BWW Interview: Nick Winston Talks MAME at Hope Mill Theatre
After revamping Cats and taking on other iconic musicals like Fame, director and choreographer Nick Winston brings Mame back to the stage.
The last time the UK saw the show (which has music and lyrics by Jerry Herman and a book by Jerome Lawrence and Robert Edwin Lee), it was 1969 and Ginger Rogers was playing the lead role on Drury Lane. Now, 50 years later, Tracie Bennett is the new Auntie Mame at the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester.
When did you decide you wanted to join the industry?
I started dancing when I was four, but I didn't really decide that it was what I wanted to do until I was probably 12. I went to the Royal Ballet School at 11 and I was full time there, I got homesick, came home early, and I ended up at the pantomime at the Royal Theatre in Northampton. I really enjoyed my time there. The following year I did other shows in Northampton with professional actors, like Macbeth, and got the buzz for the industry.
What do you like most about your job?
The rehearsal process, really. Just being in the rehearsal room creating, being creative, working with designers, being in tech with lighting and video designers... Everything about it.
Is there anything you don't like?
I don't like discussing shoes. I always find it terribly boring. There's always a shoe conversation where there's dance involved, and I'm like "Oof, I don't want to answer this question".
How did you get involved in this new production of Mame?
I worked once before with Katy Lipson, the producer, on Marry Me A Little at The Other Palace. She came to see my production of Guys and Dolls at Kilworth House and we had a chat afterwards. Then we had a meeting and she asked me to do Mame.
Were you already familiar with the material?
I was familiar with some of the songs, because when I started my choreographic career I was working on Jerry's Girls, which is a revue show of Jerry Herman's songs. A couple of those were from Mame, so I knew some of the songs, but I wasn't particularly familiar with the piece. The first thing I did was watch the film - I watched it on a commute to London and obviously I was in tears by the end of it, there, crying among the commuters.
What's the musical about?
It's a love story, for me, between Auntie Mame and the nephew she gets given after her brother dies. She brings him up while she's living this bohemian, hedonistic lifestyle; she introduces him to her ways and he gets taken away from her because of that. By the end of the story, he sees through her eyes where he's gone wrong in his own life and they rekindle. It's a fantastic story, epic.
Why do you think it needs to be revived right now?
It doesn't matter when you tell a story of love and friendship. It never goes out of fashion. Obviously, with the success of Hello, Dolly! with Bette Midler on Broadway, there's been an increase of interest in Herman's work, but Mame hasn't been done in London since 1969. I think it's a fantastic time to do it.
Tracie Bennett was interested in doing it and when she says she's interested in playing Mame, you have to make it happen! It's going to be a phenomenal performance from her. I think the combination of Tracie and Jerry Herman, the popularity of Hello, Dolly! and where the Hope Mill is going now, it's a good time to be doing this show.
Is there any pressure in bringing a piece back after so long?
I don't think there's too much pressure. I've just redone Cats, and it was also the first time that it had been reinvented in the UK. That's a show everyone knows and has seen, and everyone's aware of its aesthetics. With Mame, because it was 50 years ago and not on for very long in the West End, I don't think people still have a real idea of what it is or how it should be presented.
I think people will be watching with open eyes and taking it at face value. There's really only the film to compare it to, which is obviously very different from the stage show, so it's not going to compare to it. I don't really feel any pressure besides the obvious one of trying to do the best I can, but I don't think there's particularly more pressure because it's a revival.
Are you changing anything from the original material?
I am, but I'm not allowed to say!
You're starting the journey of the show in Manchester - do you think people receive theatre differently outside of London?
I think every city responds differently to theatre. I was born in Northampton and there's a very theatrical community there. Liverpool has a massive theatrical community, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester's thriving... There are some fantastic theatres.
The fact that the Hope Mill Theatre is in Manchester, surviving and being embraced by people, only shows how committed Manchester audiences are. Rock of Ages opened there, Fame, Annie opened there last year. It's a fantastic community and it's really exciting to be there with this show.
What's been the biggest challenge so far?
There are a few references within the piece that we considered outdated, so we've had to be careful with those - we extracted some. It was originally a play, and when it was made into a musical it had a chorus of maybe 30 people. With the Hope Mill, we're having a much reduced ensemble, even if it is the biggest show they've ever had, with 18 people.
When Katy asked me to do it, I always knew it was within the parameters of the Hope Mill and the size of that theatre, so - because I wasn't particularly attached to the piece - I was always approaching it knowing that we had limits. I suppose that the only difficulty is the amount of time we had. I think we all would have liked a bit more time because we've been very thorough with the text and the piece. So, yeah, we would have loved more time and more money, but here we are!
Why should people see the show?
First of all, they should see the show because Tracie Bennett is phenomenal and, being in a small space, to be that close to her performance is going to be thrilling. I think the music is fantastic, the score is brilliant. It's the first time the show's been done since the original version. It doesn't feel like an old musical we've just dug up - we've made it feel fresh and contemporary, even if it's set in the period. I think it's going to be a fantastic night out!