BWW Interview: Drew McOnie Talks ON THE TOWN
Director/ choreographer Drew McOnie's work includes In the Heights, Strictly Ballroom, The Wild Party and Jesus Christ Superstar. He's now back at Regent's Park helming On the Town - the classic musical tale of three sailors on shore leave in search of love and adventure - which opens tonight.
Have you always been a fan of the show?
Absolutely. My dad used to have a cassette tape he played in the car on long journeys, and track number three was "New York, New York" - that was always my favourite. It's also the only show I've ever been in and then gone on to choreograph, so that's special.
I did a brilliant ENO production with Stephen Mear choreographing, and that creative team was so extraordinary - it's one of the best shows I've ever done as a performer. So when Timothy Sheader at Regent's Park asked me about what I might like to do, On the Town was way up there at the top of my list.
What's it like staging it at Regent's Park?
It's an absolute gift, as lots of the story takes place outside in the streets of New York. We've got that classic movie musical feel, but in a space that leads to unexpected artistic decisions because of the environment. We were keen not to try to replicate the city in a "Here are the skyscrapers" way, so together with Peter McKintosh, our fantastic designer, we've really focussed on capturing the rhythm, the pace, the heartbeat of New York, along with a big playground where all these images collide.
What did you learn from doing Jesus Christ Superstar here?
The energy that the audience brings into the park is completely different to any other theatre. They're in the mood for an experience - they're sitting outside, they're up for it, they want to get involved. They're committed to being part of something extraordinary.
I found a new corner of my brain in terms of movement vocabulary - having gestural imagery that can reach people in that big space. I learned my craft in intimate theatres like the Union, and then In the Heights we had the action happening in and around the audience - you'd have sweat flung in your face! So I had to work out how to make it feel intimate while reading from far away.
It also taught me a lot about light. You're doing half the show in daylight, the matinee entirely, so lots of those usual lighting tools aren't at your disposal. You have to find different ways of focussing on people and telling the story through them. Watching Tim as a director was incredibly helpful.
Do you feel more settled in your role as director now?
It's interesting, there was a sense of ownership when I did Jekyll & Hyde with my own material, then Strictly Ballroom was more guiding and harnessing other people's material, and Wild Party was almost like a new musical, having that interaction with the writer. On the Town feels like the first time I've been entrusted with a classic, so it's a new experience again.
I am coming at it with more confidence. It's still a scary process, but it feels more natural. I love getting to do both directing and choreographing - it's still fun just doing the movement side of things too, on the right projects and with great people. And I've got a brilliant team around me to support me in all the areas where I'm learning.
How do you put your stamp on a classic show like this?
One of the first musicals I did was Chicago at Leicester Curve, so really iconic Fosse, but I wanted to give people the experience of that audience when they saw Fosse for the first time - so really distilled down to its essence.
On the Town was Jerome Robbins, who for me is top dog when it comes to choreography and storytelling. I'm really inspired by his collaboration with Bernstein, this full-bodied, big-hearted commitment to the story, but we're doing it in a way that's my company's take now rather than an homage. Tom Deering, our musical director, is a huge Bernstein fan, so we're both coming at this as fans of the original, but wanting to match that level of ambition.
Have you found a contemporary spin?
We now see it as a brilliant period piece, but when it came out of course it was people seeing themselves up on stage. We're doing it in period, but we did want to find a contemporary way in, a freshness and vitality. Part of that has come through casting: four out of our six leads are straight out of college, and it's this really young, vibrant company. That's the shock factor of the show - young talent bounding its way through!
Has Danny Mac's Strictly experience come in handy?
Danny is an absolute pro. I've rarely met someone with so much focus - he works so hard, it's amazing. He dances non-stop in the show, and his attention to detail, his sense of humour, his charisma are really captivating. In this production we've got a range of experience, and he's really found a way of leading the company.
I think it's funny in our industry - a lot of theatre performers can be grumpy about TV people taking on these roles, but Danny was professionally trained, he'd done musicals, his career had taken him to many diverse places. So people will obviously recognise him from TV stuff, but they'll be surprised by how much he does and how different it is. He's a real class act.
Is your presentation of the story a bit tongue-in-cheek?
There's definitely a naughty sparkle to how everyone plays these parts, though I'd say that mischievous twinkle in the eye comes from genuine excitement too. I've never been in such a noisy rehearsal room - I got a sore throat from shouting! But it's absolutely paid off in the optimism, the energy, the palpable flirtation.
It's not a super-serious play, but actually there are some serious dramatic moments in the dance. A lot of that is unconscious, like the dream ballets, and we've developed that idea to include some emotional moments and PTSD. With a show like this, you can have all that fun and then see the anxieties and aspirations simmering away in the dance. Those writers back in the day were so forward-thinking, giving dance real narrative responsibility, so it felt important for us to do the same.
Do you think audiences are more comfortable engaging with dance now?
It's been such a long time since big dance shows like American in Paris have been in the West End, but the response has been amazing. Audiences aren't scared of dance - the people who hold the money are. Audiences are up for anything: being thrilled, chilled, turned on, turned off.
We're starting to see dance-makers being a bit noisier, more ambitious. Right now there are lots of politically or socially frustrated people, and that energy needs to be represented. What's really exciting is that the success of something like American in Paris is giving producers confidence and it helps our argument - people have something to relate to and they trust the genre more. So the next few years could be a great time for dance theatre.
It's great that Jesus Christ Superstar is coming back - were you surprised by its success?
I was a bit, just because Tim's vision was so bold and exciting, and we really weren't sure how people would respond. I've never been part of a process where I felt so vulnerable but supported - it was liberating to go out on a limb.
In previews I was watching the priests swinging microphone stands and thinking "This is either the best thing I've done or the worst" - it was so out of the box for me, this weird gestural, tribal ballet! We all did work we were terrified of, and I did feel "I love this, but will it just be me?" So it was extraordinary to have that audience reaction and then win the Olivier for Best Musical Revival.
What else have you got coming up?
It's a really fun mix, with Hairspray returning too, and The Lorax, plus we've just opened Strictly Ballroom in Sydney and we're working very hard on bringing that back to the UK. And then I've got two new shows for next year, which you'll hear lots more about soon, so it's busy in the best way!
Finally, what will audiences get from On the Town?
It's bursting with passionate energy, optimism, this live for the moment mantra - seeing these three sailors with one day to live their lives to the full. It's funny, exciting, sexy, colourful, and there's not a moment when they stop dancing - if nothing else, you'll be amazed by their stamina!
Photo credit: Johan Persson