BWW Interview: Director Michael Blakemore Talks Musical THE LIFE
Michael Blakemore's stellar career encompasses everything from landmark productions at the National, where he was associate director, to West End and Broadway hits; he was the first to win a Tony Award for both Best Director of a Play and a Musical in the same year (for Copenhagen and Kiss, Me Kate). Now, he's helming the long-awaited UK premiere of Cy Coleman's musical The Life - a gritty exploration of 1980s New York's underbelly - which he first directed on Broadway in 1997. The show begins previews at Southwark Playhouse on 25 March.
Why has it taken so long for the show to arrive in London?
When we did it on Broadway, lots of London critics visited and we had wonderful reviews - from Nicholas de Jongh, Charles Spencer and so on. We were almost certain someone would pick us up. Cy and I came to London, but alas, theatres were put off by the subject matter - they thought it was too tough and didn't dare put it on.
It is a very tough subject, dealt with very realistically. It's not, as most Broadway shows are, about 'golden-hearted whores', but a very nasty world of pimps and sex work, redeemed by the fact that everybody wants to improve their lives. That theme of American aspiration is one Cy writes terribly well - look at numbers like "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" in Sweet Charity.
So it's a squalid, realistic story and yet it's a very funny show with this surging music. It says both something bad about life and something good about life.
Is it less shocking in today's theatrical climate?
It's pretty harsh still, but I do think the climate has altered significantly. England is interested in the more outrageous aspects of American life - nearly all our documentaries deal with things like gun laws, executions, the underbelly of society. We almost expect that from American subjects. So I think there will be a tolerance of it.
How would you describe the score?
It's Cy's most ambitious score. It's got some of his very best numbers, and it's jazz, but has an almost - perhaps this is a dangerous word to use - operatic dimension towards the end. It's a quite audacious use of drama and music, with a terrific climactic number, "My Friend", sung by the young prostitute who managed to get out of the business with the help of this older woman.
There are brilliant lyrics by Ira Gasman, whose idea it was - he saw an arrest on 42nd Street and took this premise to Cy, and they worked on it together. They wrote great songs, great lyrics, but the book didn't quite work, so Dave Newman - who co-scripted Bonnie and Clyde - was brought in, and he did a fantastic job with it.
You're using the original orchestrations?
Yes, it's a band of 11, and Tamara Saringer is our very talented MD.
And you've assembled a strong cast
When I was asked if I would do it, I said we can't move unless we have a good cast. Every single person we approached, we got - it's all our first choices. People like Sharon D Clarke, Cornell S John, it's all really proper talent.
What's it like doing the show at Southwark?
Well, Southwark has a great reputation for musicals, and of course the producers did want to get it on economically! I certainly think you can reimagine a big musical there very successfully, but it does amount to a challenge, so I'm glad I know the show so well.
It's almost a liberation that space, having fewer choices in some ways. I'm working with a brilliant choreographer, Tom Jackson Greaves, who's supplying a great deal of the energy that the piece needs. When all you've got is a square of space with people sitting on three sides, it really sharpens your ideas of how to effectively tell the story.
The West End has got very stultified - it's so concerned with making mega bucks. Go see a musical now and you don't eat for a month to pay for the tickets. The good news is there's this extraordinary work popping up all over the place - groups like Kneehigh offering creative theatre that people can afford. It shouldn't be a 10th wedding anniversary treat; it should be a regular part of people's lives, like going to a library and getting out books every week.
What was it like working on Broadway?
I did love working there - that American energy is very infectious. Cy captures that so well, the optimism and positivity. They even voice objections in an optimistic way. It's a country with an extraordinary capacity for change; it can turn on a dime, one dreadful way, as we're seeing at the moment, and then one beautiful. Whereas England is historically sluggish.
How does British theatre now compare with your early experiences?
It's desperately hard right now. These kids auditioning during the daytime, rehearsing, swinging from bar to bar just trying to stay afloat. My admiration for them is boundless. When I went into theatre, very few wanted to - lots of people didn't even consider acting as a career. Now films have almost supplanted literature, to my regret, so everyone wants to perform.
What about the class dimension?
There are lots of successful old Etonian actors, but that's more to do with having had brilliant teachers and facilities, so they leave school almost having gone to drama school already. That's the story of English education - we know how to educate people, but just don't spend enough money on it so that it's available to everyone.
How do you think musical theatre has developed?
That's the area where young people far surpass any previous generation. These new schools, like Arts Ed, really teach people how to sing and dance - I'm astonished by the standard. The other thing is they have a grasp of American idiom that we didn't have, perhaps because there's so much American TV over here now. Very few of my cast have had to work on not revealing their Englishness.
Should we be concerned for subsidised theatre?
Subsided theatre is always battling. There is a great UKIP lump opposed to any subsidy of the arts, considering it wasteful and pointless. The very fact England has abandoned public libraries is horrendous. One can never be other than alert about subsidy - it has to be fought for every inch of the way. Fortunately, there's so much prestige and money in the National Theatre that no government would let that go to the wall, but lots of other little theatres that aren't so high-profile could be targeted when the cost of Brexit is counted.
Do you prefer theatre with a political dimension?
When I go, I do want to be engaged and interested in the society in which we live. Comedy is important too - you don't need social or political reasons to justify Noises Off, and some musical theatre gives delight and that's enough. But the idea of theatre as a whole being an anodyne pleasure to escape life doesn't sit right with me.
There have been questions recently about the balance of work at the National - what's your view?
Rufus Norris is running it very well. It's a hell of a job - terribly demanding to keep those three theatres permanently full of interesting work. I think it's doing wonderfully. You can't run theatres on a doctrinaire basis, saying that the National must revive x number of classics. Maybe the public, for the moment, isn't that excited about classical work - unless some clever director brings out its relevance.
I am rather suspicious of the current German movement where the director virtually insists on being co-author with the writer. The pecking order is dictated by what is the hardest task, and that is to produce an interesting text. Michael Frayn is very funny about this - he's seen his shows in Germany and he's in despair. Suddenly an actress will be bouncing a ping pong ball for no discernible reason. It's the attitude of "What can I do with this tired old thing?" rather than "How can I make it live?". The director's job is to release the talents of his actors and the work, not to impose. Writing is the hardest thing to do - you're by yourself, and no one gives you any money.
How do you approach a show like The Life?
I read it carefully and think "How can I bring this to life? How can I make it bigger and make the numbers land?". It's finding that vitality and communicating it. The great thing about musicals is working closely with other people. Doing this with Cy on Broadway was an absolute honeymoon.
Do you have any dream future projects?
I haven't exactly retired, but I don't feel the itch to work the way I used to. This came up, and it's something I always wanted to happen, but I'm not seeking out projects. You have to make way really. You're so influenced by the times in which you come to artistic maturity - so for me, it's going to see Olivier in The Entertainer, all the great shows of the Fifties and Sixties. Those circumstances can't be replicated; theatre is transient.
The ad for Cats used to be "Now and forever", but in theatre really the slogan is "Now and for the next two weeks". As an artist and as a theatregoer, with time it's almost like you develop a resistance to the virus - the experiences aren't quite as overwhelming. But you get the odd moment, like this guy I auditioned a few years ago gave the most brilliant reading I'd ever heard, with this great big well of feeling. That was Andrew Scot - I'm very glad he's now having all this success.
Finally, what do you hope audiences take from The Life?
It's an enthralling story, with a plot like an old black-and-white Warner Brothers movie. It's got this soaring music, great performances, lots of it is very funny. If you like that kind of tight construction and soaring narrative, with real grit and heart, I think you'll love it.
Photo credit: Conrad Blakemore