BWW Interviews: Louis Hartshorn, Producer Of WOODY SEZ
Hartshorn – Hook Productions are currently riding high after scoring a hit with the new musical Woody Sez that is currently running at the Arts Theatre in London’s West End. Many may know the show but few know the people behind Hartshorn – Hook Productions who have helped bring this to the stage and just how young the duo are and how fast their star has risen.
I caught up with Louis Hartshorn who is one of the owners to find out about the show, life as young producers and his thoughts on West End musicals plus much more.
Hi Louis, how’s things going with Woody Sez?
Wonderfully, thanks. We’re right on the brink of some very exciting developments with what the show is doing next.
For those who don’t know much about Woody Guthrie whose life and music is the basis of Woody Sez can you tell us about him and the show?
Woody was known as the Dustbowl Troubadour during the great depression, singing for the plain folks and getting tough with the rich folks, in his own words. He was a singer and songwriter who wrote literally thousands of songs. He hated the capitalist nature of America, and was one of the first to use radio to air protest songs, often losing his job with the radio company at the same time!
The show charts his life through his own words and songs, with an incredibly talented cast of four multi-instrumentalist actors from the USA.
The show has opened to brilliant reviews, some of the best I’ve read for a new musical in London recently: were you surprised by how positive the usually tough West End critics were?
It’s been wonderful. The reviews are unanimously positive, which is really rare. A couple of the critics commented on the fact that it’s a difficult theatre to get good press in – but that is all about to change with a fantastic new management company running the building too. I think it’s testament to the quality of writing and the truth in the performances. These actors don’t put on these roles, they live and breathe the characters and really make them come to life. It’s the only show that has ever moved me to tears.
You and your business partner Brian Hook are some of the youngest West End producers around, do you find that an advantage or disadvantage in such a cut throat industry like West End Theatre?
To be honest it’s a massive disadvantage, which is something I used to gloss over. Even the people you work with and who trust you still have it in the back of their minds, let alone the people who you approach for investment. Managing 30 people in a building but being the youngest one there is not an easy task. We have a wonderful general manager and company manager, both of whom we couldn’t do this without.
You have produced shows in Edinburgh at the Fringe Festival and now two in the West End: what are the big differences?
The difference is the attitude. In the West End, protocol is everything. People get very upset about things that would appear to be trivial, but that’s actually a mark of quality, professionalism and respect. Having been through the things I have, I don’t get riled or upset by problems, I just look for the solution, but I forget that not everyone is like that, and nor should they be. At the fringe, it’s all hands on deck and if something isn’t right, you just have to get on with it. You’re there as a family, as a team. You don’t make money there, you make friends. If you remember that then you’ll have a great time.
Tell me about how Hartshorn- Hook Productions came to be and rose so fast in just a few years.
The formation of H+H was described as "fringe legend" by one of the leading review publications at the Edinburgh Festival which I thought was hilarious. We’ve been around for five of its 60-year life but we know people who have been around for 20 years who ask us for advice and services. We met by chance while working at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, and during our first year at the fringe we separately achieved a great deal while holding a meeting about setting up a company when we moved back. We said we'd be on the West End by 2013 if we worked hard enough.
Many say West End musicals are stuck in a rut at the moment: very few new British musicals are around, many are aimed at teens and most seem to be overblown Broadway imports. What are your thoughts on the London musical scene?
Each to their own. It’s like any other business in regard to supply and demand. My philosophy is pretty utilitarian, so if people are enjoying it then, broadly, it’s a good thing to be doing. It’s a lot more complex than that, but that’s a start. If they are overblown but millions of people love them, then why not? I just won’t be off to see many of them myself. Historically, the West End and Broadway take it in turns to have golden ages and there’s certainly a lot of Broadway in London at the moment. When we have the right show we’ll head across the pond ourselves.
Woody Sez and the Music of the Blues Brothers are both musicals, with plays being one of the UKs strengths do you think Hartshorn- Hook will produce a play in the West End?
We have no agenda to promote one type of art form over another. I’m a music lover and a casual musician, but if the right play comes along I’ll do it.
Most producers of theatre aim to get a show to the West End, I know that was yours and Brian’s main aim, now you have achieved that have the two of you set new goals?
Producing on the West End was never an end in itself, it’s more of a mark of the level that we were striving to work at and an opportunity to compare your work to some of the best in the world. We’re developing strategy, policy and our abilities with every project and it really shows. We have definitely seen what new goals are available and set our sights on them. But really, we’re just getting started. I also have a really serious ambition to work in renewable energy so there’s a lot yet to come.
Brian mentioned to me that he was the creative and you were the business minded of the partnership, would you say that’s true?
I suppose it is. My role is very strategic, and Brian is much more hands on. I feel responsible for the big business decisions.
What draws you to the projects that Hartshorn- Hook take on?
Usually it’s the people. A fantastic script could land on my desk and I might not be interested. But if we meet someone passionate, resourceful, determined... It’s hard to resist the allure of working with that kind of person. Knowing that someone else is prepared to put their neck on the line for the sake of the project too really changes things.
Working in the West End is a tough and stressful business, but have you managed to get away from Woody Sez for a few hours and see any other London shows?
No. It’s not been possible to fit producing around more than one time-consuming passion. I’m a die-hard Manchester United fan so I book a few hours off a week to watch the games on TV round the corner from the theatre. I would like to see War Horse, though.
With the reviews for Woody Sez it would be great to see some award nominations come your way, do you allow yourself to think about those things?
We haven’t really thought about awards – I think the most honest thing is not to seek them out. I don’t know what awards there are available for us, maybe I should find out. I have known people who really go out of their way to fit the criteria, which isn’t our style. It certainly would be wonderful to be recognised for something if there’s an appropriate award out there, but I don’t think we deserve it just yet.
So what’s next for Hartshorn- Hook Productions?
We’re working on a few projects. As usual we’re bound by confidentiality agreements at this stage because the contracts aren't signed, but we have a couple of major UKprojects which we're getting closer to confirming. One tour, one West End. Woody Sez definitely deserves more life, too.
So, finally, tell the readers of BWW:UK why they should book to see Woody Sez.
It's not often the West End plays host to a show like Woody Sez. This is an honest, unpretentious and remarkable show with an incredibly talented cast from all corners of the USA. Whether you do or don't know Woody, this show will excite, amaze and move you. Unlike the Mamma Mia and the other West End behemoths it won't be around forever. Don't miss it!