Industry Interview: How Chris Harper Brought a Brand New COMPANY Back to Broadway
Phone rings, door chimes, and on Monday, March 2, in comes Company. Already the winner of 4 Olivier Awards including Best Musical Revival, 2 Evening Standard Awards and the Critics' Circle Award for Best Musical, Marianne Elliott's new production of Company arrives on Broadway in just week, following its triumphant run in London last year.
The two-time Tony-winning director teams again with Chris Harper as the leaders of Elliot & Harper productions, which they co-founded in 2016. Their first production, Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle by Simon Stephens, opened at the Wyndham's Theatre in 2017. Elliott & Harper Productions co-produced The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in a new version directed by Sally Cookson at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Chris was the founding Managing Director and Producer for National Theatre Productions, where he produced Marianne Elliott and Tom Morris's ground-breaking production of War Horse for eight years in the West End.
As well as the West End, Chris produced the New York transfer, where War Horse it ran for two years, winning five Tony Awards including Best Play, as well as subsequent productions in Toronto, Berlin, Holland and Australia, and the North American and UK tour. Chris Harper also produced the West End transfer of Marianne Elliott's visionary production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, where it ran for five years and won seven Olivier Awards, including Best Play. It ran on Broadway for two years, winning five Tony Awards including Best Play.
Below, Chris checks in with theBroadwayWorld to discuss all things Company, the future of his company, and so much more!
Let's start at the beginning of all things Company - how did this production begin?
In the 90s there was a very famous production of Company that Sam Mendes directed at The Donmar Warehouse, and I saw it. I was still a single guy. It just had the most profound effect on me. It was life changing-trying to figure out what it is to be dating in a big city. And I'm still no closer to figuring that out! But even after all those years, I never got that musical out my head. It was always Company.
Marianne [Elliott] and I had worked together at The National Theatre for ten years or so where we had done War Horse and Curious Incident of a Dog in the Night-Time. In 2016, when it came time to start thinking about setting up my own theatre company, she was the only person I could ever picture having this adventure with. I truly believe her to be the best Director of all time. We were joined by our incredible producing partner Nick Sidi and thus, Elliott & Harper Productions came to be.
Marianne said to me at the very beginning of our partnership that she really wanted to tell female stories. We both loved Company, and I would say to her, "How about we do a production of Company?" And she was like, "Oh, you know..." A 35-year-old man trying to figure out life-how relevant is that? So, we kind of rejected it and decided it wasn't right for us. Then I set on the personal journey of becoming a father-still trying to figure out what it meant to be a single person in a big city, plowing my own path.
I fortunately found myself having twins, and it was a dream come true. But - they came ten weeks early. They were extremely premature and very tiny, and it was daunting and scary what lay ahead. On my way to the hospital every morning I used to listen to Adrian Lester (who starred as 'Bobby' in the Sam Mendes' production) singing "Being Alive." I listened to that song on a loop on my way to the hospital every morning for 6 weeks. It was this song that gave me courage to get through these very scary days. It was while I was looking at my daughter, Martha, one day, I thought, "What would it be like if Bobbie was a woman?" I was looking at her and thinking "What's going to happen to you when you grow up?"
I've also got a daughter on the way and the plan is not to let her date until she's 40...
I'm with you on that one! (And I'm similarly petrified for my son, Barnaby!) But I came to think it would be really interesting if Bobbie was a woman. It was absolutely one of those musical EUREKA moments.
I immediately called Marianne and said, "How about we do Company with Bobby as a woman?" And she said, "Hmm, interesting. Interesting." But Marianne's next response was - "We'll never persuade Steve."
Prior to this, Marianne had met Stephen Sondheim. When we were doing Curious Incident over here, and he had invited her over for dinner and said how much of a fan he was of her work.
We dug into it and she thought about it really carefully. She actually did quite a lot of research into how we might do it. In fact, a lot of the things she researched and worked at that time and later proposed to Steve ultimately made it into the production we have brought to New York now!
Marianne got in touch with Steve with our concept
We did a workshop of it, and it was extraordinary. We started with a read-through of it, so we knew the idea worked on paper, but we hadn't yet got the rights which made it a little scary.
