Thursday, 7 April 2016

Interview: Bill Deamer

Bill Deamer is one of UK theatre’s leading choreographers. 

Bill won both the Olivier and Broadway World Awards for Best Choreographer in 2013 for Top Hat, which also won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. His latest show Miss Atomic Bomb, which he co-directed and choreographed, is currently coming to the end of its run at the St James Theatre.

His current productions also include The Glenn Miller Story (UK tour) and The Sound of Music (UK tour) as well as Cats (Palladium/international tour) for which Bill created additional tap choreography. He recently choreographed the West End revival of Evita at the Dominion Theatre and directed and choreographed the 85th Anniversary Sondheim Concert at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. 

Bill’s screen credits include choreography for So You Think You Can Dance group and duet routines in the semi-final & final and Strictly Come Dancing specialist choreography; including Charleston routines, pro group routines, a guest star appearance from the Top Hat company & the Christmas special.

I recently spoke to Bill about the challenges of staging a new musical like Miss Atomic Bomb, why Top Hat was one of the highlights of his career and what he thinks is one of the greatest pieces of dance music ever written…

When did Miss Atomic Bomb first come onto your radar?
Well Top Hat was on its last tour and I went to the St James Theatre and said to my agent, “I love this space, I wouldn’t mind working here”. Then out of the blue this script for Miss Atomic Bomb arrived on my doorstep. I actually read it on the way to Tokyo to open Top Hat. My associate Kylie (Anne Cruikshanks) was in the seat next to me and asked “What do you keep laughing at?” I said, “This script is really funny – it’s really different!” I met the writers and they asked me to be co-director and choreographer and I agreed to do it as long as I could put my mark on it. It is a really good book with great music, but nobody had put it onstage before which is a challenge.

Had it been through workshops?
Well yes but it was more like readings. So I came on board and started to work on it. It goes places where no musical I’ve ever worked has gone! It’s wacky. It’s really wacky! The numbers further the plot but then they go in a different direction. Everybody thinks it’s going to be morbid, and it is a really serious subject, but comedy and tragedy are so close. One minute the audience are laughing and the next they’re thinking, “Did that really just happen?”

How was the rehearsal process for you?
It was hard work because they’re all new numbers which meant there were no boundaries or barriers – it was also wonderful! When I first met with the writers there were no tap numbers in the show… which was fine… tap has been very lucky for me, but one does more than tap. Later on we were listening to one of the songs and I said, “This could be a tap routine!” It just took off. A lot of the numbers go into different styles. I’ve had a ball!

When the cast was announced West End Frame exploded – you have so many incredible people involved! What have they all been like to work with?
I couldn’t believe my luck! The energy in the room was so exciting, everyone was open for trying things out. They all know how to play comedy! 

After going through the creative and rehearsal processes for a show, how do you usually feel on an opening night?
I’m always very excited on an opening night but also very nervous. Sometimes in rehearsals you forget that people are actually going to watch it – then suddenly it dawns on you. You never know what the reaction will be like which is why previews are so important, particularly for a new musical. When it comes to an opening night it’s out of my hands. There’s nothing more I can do!

Alan Burkitt & Charlotte Gooch in Top Hat
Over the past few years you have taken on some completely different projects – Miss Atomic Bomb couldn’t be any more different to Top Hat for example! Do you look for variety when considering future projects?
Absolutely. I’m very, very lucky. I never conform to the norm – I can’t do that. I was a trained dancer before I went to drama school, but I actually trained as a straight actor so I approach everything from an acting angle. Then I was performing and working with Gillian Lynne and she said to me, “I think you would be a great choreographer” and she stood by me right through. She has been a great influence in my life, and I’m very honoured to have worked with her. I never think, “I did that well so I want to do something similar again”. I’m always looking for something different.

We could sit here for hours and talk about show after show… but the one we have to mention is Top Hat. What is it like to look back at your journey with the show? It just got better and better!
It’s a moment I’ll treasure all my life. When I met with Kenny Wax and was asked to do it and everything was confirmed I went away and worked in the studio for about six months on my own before I brought in my associate. They gave me the rights to the film… but I can’t copy. I just can’t do it! That’s the acting side of me, and as a choreographer I can’t look in the mirror and copy someone else… so I said, “I’ll do it my own way” which was absolutely fine. Working with the wonderful Matthew White and developing the show was quite something. I remember the first night in Milton Keynes; we sat in the bar beforehand with a glass of wine and I said “Let’s see what happens” – we really didn’t know what was going to happen! And then the roof came off. We started to change things for the West End… and then the journey continued. 

After it closed in town, the UK Tour with Alan Burkitt and Charlotte Gooch was sensational… and then it ventured around the world!
Last year in Tokyo it was totally sold out – the 3,000 seater was sold out the entire run which was just phenomenal! Kenny Wax is brilliant at putting a team together, and Matthew White the director allowed everyone in that team to do their job. It was the most joyous time of my life. Top Hat is not dead in the water yet, it’s resting for a little while shall we say. The Olivier and BroadwayWorld awards were just added extras! I never dreamed in a million years I would win an Olivier Award… you don’t do it for that. All the dancers who did that show are like part of my family. It’s not easy choreography; it’s very tricky and demanding, but they understood what I wanted. Two of them are in Miss Atomic Bomb!

Finally… 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?
I would take ‘If I Loved You´ from Carousel because I think it’s one of the most beautiful ballads ever written. I would take ‘The Dance at the Gym’ from West Side Story which I think is some of the greatest dance music ever written – I would love to have a go at choreographing my version of that. It’s just incredible! What would my third be? Probably 'Rhapsody in Blue' by (George) Gershwin which again is just so ahead of its time. They’re all very different, but that’s my three!

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Miss Atomic Bomb completes its run at the St James Theatre on 9th April 2016. 
Please visit for further information and tickets.

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