Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Big Interview: Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is a leading West End choreographer. 

His latest West End show Mrs Henderson Presents officially opens at the Noel Coward Theatre tonight (16th February), having premiered at the Theatre Royal Bath last year.

Also running in the West End is Guys & Dolls; the show is currently playing the Savoy Theatre before transferring to the Phoenix Theatre and launching a UK tour. Later this year Andrew will choreograph Half A Sixpence for Cameron Mackintosh at the Chichester Festival Theatre.

One of Andrew’s most triumphant productions is Singin’ In The Rain which transferred to the West End following its premiere in Chichester, winning him the 2013 WhatsOnStage Award for Best Choreographer. The musical has since toured the UK, Japan, Asia, Russia and Australia.

Just a few of Andrew’s extensive choreography credits include: Oliver! (Curve), Barnum (Chichester/UK tour), 42nd Street (Chichester/Curve), The Showgirl Within (Garrick), Almost Like Being In Love (National), Stepping Out (Salisbury), Once Upon A Time At The Adelphi (Liverpool/Union/Trafalgar Studios), The Critic/The Real Inspector Hound (Chichester), A Little Night Music In Concert (Palace) and Follies In Concert (Royal Albert Hall) as well as the UK tours of High Society, Wonderful Town, Betty Blue Eyes and Saturday Night Fever.

In addition he directed and choreographed the UK premiere of Happy Days (UK tour) and was assistant director and co-choreographer for Chess in Concert (Royal Albert Hall) starring Josh Groban, Kerry Ellis and Idina Menzel. 

Andrew began his career as a performer, his credits include: Scrooge (Palladium), Mary Poppins (Prince Edward), Anything Goes (Drury Lane), Cats (New London), Follies (Festival Hall), Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (Dominion/UK tour), La Cava (Piccadilly), Mack & Mabel (Piccadilly), Oliver! (Sadler’s Wells) and A Chorus Line (Derby Playhouse/UK tour).

I recently spoke to Andrew about bringing Mrs Henderson Presents to London, how Cameroon Mackintosh asked him to choreograph Half A Sixpence and his big break, plus much more…

You’re currently busy working on Mrs Henderson Presents which has transferred to the West End following its premiere in Bath. What initially drew you to the show?
I’ve always wanted to work with Terry Johnson (book/director) because I love his work - La Cage aux Folles was brilliant! I met with Terry, he talked about what he wanted to do with the show and I was excited by it. I loved the film and was excited to be a part of a new musical.

Recently you’ve done some huge revivals as well as new work, are they completely different challenges?
Yes, completely different. With the big revivals like Guys and Dolls you’re given the music and nothing really changes, whereas on a new show it changes on a daily basis. For instance with Mrs Henderson Presents, during rehearsals we added in an extra dance break which wasn’t in the show before in Bath. When you’re working on something new you can create stuff and change stuff all the time, but on a show like Guys and Dolls or Singin’ in the Rain there isn’t really room for too much manoeuvre. 

Mrs Henderson Presents

Will people who saw the show in Bath notice a fair few changes if they come again?
I hope so [laughs]! Hindsight is a wonderful thing, it’s great to revisit a show because you always think ‘I should have done that and I should have tried that’. When I’m lucky enough to work on a project again – as I got to do with Guys and Dolls and Singin’ in the Rain too – I always fiddle with it and tinker. If you’ve got the luxury of revisiting a show then you should use that. 

What can people expect from Mrs Henderson Presents? 
First and foremost Mrs Henderson Presents isn’t a big dance show – it’s a very small little show, not like Guys and Dolls at all. There’s a lot of wit and fun, we’ve got Tracie Bennett, Emma Williams, Lizzy Connolly and all these amazing people. 

Was there a nice atmosphere in the rehearsals?
It has been lovely, we have a really great bunch of people who have all come back which I think shows you that they all loved the piece. We were worried that we might lose a few people, but we haven’t apart from one or two who we knew couldn’t do the transfer anyway. We rehearsed in the same space where we rehearsed in the summer for Bath so it felt like nothing had changed… apart from last time it was boiling hot and this time it was freezing cold!

Since transferring to the West End last year, Guys and Dolls has been soaring from strength to strength. What is it like to take on such an iconic piece? The expectation is huge!
I think if you allow yourself to think anything through too much you would never get out of bed in the morning! Singin’ in the Rain is quite a good example because it’s such an iconic dance show and when I was asked to do it in Chichester I was so excited that I wasn’t really scared. I just thought, ‘I’m going to do the best I can do and if people don’t like it then people don’t like it’. However, when we got the transfer to London suddenly I felt the pressure and realised I was trying to replicate this iconic film… people always compare and have opinions. I always try to take a different slant on things; I just try not to overthink the stress or expectation… because I want to enjoy my life rather than spending it feeling paranoid and worried all the time [laughs]!

Singin' in the Rain
The ensemble of Guys and Dolls are unbelievable – they fill the stage and couldn’t be sharper or more on point. What have they been like to work with?
I cannot believe how hard the Guys and Dolls company work! I very rarely give the note ‘Can you do a bit less’ because usually I’m saying ‘Do a bit more, up the energy’. They can all relax a bit because they work so hard! I went back the week after press night and did a bit more work because, for me, a few things weren’t quite working. It’s a demanding show and I’m sure when they came into rehearse they were aching and would rather have been in bed but they were so great, they bring such creativity to it.

