPK?” This identifies the smart young man that no one has recognised as one of the PR team.
Set designer Ulla Hoos, “Vhere is the paint call? Zhere is no paint call! The cobble stones vill certainly need touching up.” Her Latvian accent comes across more strongly as she becomes more stressed.
“Cobble stones! What fucking cobble stones?” Bobby Brasso’s camp nasal Bronx cuts across the room like a buzz saw. “How many times do I have to say this people? We can’t fucking dance on cobble stones.”
McHarrowing explodes “Listen they have cobble stones in Bohemia and they never stop fucking dancing! Bohemians are famous for their fucking dancing!”
“OK! OK! Perhaps the cobbles should be the subject of a separate meeting”. Cowless manages to get a word in, then Toxteth stands up, looks around the room before stating firmly “It’s obvious that the schedule needs to be finessed but no one in this room should be in any doubt that we will do our first Preview on the 27th come hell or high water. I hope that’s clear.”
Stewart Cowless sighs and thinks firstly that it is going to be a long evening and secondly that a career as a beachcomber somewhere warm with a relaxed attitude to drugs and prostitution is looking increasingly attractive.