Monday, 16 March 2015

Big Interview: Drew McOnie

Drew McOnie is currently one of the busiest choreographers working in British theatre. 

His current projects include a brand new touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!. Starring Ashley Day and Charlotte Wakefield, Drew has worked alongside director Rachel Kavanaugh on the show.

He is also currently choreographing the new UK Tour of Hairspray which is directed by Paul Kerryson as well as the UK’s first professional stage production of Bugsy Malone in over a decade at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Drew’s other recent credits include: The Sound of Music and Chicago (both Leicester Curve), In The Heights (Southwark Playhouse), Little Red Riding Hood (National Youth Ballet), West Side Story (NYMT), 13 (Apollo Theatre), Laurel and Hardy (Watermill Theatre), James and The Giant Peach (UK Tour), Soho Cinders (Soho Theatre) and Patience (Union Theatre).

He is also the founder of The McOnie Company for which his work includes: Drunk (Leicester Curve/Bridewell), Good Morning Midnight (Jermyn Street Theatre) and Making Midnight (Latitude Festival).

I recently spoke to Drew about taking on a show as iconic as Oklahoma!, why diversity plays such an important part of his career and what musical theatre songs he would want with him on a desert island… 

What was your relationship with Oklahoma! like before you were approached to choreograph this new production?
Well I think for any choreographer Oklahoma! is a pretty massive deal. Not least because as a show it offers the opportunity for real creativity, but also it provides a platform for dance which is incredibly narrative and important. For me personally it’s a very important show because when it first opened in 1943 it really changed the way that musicals were perceived, and in particular the way that dance in musical theatre was received. So any of us new choreographers owe a huge amount to Agnes de Mille (who choreographed the original production) for what she did and introduced into musical theatre. 

Absolutely! So then how did it feel to take on such an iconic and important piece? 
Well you get that phone call offering you the opportunity and it was an immediate “yes” because it was obviously such an exciting opportunity and I’ve always wanted to work with Rachel Kavanaugh (director). Then you have the period from saying yes to starting rehearsals… which is basically when you have a nervous breakdown because you think there’s no way in hell you’re ever going to be able to achieve what you want to. But then you hear the music, and all of a sudden you’re sat around the kitchen table at Rachel’s house with Steve (Stephen Ridley) the musical director and you’re starting to work through the dance breaks which is when excitement takes over again. You close your eyes, imagine the choreography and it comes to you through excitement, passion and, hopefully, inspiration. Weirdly it’s been similar to when I did Chicago: the offer was incredibly exciting and an immediate yes, the build-up was terrifying with no sleep, the studio time was completely liberating, thrilling, exciting and inspiring, I get to tech and fall in love with it and then the house doors open, people start coming in and I absolutely lose my nerve again.

I love that!
[laughs] It’s like the psychology of choreographers! 

Lisa Dent & Drew in Oklahoma! rehearsals

So for ages all I heard people talking about was the creation of the dream ballet. What was that process like for you?
Well it has been incredible because everyone has worked so hard. It was fascinating and so exciting for me to be able to get closer to that end product bit by bit. When we ran the show for the first time I got this very excited burning feeling in my tummy and in my chest while watching the ballet. I realised by the end of it that it just quite upsets me. I have that feeling when I’m incredibly connected to a piece of work that I’ve done. As a piece of theatre, the ballet is iconic; it was the first of its kind and had a huge impact on the very fact that I have a career in the context of how I like to make theatre. 

Did you feel the pressure?
The ballet is a huge responsibility and one I haven’t taken lightly. I haven’t felt the pressure to pay homage to Agnes de Mille by copying her dance steps because I feel like I already pay homage to her in the way I live my career; I have the same passion for narrative dance. As it came together the most moving thing for me was seeing the dancers going somewhere really emotional and applauding, supporting and encouraging each other and celebrating each other’s work. To watch such wonderful, talented actors like Ashley Day and Charlotte Wakefield dance to that degree is really quite thrilling. 

"I look for diversity in everything that I do."

People always tell me what a joy you are to work with because you choreograph in such a refreshingly different way and always push people to their limits. What has this cast been like to work with in the rehearsal room?
Well it has been amazing because, as with any musical, they all have such different skill sets and bring something different to the show. I think I respond to dancers because I kind of still am one. I am a dancer – I may be a ‘slightly’ older one now [laughs] – but my spirit is always to look after the dancers and treat them with respect and to give them a creative process. It’s very, very normal for actors to have a creative process to develop their character and to have a creative opinion, but it’s very rare for dancers to be given the same opportunity – dancers are expected to get it right first time every time and expected to deliver instantly. The pressure to be perfect can rob them of a creative process. What I like doing is treating dancers much more like a director might treat his actors. I try and allow them to have an opinion and the hope is that by the opening we feel like we’ve got there together. 