To put your own stamp on some of those massive musical numbers must be such a dream?
Of course! Look it’s just great music, isn’t it? Even though I was saying that with revivals you don’t get to be creative… Gareth Valentine (musical director) and I put together a whole new arrangement for ‘Sit Down You're Rockin' the Boat’ – we were able to have a bit of fun with it. Iconic numbers are a dream to do!

Andrew, there are so many shows we have to discuss – it’s impossible to just pick out a couple. Talking of iconic musicals, this Christmas you worked on Oliver! at the Curve, how did you find working with all the kids?
It was absolutely exhausting, especially because we had just two and a half weeks to rehearse the show! Jaye (Elster), who’s my assistant, and I did 10 o’clock until 9 o’clock every day. The kids didn’t come until 4 o’clock – that’s when I would usually hit my tiredness peak, but instead I had forty children come in [laughs] full of sugar and E numbers. Oliver! was difficult, I found it a really hard show. Weirdly I didn’t think it would be that difficult, but it brought up lots of challenges. You always hope to rise to those challenges. I enjoyed it! Matt Kinley’s design was stunning, he did an amazing job.

Singin’ in the Rain was a massive, career defining show for you. I loved the ‘splash zone’ seating!
Oh gosh it was a wonderful show. Weirdly all the splashing was never planned! On the first preview in Chichester, with the adrenaline the company had, suddenly water went everywhere over the front few rows and people found it hilarious and joyful… it became a thing! When we rehearsed we had no water; we were marking in kicks and little splashes but didn’t really compute how far the water would travel. When we got to London we thought nobody would want to sit in the splash zone, but they were always the first seats to get sold so people loved it. Towards the end people would come with umbrellas!

Singin’ in the Rain was the biggest surprise of that season at Chichester because they were also staging two other musicals; She Loves Me, which everybody was excited about, and Sweeney Todd which of course everybody was talking about. I don’t think anybody was particularly bothered about Singin’ in the Rain! Therefore, because we had no pressure, it was a better show. We were able to just get on and make it the best show we possibly could for Chichester without thinking ‘Is this going to go to London?’… let alone around the world! It’s going around to Russia and New Zealand and Australia – what has happened is unthinkable! Sometimes you can put too much pressure on yourself, you just have to do the best you can do and not think about what ‘could’ happen. 


I read somewhere that when you were a kid you were taken to see Barnum and completely fell in love with it. When Cameron asked you to choreograph the show it must have felt like coming full circle?
Yes! Barnum was a long journey – the Chichester production was different to the tour. Barnum was a part of me for about three years; I was massively pleased with the tour – I think we got it pretty much spot on. Barnum was a hard show… oh my gosh… because of all the requirements and circus elements. Being a triple threat isn’t enough anymore, you need to be a quadruple threat because you need that fourth skill whether it’s circus or playing an instrument. It’s terrifying but three skills isn’t enough! Barnum is a show filled with joy, and to sit in the auditorium and feel that joy wash over you was amazing. I’m drawn to shows like that, the darker moodier shows aren’t really for me. I love shows which send the audience out elated! 

Those shows are pure escapism!
Exactly, and there’s a need for that. Somebody could be going through an awful time in their life but you give them two and a half hours of joy, colour and life. Isn’t that wonderful?

Do you have a secret list somewhere of shows you want to get your hands on?
Yes [laughs]. I would absolutely love to work on Crazy For You. It was revived not long ago so I’m sure that won’t happen for a while. I’m such a sucker for all those old school shows, when I was a performer that’s the kind of thing I did which is why I suppose I’m drawn to them now. You can’t beat shows with that old school charm. 

I have to ask you the West End Frame killer stagey question! I’m sending you to a desert island and you can take three musical theatre songs with you. What are you going to take and why?
It’s weird; musical theatre is my job but I tend not to listen to it. But if I had to take three firstly I would choose ‘Hand Me the Wine and the Dice’ from Aspects Of Love – it’s a great lesson in life and one I live by. Next I would take ‘Six Months Out Of Every Year’ from Damn Yankees because it’s a total slice of Broadway and finally I’m going to go for ‘Every Tear a Mother Cries’ from Honk because I am such a fan of Stiles and Drewe and that song is utterly beautiful and reminds me of my mum. There can be no stronger tie than that between a parent and child.

Which three theatrical legends would you invite to your stagey dinner party?
I would invite Michael Bennett because I would love to have met him – he was such a visionary for his time. Tommy Tune who is a living legend… and taller than me [laughs]. Finally I would invite Gower Champion because I would ask him all about 42nd Street which is one of my favourite shows! 

