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BWW Interview: Director Thom Southerland On Reviving Rodgers and Hammerstein's ALLEGRO

'Allegro' at Southwark Playhouse

Director Thom Southerland has built a career on revelatory musical revivals in fringe venues, from Me and Juliet at Finborough Theatre to Titanic, Grand Hotel and Grey Gardens at Southwark Playhouse. He's programmed an enticing range of work for his first season as artistic director of Charing Cross Theatre, but first up is the European premiere of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1947 Allegro, at Southwark from August 5.

Where did your passion for musicals come from?

Music and musicals were always a part of my upbringing. I lived with my grandparents for a time, and my grandma actually trained to be opera singer when she was younger. So when we woke up in morning we were always singing, and the music played in our house was Rodgers and Hammerstein, Noel Gay, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter.

We went to touring productions in Birmingham a lot, but probably my biggest revelation was seeing Carousel, done by the local operatic society. My grandma said "Thom, you have to know that this is not the best production of this incredible musical", and that put it in my brain that there's more than one way to do a show. You have to listen to what the writers are trying to do and see if there are ways to make it even better.

What was your first experience of directing?

I was always part of the school production. I first directed in sixth form - I'd moved schools, and they weren't putting on any plays, so I decided to do one myself. I got everyone involved, and it went well, so I directed several shows there. Then I trained at Rose Bruford, where I always fell towards musicals, even though theirs is quite classical training.

Thom Southerland

What spoke to you about musicals?

They're accessible and non-elitist. Whether you're very intellectual or you've never been to the theatre before, you can be moved by a simple chord progression - emotion conveyed so powerfully by music.

Were you ever tempted to perform yourself?

I was just too terrible! I'm in awe of actors and their craft - I know I don't have it in me.

Which directors have influenced your career?

Trevor Nunn, Hal Prince, Nick Hytner. Trevor's career spans so many genres, but I've always been transfixed by how his work is faithful to the original material, yet somehow fresh and new and like it's never been seen before.

My original inspiration was Stephen Daldry's An Inspector Calls, which I saw at school. Anything I'd ever thought about what the piece meant was completely turned on its head. What incredible insight to reimagine that play, but hold onto what it's really about.

What drew you to Allegro?

It's widely known as Rodgers and Hammerstein's best work but least successful show. The material and the music are so incredible, but it also belongs in a world you don't expect of them. They were pioneers of change, with shows like Carousel and Oklahoma!, and Allegro makes it all the more clear that you can trace a line from them to Sondheim, Cy Coleman, Maury Yeston, Jason Robert Brown - creating musicals of seemingly unmusical stories.

Sondheim actually said Allegro was the greatest influence on his writing career, and you can see parallels with Merrily We Roll Along. Southwark Playhouse is the perfect place to re-explore it away from the dominating proscenium arch and commercial pressures of the West End. Experimental work needs an experimental space.

'Titanic' at Southwark Playhouse

Why do you think mounting musicals in these smaller venues is so effective?

The aesthetic of vast West End houses often doesn't gel with how the author imagined their material being presented. Early on my in career, I met Jerry Herman, and he said that, as a composer of what were initially Off Broadway shows, he kept in the back of his brain that things like Mack & Mabel and Grand Tour would always exist in those closer-quarters spaces. That opened a door for me: if writers think in those terms, I can find a way into their shows through that kind of staging.

Was it always a creative choice, rather than necessity?

Well, I wouldn't say you should do a small version just because you can't afford a big theatre - it's more about "Will this production add anything to the audience's experience of the show?" Though sometimes constraints fuel your creativity, like figuring how to do to Titanic - written for a cast of 60 and a 30-piece band ­- in a space probably smaller than the bar in the original Broadway theatre.

I did a production of Annie Get Your Gun at the Union Theatre in 2008, and I had to phone up the estate to get the rights. Irving Berlin's relatives then came to watch it, and they were in awe, seeing it brought to life by just 12 people rather than tens and tens. That's often a factor that draws people in: how are they going to pull this off? But it should always come back to telling a heartfelt story in the best possible way.

