BWW Interview: Susan Stroman On Bringing YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN To London
Multi-award-winning director and choreographer Susan Stroman is helming the long-awaited West End premiere of Young Frankenstein, the stage musical version of Mel Brooks's beloved comic movie. It's currently in previews at London's Garrick Theatre.
When did you first encounter Young Frankenstein?
Of course I loved the original movie - I thought it was so funny. I saw it when I was quite young, when it first came out. Then when Mel [Brooks] asked me to put the show together, I jumped at the opportunity. And now, ten years later, it's been wonderful putting together a new version for London.
Have you rewritten much for the UK?
Mel's tweaked some of the dialogue and the lyrics as well, so the jokes are more accessible to a London audience - he's got "bubble and squeak" and "Fortnum & Mason" in there!
The story itself, and the shape of Thomas Meehan's book, that's the same. It's still about Dr Frankenstein, who wants to push away his family and his ancestors, and have his name pronounced "Fronkensteen" instead so he's not associated with them.
But he comes to find out he does in fact have a brilliant scientific mind and could possibly reanimate the dead. So he goes to Transylvania, where he meets all these eccentric characters, and becomes convinced that he is indeed a Frankenstein.
Are there any new songs?
Yes, Mel wrote two new songs and cut about four numbers. The whole show has been re-orchestrated, so it's new arrangements. It's a fresh feel from every department.
One of the new songs is "It Could Work", which is very good at pushing the plot forward. It's Dr Frankenstein finding his grandfather's papers about how to reanimate dead tissue, and realising it could work - so he launches into song.
And the other new song is "Hang Him Till He's Dead" - you can guess what that's about! That one is sung by Kemp and the angry villagers, and it's a great number.
How much has the staging changed?
The Garrick Theatre is only 700 seats, so it's much more intimate than the original production. That's meant it can become almost more of a comedy musical than a musical comedy this time round.
It's definitely in the vaudeville, music hall tradition. We use a lot of what we call drops, and I think you in the UK call cloths, with scenes painted on them. It works so well because Mel's comedy is very vaudevillian - that's at the root of lots of his humour.
It's been nice to scale it back. Originally we did it in a 2,000-seat theatre in New York, so we had to build a show that would fit that kind of venue. Here we've been handed the opportunity to cut and reshape it into a whole new visual. It's wonderful for us to have the chance to rework it, and it's been a real joy telling the story in a different way.
Your London cast comes from lots of different areas of the industry - how has that fed into rehearsal?
It's been really fun. Ross Noble is a stand-up comic, so he had to learn how to sing and dance - and he was so game for it and devoted to it. I enjoy him not only as a performer but as a human being. He's a dear man.
Then the wonderful Lesley Joseph I knew from her TV work and Birds of a Feather, and Summer Strallen is definitely from that long line of entertainers - she's got the family gene, she's just a natural up there. Hadley Fraser, our leading man, he's not only handsome and sings beautifully, but has a real funny bone to him.
Everybody in the cast has that funny bone - you need it for a show like this. So we've had a great time, not just in creating the show, but before and after rehearsal. Everyone has the most glorious personality.
And you've got one original cast member, Shuler Hensley?
Yes, the entire cast is British other than Shuler! But he's married to a British gal, and he won an Olivier Award for playing Jud in Oklahoma! at the National Theatre, so he knows London well - he's an honorary Brit. He's wonderful, even at the reading he was giving it 100%, getting up and putting on a show. He's totally committed.
Is this version family-friendly or a bit more adult?
There are lots of kids in the audience - though 10 or 11 upwards maybe! We do have a couple of racy moments, if you will. But I think younger kids will enjoy it on one level and then there's an adult sense of humour too, so we've seen lots of families in previews all having a great time.
What do you love about Mel's humour?
I adore Mel. He's funny all the time, he's one of the smartest people I know, and he's very respectful of me and all the departments in creating a musical theatre piece. His humour works for me because it comes out of people who are real. There's something eccentric or extreme about their personalities, but it's a real situation.
Then you get these different people coming together - like someone as strait-laced as Dr Frankenstein and as wild and wacky as Igor - and Mel's humour sparks something incredible.
How do you find working in London?
I've been very fortunate to have a few shows run in London, like Oklahoma!, The Producers, Paradise Found, The Scottsboro Boys. I love it here. The audiences are very savvy - they love theatre, they're very proud of their theatre, so it's a wonderful place to work.
Is it nice revisiting Young Frankenstein without the pressure of following The Producers?
The Producers was quite a juggernaut on Broadway, and it is tricky when you work with a writer or composer on their second piece, just because expectations are so high. But with every show you do, you have to treat it as if nothing's been done before, it's a brand new piece, and hope for the best.
If this version is well received, might it go back to Broadway?
Right now it's all for London - we're cheering on London! We haven't talked about anywhere else.
As a scaled-back production, would that suit touring?
Definitely. It would be great to tour in the UK, I'd love it.
We've also got Big Fish coming to London soon - what are your memories of that?
Big Fish was one of my favourite shows to work on, because of the beautiful story. My own father told 'big fish' stories. For all of us in theatre, we're here because someone in our life told those stories. I hope the show does really well here. It's so heartfelt.
Do you have any advice for female directors or choreographers?
It's mind-boggling to me that it's still such a male-dominated field - women are the ones who can do it all! For young artists coming up, I'd say observe. Find a way to get into the room with someone you respect so you can watch and learn.
And if you really want this, create your own opportunities. When I was starting out I had to create work for myself. You can't wait around for the phone to ring. If you believe in yourself and make great work, it will happen.
Finally, how do you hope audiences respond to Young Frankenstein?
What's happening in previews is great, great laughter. There's nothing better than hearing an audience laugh - it's the greatest sound in the world. With what's happening in the world right now, we need escape, a little joy, a little happiness. I want them to blow the dust off their souls. You know people who laugh actually live longer, so it's good for you too!
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan, Richard Hubert Smith