Later this year you’re heading back to Chichester to work on Stiles and Drewe's Half A Sixpence musical, how did you first hear about the project?
It’s my fifth show at Chichester! I had heard Half A Sixpence was rumoured and thought, ‘oh gosh that would be nice’ but I don’t ever ask for a job because I don’t want to be disappointed! I’d obviously worked at Chichester before and was aware it was Jonathan (Church) and Alan’s (Finch) final season so thought it would be nice to go back. Anyway, on the day of the Les Mis 30th Anniversary Gala Cameron Mackintosh invited me to the Queen’s Theatre and sat me down on a special chair which has history…

Where is this chair?!
It’s in the bar! The dress circle bar! It’s a special chair, and Cameron wanted me to sit in it… and then he asked me to do Half A Sixpence. I thought ‘oh my god things don’t get much better than this – Cameron Mackintosh is asking me to do a new production for him’. I was really emotional for the rest of the day! Cameron is so inspiring, he sat me down for an hour and talked through what he wanted to do with the show.

Some people don’t realise how creative he is, do they?
He has an opinion about everything to do with any of his shows. He cares about every element and his knowledge about every department is huge. I was like, ‘You don’t have to sell this job to me… I want to do it! I’m going to say yes’ [laughs]. It’s so exciting and Rachel Kavanaugh, who I’ve always wanted to work with, is directing. We’re about to start auditions!

When did you first meet Cameron?
I was in Cats for him when I was 27 – I was in the show for three years and then I was in the original cast of Mary Poppins. The first show I choreographed for him was Barnum after he came to see Singin’ in the Rain which was the first time he saw my work. I had my first meeting with Cameron when I was directing and choreographing Moby Dick at the Landor Theatre (Cameron produced the show’s West End premiere). I’m so annoyed about that because it was amazing but the producer ran off with the money – after the second week of rehearsals the whole thing got pulled. I was so sad because it was going so well… that’s show business.

We need to bring Moby Dick back! So you have Guys & Dolls about to transfer to another West End theatre and launch a tour, Mrs Henderson Presents opening in the West End, Half A Sixpence auditions…
During the last four months of 2015 I think I did seven shows. It was absolutely crazy!

Guys & Dolls

How is that physically possible?
I’m not good at multi-tasking because I’m a bloke, I can’t think beyond what I’m doing today so I just take a day or one week at a time. I think if I thought how much I have to get through this year I would be terrified. Doing seven shows in four months was pushing it… by the time I got to Christmas I just collapsed for a week.

Do you ever get the chance to go to the theatre?
I absolutely go to the theatre a lot – it’s research. I saw Funny Girl a few weeks ago and thought it was fantastic, I would love to see it again at the Savoy in the bigger space. Sheridan (Smith) was hilarious and I smiled and laughed throughout the whole show. [jokingly] I have to go because I’ve got to keep an eye on the competition… all these good young choreographers are coming up and I’m a bit wary of them all [laughs]! It’s not just for work – I love it.

The support in the theatre world is amazing – you previously won the publicly voted WhatsOnStage Award for Best Choreographer for Singin’ in the Rain. What’s it like to have that kind of support behind you?
As a creative you can feel quite isolated sometimes, so I love to have feedback when people message me after the show or come and say hello if they see me in the theatre. I absolutely love it because that’s why we do it – we’re doing this to entertain people! It’s so nice to hear things from regular theatregoers as opposed to industry people; they’re always very honest, if they don’t like something then they will tell me they don’t like it and if they loved it they will tell me they loved it. 

If someone told you when you were starting out as a performer that you were going to become a leading West End choreographer, what would you have said?
I would have hoped deep down that it was going to be true.

I read that you always wanted to be a choreographer but never told anyone…
Yes, I kept it very quiet. I worked for fourteen years as a dancer and for the last three/four years I was doing college stuff too which nobody knew about; I would perform in the show at night and then during the day I would go and put on in-house productions – I would go and do things above pubs for no money. In 2006 I did my last performance job, Scrooge at the London Palladium. I knew that was it and it was time to stop.

I had stopped enjoying it and decided to give it a go as a choreographer. For that whole year I think I earnt about £200. At the end of the year my accountant said, “What has happened?!” [laughs]. I was earning decent money as a performer and then suddenly my accountant was asking what had happened because my money had gone. I just needed to create! I did a lot of work for free which is funny because a lot of young choreographers contact me and say “I can’t get a break”. You have to put in that ground work – I did not walk straight into London and expect to choreograph a West End show. From when I started choreographing, it took me eight years to get my first West End show which was Singin’ in the Rain. It doesn’t happen overnight, that ground work is vital.

I worked really hard at it and my break was 42nd Street in Chichester. The choreographer dropped out a month before, I was one of the only choreographers who wasn’t booked up because I was doing nothing so got a phone call from Paul Kerryson the director who asked me to go in for a meeting. I had done virtually nothing – my CV was fringe and college things… I wouldn’t have hired me [laughs]… but Paul gave me a chance. I had worked for him as a dancer in 1995 when I did Mack and Mabel at the Piccadilly so I think he remembered I loved tap and that it was my life. I will be forever grateful for Paul and Chichester for giving me a chance!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Visit Andrew's new website www.a-wright.com for further information about his current shows and career.

Photo Credit 1:  Helen Maybanks
Photo Credit 2:  Paul Coltas 
Photo Credit 4: Johan Persson
Photo Credit 5: Pamela Raith 

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