By the end of the workshop we were convinced that we were onto something really exciting. We filmed it and the plan was that we would send it to Steve to watch and consider.
What was amazing was the guy who did the filming for us came up to me at the end of the workshop and said, "This is so good. It's amazing. Is it a new musical?"
When we gave Steve the recording of it, we told him the story. He said yes. And I think that was a large part of what convinced him that that new young audience could respond to it as though it was a brand-new musical.
Did you invite the cameraman to opening night?
He came to see the show in London and I did buy him a drink or two to say thank you!
Was Broadway hoped for from the beginning?
Not at all.
No, I mean, Marianne and I are both based in London. Our families are here. We had been really lucky, doing War Horse together at Lincoln Center and then we did Curious Incident and Angels in America on Broadway too. New York has always been a hugely important part of the things that we've done together. But we just wanted to do a show in London and see how it worked.
London audiences have always loved Stephen Sondheim's work, and it feels like his work is done quite regularly there. It felt appropriate to do it in London and to see what we had. To be honest, we never dreamed that we would be doing it on Broadway. It felt like an extraordinary gift and a dream come true bringing this show back home.
When in the process was the decision made to start talking about bringing it here?
Right from the get-go there were lots of people very interested in it - but my priority was, "Let's try and concentrate on making the show a success in London." We didn't really want to even think about anything else. We just wanted to establish the show in London, not to mention our own company 'Elliott & Harper'.
At the first preview it was electric. I know a lot of people say that. But it felt the whole Broadway community was in the audience in London, cheering this show on! Right from the get-go people were saying, "You must bring it to New York." But, we wanted to just go step by step carefully, slowly and gently (we are British after all). We only wanted to do it really if it felt completely right and we could put all the elements together in a way that felt appropriate to the piece.
Initially we were just thinking-"Well, that's nice. That would be wonderful, but let's focus on doing it here." I think that's probably because Patti was involved in the show. She was absolutely our number-one choice when we talked about doing the show initially. The idea of having Patti come and do the show in London just felt like the perfect actress for the perfect part at that point in her career. I guess that's probably why there was so much buzz about it when we opened in London. Patti had not done a show in London for twenty-something years...
Since Sunset Boulevard...
Yes. It was amazing, totally incredible having Patti as our Joanne. And, people went crazy for her! She was just sublime and is an amazing actress who can do anything...and Marianne and I hope that we carry on working with her for a very long time to come!
Even though she famously said "no more musicals," right before jumping back in..
Oh, we've got some things up our sleeve that we'd like her to do, but maybe not musicals - who knows?
I'll ask you over cocktails at a later date. How are you now dividing your time between being London based and having small children?
I've moved here. I moved my life here just this week - I'm here now for at least the next five or six months with the kids. Because the kids were born in America and have American passports, and I've got a work visa it's meant we can call be out here together. It's the only way I would have done it.
When we eventually decided, "Okay, fine, we will do the show on Broadway, we're excited about doing that," I thought the only way to do it is come and be here and try and become part of the Broadway community - if you'll have me. This is the first show Marianne and I have done on our own outside of The National Theatre, and we both thought the only way to do it is to live it-come and base ourselves here. It's such an important show for us, which makes us want to live every single minute of it.
So you're going big out of the gate!
Yes, yes. But it's exciting. Broadway is always thrilling. The community here really, really embraces shows in a way that-it's extraordinary.
Does that differ from the London theatre?
I guess it does. If you're big here on Broadway, it's really amazing. Marianne's success at the Tony Awards has been incredible and I guess to some degree she's more widely known here than even in London. You win a Tony and it feels that you can become something overnight. It doesn't seem to have that effect in London.
Alex Sharp's career-when we did Curious Incident here and he won a Tony for it, it did feel as though he'd became a star overnight. It's such an incredible launchpad for other things.
Speaking of professional starts, you started as a press agent?
Oh no, much less glamourous than that. It's so long ago! I was an intern, but it was so long ago they weren't called interns then. It was called "work experience." I just called up my local theatre and said, "Can I come and work for you for free?" And they were like, "sure."
How old were you then?
