Producing a theatrical production is totally different to producing a film or a TV show, but they all have one problem that’s exactly the same – they all cost money. How much money is all relative to the size of the show and what you hope to achieve. Still if you have a budget of £50,000 and you spend £75,000, it’s as disastrous as producing a block buster movie for 50 million and it costing 75 million. Someone has to pay. In the words of Charles Dickens Mr Micawber: “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.”
My favourite story about budgets concerns Lord Lew Grade, when asked was it expensive to make the movie Raise The Titanic, he said “Let’s put it this way, it would have been cheaper to sink the Atlantic.” Which is why production companies start with readings and workshops, the reason being is that hopefully you’ll get an idea whether the idea totally sucks, or it partially sucks, or just a bit of it sucks. If just a bit sucks, it might be worth a punt. One thing is for certain – there is no magical ingredient, no fool proof plan, if there was, we’d all be making hit shows and hit films every day.
Workshops – if you’ve never been to one, come in all shapes and sizes. Actors just sitting around reading, or a slightly rehearsed version with minimal movement, (if it’s a musical they could sing a few selected songs) or a fuller performance, with the actors being really familiar with the lines and songs. I decided we’d go for a small affair – half a dozen actors around a piano reading the dialogue and singing a few of the numbers.
A meeting was convened one Sunday lunch time at a local Italian restaurant, with a number of people that I knew I would need to make it work. What I didn’t want to do was mess around – we had to make this happen in three weeks, because I knew if we left it any longer it wouldn’t happen or the whole project would just drift away into oblivion, “like tears in rain.” This is a great business for pontificating – loads of chat and fuck all action. Three things were needed – an MD (Musical Director), a venue and of course, last but not least – a cast. Various people had already been suggested as MD, but no one had bowled me off my feet. Then Gary Hind came into the mix, on first meeting I knew he was the man, he got the show, but he got it so much, he wanted to do it right. He wanted to give it the rock feel it needed and not just have a plink plonk around a piano.
It took actually four weeks to put the ‘reading’ together. My initial idea of six actors with a piano, ended up 27 actors, an 8-piece band, an imported sound system from Orbital, a lighting operator and a three-day rehearsal period.
The show had been cut down to one hour and it was to be ‘read and sung’ at The Venue in Leicester Square (now the Leicester Square Theatre). Of course none of this was for free. Admittedly the artists, very kindly, did it for expenses, but over a four days expenses for 35 people quickly adds up and on top of that were the auditions, sound and lighting, rehearsal space, the theatre and booze and a ton of Indian food for the 200 or so audience that gave up their lunchtime to come and watch.
I hate auditions. I’m guessing no actor likes auditions, they’re just a necessary evil, but I also hate being the other side of the desk, auditioning the actors. They’re long and laborious days, which demand 100% concentration a 100% of the time. After all the actors could have travelled from anywhere in the country, the least you can give them is your full attention. Debbie Arnold showed remarkable patience as we went through dozens of singers and dancers, but with the date for the ‘reading’ quickly approaching we still didn’t have the lead female girl – Beverly. By this stage Frances Ruffelle, the actress who played the role in the TV show Headless was in her 40s. I can actually mention her age these days, as her date of birth is all over Wikipedia. The girls, which included Beverly, were meant to be High School students, 18 or 19 years old. Frances was a consummate musical theatre performer, but was she too old? Would it look all wrong? Then Jan, my partner in crime, simply said … Grease. And she had a point – a real great point. Were John Travolta and Olivia Newton John 18 or 19 when they did Grease? Absolutely not. Travolta was 24, but looked older and Olivia Newton John was 30 and Stockard Channing who played Rizzo was 34, but it hadn’t made Grease any the less popular. And Frances no way looked her age, she still doesn’t, she could still play a kid.
Frances was approached about playing the role for the ‘reading’ which she said she would, but she was unable to do the first two days of rehearsal. Should we take the risk? Frances Ruffelle – too right we should … and we did.
Meanwhile the actor/director David Janson had been grafting away behind the scenes acting as production manager, smoothing things over with the theatre and making sure everyone and everything turned up on time.
On the day we had a full house and in the three days rehearsal the whole cast had learnt the hour-long version of the show, plus 15 songs, not a script in sight. And thank God we stuck with Frances; she was brilliant. I’d blocked the show (that’s the movement and positioning of the actors) so everyone was on stage all the time and moved minimally to achieve what we needed to achieve. I loved it – 3 days and it rocked. Probably my major concern was – did the cut down version of the script make sense? Were the story and plot coming through loud and clear? Anyone who is a regular reader of my blog know that as far as I’m concerned, the story is god. But there was no way I could really assess whether people fully understood and got the story.
I felt most of the characters came through, when you have that large a cast, it’s always nice to see what the actors bring to the party. Frances portrayal of Beverly was the eye opener, she was verging on sluttish, something I hadn’t envisaged, but really worked. Harry Rogers, performer as well as producer, got the biggest laughs playing the rather overweight, dumb cop – something else I hadn’t expected.
So what was next?
We had various meetings with various people about what next to do with the show, but nothing concrete emerged. We were in the era and still are, that generally a musical has to have a very recognisable name to sell it, which is why they’re either revivals (Singin’ In The Rain/Evita) or adaptions from movies (Sister Act/School of Rock) or juke box musicals (Mamma Mia/Thriller) or written by Andrew Lloyd Webber – the last one I have no problem with at all. Yes he’s done a few adaptions, but he’s also done a ton of original stuff – I think he’s a genius There are of course exceptions, but those seem to mainly come from the States (Wicked/Hamilton). Having said that I can’t ignore the fact there are the odd British musical that get through (Jamie/Six), but in reality they both had a clear selling point – Jamie had been the subject of a successful documentary and is very zeitgeisty, being about being trans-gender, and Six, well, you’ll had to been locked away, since birth, in a cave on an uninhabited island in the middle on the North Sea, with only a penguin for company, not to know about the 6 wives of Henry the VIII.
My problem was no one had heard of Bloodbath the Musical, they didn’t know what it was about, they didn’t even know whether it was meant to be humorous or not, for me the clue was in the title – you don’t naturally think of ‘Bloodbath’ and ‘Musical’ in the same title, it’s a bit paradoxical. Something people thought they might scared by it – bloody hope so, isn’t that the fun of it. Being given a shock in the safe environment of a theatre isn’t the same as being on the plane and hearing the pilot scream: “Brace! Brace!” Then you have good cause to worry.
Basically, audiences didn’t want to take any risks. But as I wrote it in the first place to do something originally … something new, I wasn’t just going to give up.
The cost so far hadn’t been insignificant, but when we made the decision that we would try it out in Edinburgh, on the fringe, I had no idea that I’d only chipped the tip of the financial iceberg. The best I can say it wasn’t quite as expensive as Lord Lew Grade’s film
TO BE CONTINUED …
Don’t miss the final instalment in the Bloodbath Reborn Blogtrilogy.