Why do you think Allegro wasn't a success first time round?

There are tons of theories, whether it's Agnes De Mille being a difficult director and focussing too much on the dance routines, the amount of time given to out-of-town tryouts, Hammerstein creating an original book rather than adapting a play. But I also consider the historical context - what audiences were expecting to see then, maybe thinking "Why are they changing their formula after all those hits?"

Perhaps we'll re-evaluate shows by someone like Andrew Lloyd Webber in 30 years' time, judging them on their own merits rather than in context of other work and what we expect to see.

Do you think the story of Allegro will have resonance now?

It's seemingly very simple - one man, this average Joe, making a series of decisions as he goes through life, from a small midwestern town to Chicago in the 1930s. But it deals with really knotty conflicts, like a contented life in the country versus coming to the city and fighting towards something else, plus elements like the role of doctors and healthcare. It's an everyday story with huge impact.

Hammerstein writes that people dismiss it because it's not "new", but he'll continue to tell the story until people really listen. So it's a timeless piece worth reconsidering. It's also one of Broadway's great lost scores.

It'll be fascinating for R&H buffs

I have said to the cast I feel a real weight of responsibility. All their other musicals have been seen in the UK, and so many people will want to see this missing link. Loads of composers have also told me it's the work that showed them possibilities beyond strict naturalism, with the use of Greek chorus and projections, and they're excited to see it done well. No pressure!

How important is the role of fringe theatres?

We need places like Southwark, Menier and Charing Cross, and strong regional theatres, to give us the ability to try and create. Often the most important work comes from those venues. And their audiences are willing to take a risk, rather than just booking for something they know. But they're also commercially viable - look at the Menier reconquering Broadway with their musicals.

Are you ever tempted to do more new musicals?

People talk about how crucial it is to support new writing, and I completely agree, but there's also a vast amount of material that deserves a proper or even first outing. I don't want to be exclusive either way - both are important.

What's on your list of dream shows?

My library at home is littered with shows I want to have a go at or see. I love going to theatre and being an audience member - that's why I keep directing. Like Grey Gardens, I desperately wanted to see a good version here, and I knew those two actresses would be brilliant in it.

Jenna Russell and Sheila Hancock in
'Grey Gardens' at Southwark Playhouse

What made you accept the Charing Cross artistic director role?

It's a great time to do it. There's a real want and need right now for the creation of that kind of work. And I've always been interested in theatre not just as something you do at 7:30pm, but the artistic legacy and viewpoint of a building. At Charing Cross, there's an opportunity to create the feel of a regional producing house in the heart of London, programming ambitious and challenging work.

Will you be quite hands on?

For the first season definitely. I'm excited to bring back Titanic, because that's a very precious show to me and demonstrates a lot of what I want to do. Ragtime will be a production no one's ever seen, and the writers are excited about that. Maury Yeston's Death Takes A Holiday has never been done here.

Are you hoping to attract a diverse audience?

Definitely, and I want to keep Charing Cross really affordable - we've got tickets at £15. What's deemed a "safe bet" West End musical can wipe out a family holiday budget. I want everyone to go the theatre regularly, and I never want to prohibit or exclude people. Charing Cross actually isn't subsided, so we're proving you can run an accessible, commercial and creatively exciting theatre.

The greatest part of this country's identity is the arts. I hate that it's considered elitist. We have to get more people through the door - I know, if we do, they'll come back time and time again.

Finally, any advice for budding directors?

My mentor through college was Annie Castledine, who recently passed away. I was worrying about making a living, letting that limit my choices, and she said "Just jump, darling - jump with both feet. Theatre will catch you."

'Allegro' is at Southwark Playhouse August 5-September 10

Find out more about the Charing Cross Theatre season here

Watch Katie Bernstein sing "The Gentleman Is A Dope" from Allegro below

Photo credit: Annabel Vere, Scott Rylander

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