I was 14 years old. I started working in theatre when I was 14, and I did everything. I swept the stage, I was an usher, I worked stage door, I sewed the costumes-I did anything and everything.
What had you seen at 13 that made you want to--?
When I was a kid, my parents had taken me to see a pantomime. A Christmas tradition in the UK. I think I was about five years old, and I have a very vivid memory of this pantomime and remember thinking, "That's what I want to do with my life." I assumed the only thing to do at that age was to be an actor. For a long time, I thought I would be an actor, until I went to see a show and saw someone pushing the scenery out on stage. It was a life changing moment because I thought, "Great. I don't have to be an actor. I can push the scenery!"
It was that theatre where I had seen someone pushing the scenery that became my work experience. I would do anything - I would pick up people's dry cleaning, I would fetch their lunch. I would make the tea just to get my foot in the door. I was a publicity assistant. That was my first paid job. And then I worked for a number of regional theatres. And when I was 20, I got offered a job working for a producer in London. The rest is history.
Had you thought about going into the producer end of things early on, or did that come later?
Initially, I sort of was in motion for a long time. The idea of being a producer was always the thing that I wanted to do, but wasn't really sure how to do it. Now when I look back, everything that I did then was training for being a producer-rolling my sleeves up, getting involved in production right from the get-go, the earliest possible stage. Marketing was part of what I did for such a long time, which is such a huge part of selling your show. All of it felt like very good training for being a producer, but really War Horse was the first show that I helped produce.
The National Theatre was amazing taking a chance on me, really. I hadn't produced anything before until War Horse. And that's how I met Marianne.
Why do you think they gave you that chance?
I had been named the Director of Marketing at The National Theatre a couple of years earlier, and I'd come from the commercial theatre world. Nick Hytner had just taken over and it felt like a whole new wind had blown through The National Theatre. It was a real exciting time, actually. And so, I'd gotten to know them really quite well, and it felt like an evolution from what I'd been doing to producing War Horse. I will say that none of us knew that that show would go on to be the success it was.
And, still is!
Yes, it's currently in Australia. It's been all over the world. It was a leap of faith on their part, and to make it a success we worked hard and it worked.
What gave you the confidence then to make another leap to starting your own Company?
I don't know. That's a really good question that I'm not sure I can answer. The things that scare me are the things I run toward. Producing War Horse was daunting. Recreating Curious Incident in the West End was daunting because it was initially done in the Theatre in the Round at the National. And to do it in the West End, it needed to succeed as a commercial production. It's the things I don't know how to do and then try to figure out that are the challenge really.
I tell myself that in the mirror sometimes while crying before work...
Exactly. And I think it's worth doing it despite the fear and pushing through anyway. That's the key thing. For a long time, I've felt like I've just still been trying to figure it out. By the time I'd been doing The National Theatre for 10 years or so, I did feel a little bit more confident of what we might want to do, the kind of shows that we might want to do, and how we'd raise the money. Those relationships by that point were solid and strong, and I felt much surer of the things I wanted us to produce.
Is it easier or harder outside of an institution to get things done?
It's different. It's really different. You are at the sharp end of it, which is exciting and daunting. As I say, there's nothing like some fear to put fire in your belly and to make you want to get up in the morning. That's why doing Company on Broadway is so thrilling. And utterly terrifying!
How involved were you in the casting process of putting together these Broadway all-stars?
Marianne always has the final say on all artistic matters. We really were clear that if we were going to do it on Broadway, we needed to have an American cast. You can't do a show like Company, a show about New York, on Broadway without doing it with an American cast. We decided fairly early on in the process of when we decided to do the show that that's what we must do.
The talent pool here is extraordinary, and we're so thrilled with the cast that we've got. I'd seen The Band's Visit, and Katrina blew me away.
That whole show you couldn't take your eyes off of her, which is probably what you're looking for here too...
You really can't take your eyes off her. She's so incredible. And I think this is a different type of role for her, and it's really interesting. I've been around rehearsals a little bit in the last few weeks and she's utterly enrapturing!
It was thrilling to have Patti come and recreate the show after she won the Olivier in London. And the rest of the cast-Chris Sieber, Chris Fitzgerald, Jennifer Simard - all of them are amazing. That's the thing about great theatre - talent attracts talent. Once you've got Katrina and Patti, who wouldn't want to work with those two legends?