Oklahoma! is a show lots of people know very well and have opinions about how it ‘should’ be done. What do you think people can expect from this production? Does it bring out something new?
I think the heart and rooted notions are there – its heart is beating loud and proud! The characters are bright, strong and detailed. At the end of the day it’s a show which deals with extreme, different subjects. One minute you are laughing and the next it’s dealing with possible suicide. When you revisit a show like Oklahoma! you’re amazed about how current some of the themes still are. In terms of the heart people will get what they’re expecting, but I think it’s still surprising, shocking and exciting. As a production there is hopefully a vein of invention and creativity to it which people may not be expecting. There’s dust all over the floor and hay bales and it’s very physical and passionate. The male ensemble are proper men, we’re talking six foot blokes leaping and hurling over things, crawling under things. I think the sheer energy of the cast makes it an exciting event.

Drew & the cast of Oklahoma! in rehearsals

You’re currently taking over theatreland with a variety of diverse projects. What is life like for you at the moment? It must get a little bit crazy sometimes?
Well it can absolutely sometimes be slightly chaotic in some ways. What’s really fascinating is that when you get your heart into a show, as soon as you turn over that page you can get your head into it and feel passionately about it straight away. I’ve been very, very lucky in that the shows I’m now associated with and the shows which haven’t been announced yet that I’m going to be doing are all shows I’m so excited and passionate about. It feels like for the first time in a very long time I’m saying yes to shows and every single one of them is exactly what I want to be doing. There are no longer any stepping stones if you know what I mean. It feels like from when the last time we spoke about Chicago it’s been a real kind of launch. 

You picked upon something I’m very passionate about which is diversity. It’s important to me that I remain a practitioner who is constantly serving the show and in order to do that it’s important I don’t get pigeonholed into being a certain type of choreographer. My goal at the moment as a young practitioner at the beginning of, hopefully, a career is to keep challenging myself and pushing myself into as many different uncomfortable zones and to be able to learn my craft in as many different areas. I don’t want people to go, “Oh Drew only does those types of shows” or “Let’s just give Drew all of those shows”. It’s important to me that I can utilise my passion and choreographic technique to be able to move from a classic vaudeville show like Chicago into something like In The Heights which is essentially Latino hip hop on to The Sound of Music – a very classic Rodgers and Hammerstein. 

Drew & Lisa Dent in rehearsals
And your next few projects couldn’t be more different too…
Exactly, Hairspray is going to push me into a period style of movement with it being 60s and 50s and then with Bugsy Malone we’re going for a whole different style of movement. It is important for me, I look for diversity in everything that I do. 

Finally, the West End Frame killer question: you’re going to a desert island and can only take three musical theatre songs with you. Which three do you take and why?
Oh my goodness, I wish I had an immediate answer to that [laughs]. This is going to sound really, really stagey, but I think I would probably take ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ (from Funny Girl). I don’t care what mood I’m in – I can be on that desert island thinking I’m never going to eat again, but I’ll pop that track on and I will strut along the beach. Even if I have to eat a live rabbit because it’s the only food, ‘Don’t Rain On My Parade’ will make me believe that I can do it. You probably now have a vision of me eating a live rabbit while listening to a belting Broadway classic [laughs].

[laughs] Ok, that is literally the craziest reason anyone has ever given!
Oh gosh [laughs]. Then probably I would take ‘Not While I'm Around’ from Sweeney Todd because it just kills me, and it’s probably what I’ll sing to the dead rabbit after I’ve killed it. Do you know what I mean? It will kind of be my lament so I can pour my soul out. We could probably do a whole interview of me just talking about this rabbit! My company manager has just walked in and is thinking, ‘What the hell is Drew talking to West End Frame about?!’ [both laugh]. Then finally I need something dance based… I know, ‘96,000’ from In The Heights because it just ruins me every time.

Amazing – this is definitely the most creative answer anyone has ever given!
I mean I’m assuming there will be rabbits on this island?! They’re going to be very stagey rabbits, that I can tell you!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Oklahoma! tours the UK & Ireland until August 2015. Please visit for further info, full tour dates and tickets.

Photo Credit: Pamela Raith

No comments:

Post a Comment