Loving theatre as much as I do, I’m always thrilled when I get the opportunity to hear people involved in its creation and production talk about the process. Today, I had the pleasure of listening to Adam Blanshay, the Canadian theatre producer and CEO of Just for Laughs Theatricals, a New York and London-based commercial theatrical production company. Adam has been the recipient of many Tony and Olivier awards and has financed & produced over 40 productions, among them Twelfth Night, Matilda, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Dreamgirls.
The talk was hosted by the British Academy, which is the UK’s national body for the humanities and social sciences – the study of peoples, cultures and societies – past, present and future. Biennially, it holds a Literature Week, which brings together writers, academics and practitioners in a programme of events and activities, celebrating all aspects of literature. The theme for 2017 is ‘Adaptations and Transformations’, looking at how stories are regularly re-told, adapted to another medium or completely transformed. This event with Adam, which I thoroughly enjoyed, was the first event in the programme and he gave us a fascinating insight into the process of bringing well-known stories to the stage in the West End and on Broadway.
Talking about his upbringing in Montreal, Adam told us that he found school difficult; whilst he excelled academically, he disliked sports – which did not go down well at a private boys’ school. Nor did being gay. Many years later, after winning a Tony award for Kinky Boots, Adam was invited back to his old school where found that some elements had changed – he was introduced, for example, to an openly-gay 6th grade teacher who runs a gay-straight alliance for his students and who had placed rainbow triangles on doors reflecting support for LGBT students. Whilst pleased that some progress had been made, Adam noted that other minority students in the school still encountered prejudice.
From where does his love of musical theatre stem? Adam attributes this to growing up in the 1980s and being influenced by what he describes as “the London invasion” – meaning Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. He also remembers his aunt & uncle returning from a trip to London with a double cassette recording of Phantom by its original cast, which was memorable for a number of reasons (“I’d never seen a double cassette before!”), but chiefly for kindling a desire within him to work in theatre. From an early age, he knew this was what he was destined to do.
As a producer, Adam oversees the entire process of bringing a musical to the stage, from the financing side to all of the creative elements. He holds firm views on the importance of taking responsibility for a production, saying that if a show loses money, it is the producer who must dip their hand in their pockets and cover all losses.
Adam was honest, also, about the difficulties in finding productions that mainstream audiences are guaranteed to enjoy, saying that with ticket prices being as high as they are now, people are less prepared to take a chance on what they see. Tried & tested productions have become the order of the day. Adam makes it his mission to find a story that he loves which he believes will work on stage. The trick, he explained, is to ask why the story exists in the first place – and what purpose it serves. Understand that your audience, too, will have an expectation – and be pragmatic about each and every show. What is your audience seeking at this particular moment in time? Currently, Adam is producing several comedic plays because he believes that, in these troubled times, this kind of entertainment is what audiences want.
Bringing literature to the stage is never easy, says Adam, especially if its author is still alive (in which case there will inevitably be many compromises). He co-produced Wolf Hall Parts 1 and 2 on Broadway, which was a daunting challenge – although it’s a book packed with vivid characters and clever dialogue, a great novel does not necessarily make a great play and deciding which elements of the book to leave out is always difficult (that said, the stage production of Wolf Hall was a huge success).
Adam has lived in London for the past four years and says that he loves the city. From a financial perspective, it is much cheaper to produce here than on Broadway; he also likes the fact that in London, actors cherish the stage and strive towards working in theatre, whereas in America the majority of actors have one eye on Hollywood.
This evening, dedicated as it was to musical theatre, ended in the nicest possible way, with Adam introducing us to Rosalie Craig. Rosalie is the star of a number of West End musicals and, in particular, of The Light Princess – which was written by Tori Amos and produced by Adam. It was fascinating listening to Rosalie talk about how, upon being offered the lead role of Althea, she went back to the original source material, i.e. the 1864 book by George MacDonald, to “find” the character and form opinions on her. Preparing for the role, whilst the musical was in production, took three years, during which time Rosalie had to train hard physically for this most gruelling of roles – she would get up at 6am, work out, rehearse all day and then return to the gym again in the evening. If that wasn’t enough to contend with, for the National Theatre publicity photos she had to learn how to scuba dive!
Rosalie sang – beautifully – two songs from The Light Princess for us: ‘My Fairy Story’, which marks the beginning of Althea’s journey, and ‘Darkest Hour’, when the character finds herself at her lowest point. How I wish I’d seen Rosalie perform them on stage, when this production was running at the National Theatre – she has the purest voice and is entrancing to watch. Rosalie was then joined by Adam (who began his career as an actor before moving into directing) and they duetted on ‘Gravity’ (the moment in The Light Princess when Althea finds happiness).
Listening to people who are so passionate about what they do for a living was truly inspiring. It was a lovely setting, as well, for the talk – the Academy is based at 10-11 Carlton House Terrace, a gracious, white stone building tucked away behind Pall Mall with beautiful views across St James’s Park. Designed by John Nash and built in 1831, the house has been occupied by Sir Matthew White Ridley, Lord Monson and four-times Prime Minister William Gladstone, as well as serving as a First War World Hospital for Wounded Officers. It’s well worth a visit if you’re in the area.