Is the production changing from the UK production? I've seen some sets that look different in little glimpses.
Yes, yes. I think the great thing about having done it once is you have a moment to sort of stand back and breathe and think, "Okay, that's great. What can we do that makes it feel right for New York?" That's why we were really keen to have an American cast. Because what Marianne's brilliant about doing is not duplicating something. She will never take the easy option, just because it's there. Every time we did War Horse or Curious Incident or Angels in America, she kept working on it, as if it were a new show. This one in particular, we wanted to make it very New York and we wanted to make it very specific for here. We really want it to be a homecoming.
There are some new surprises that are really exciting, and there is some evolution of the set and some of the scenes. It's been fun to work on those things. There's a new version of 'Another Hundred People' scenically that is quite exciting and there's a raw moment at the end of Act I that I personally am looking forward to. It's really good, and we're happy with everything that has evolved from London.
How much of the press and marketing tactics that you learned in the UK are applicable here?
What we found really early on with the show in London is there is an audience for this show. There are 35-year-old Millennials, and this is about them. This is about finding love, whether you're male or female. Anyone. The great thing about Bobbie being a woman is it really changes the balance of the show. Because with the body clock ticking when you're 35, you're thinking about whether or not you might or might not want to be a parent. At that age you're really starting to think about it.
The whole balance of the show and particularly the friendship with Bobbie and Joanne has great depth and it's amazing how it shifts the emphasis of the story. The nature of the story feels very current and exciting. So, putting a woman center stage, it feels like a very natural thing.
And the reaction and advance sales have been--?
Amazing, yes. All of that is really exciting.
Obviously it's early, but are there thoughts of replacement casts and keeping it running as long as possible or keeping it as a limited thing?
Well, it would be amazing if we could run, I mean, War Horse and Curious went way beyond anyone's expectations and both of those shows ran for two years. I think the way Marianne and I have always approached work; we take it step by step. We'd love to keep the show running. For as many people to get to see it as possible. It's so much of what we do. What was thrilling about the show in London was the people were blown away by it, as though it were a brand-new show.
The first preview was people who were Sondheim fans and they loved it, and it was so rewarding to see Steve's reaction to it. But also, there were people that were coming to it that had no history of seeing a Stephen Sondheim musical before, some even first-time theatre-goers. We had a lot of young 35-year-old women who were discovering the show for the first time because it felt like it was about their lives. And that was what was really exciting about what happened in London. People treated it like it was a brand-new musical. They took complete ownership of it. It was their story.
And, I'm hoping people will react in the same way on Broadway.
We know that Sondheim has been recovering from an injury - is he actively still involved?
He's been amazing. He's been involved every step of the way, from the moment when he said yes to allowing us to do it- he was involved in every single lyric change. He was very straightforward with us at the beginning. He said, "Look, George Furth is no longer here, so if you want to do it, you should leave the book exactly as it is. And I'll happily make the gender changes." Names were changed obviously. The girlfriends became the boyfriends, and some of the dialogue was switched. There were tweaks that he made to the lyrics, but essentially, we are doing George Furth's original script. Some of the dialogue might have been reassigned to a different character, but it's all 100 percent George Furth.
For the lyrics, Sondheim and Marianne worked extremely collaboratively throughout the whole process. And still are! Sondheim is an exceptionally generous and intelligent individual.
Will we get a new cast recording?
I hope so. We'll see. The London cast recording is terrific, but it would be great to have a recording of this cast too.
We'll keep our fingers crossed and put that out there into the universe.
Obviously, Company is the big focus at the moment, but how far ahead are you planning other productions, other things on the mental schedule?
We're doing a new stage version of They Shoot Horses later this year, which Marianne will co-direct with Steven Hoggett. Paula Vogel is writing the adaptation. We get to do that at the Bridge Theatre in the Fall, so that will be next for Marianne when she get's back to London.
On top of that we've got three new musicals in development, a UK Tour and a play in Spring 2021. There are plenty more projects in development, so enough to keep us busy.
But right now the priority is of course... Company .