Monday, 3 October 2016

Big Interview: West End & Broadway director Laurence Connor

Laurence Connor is currently directing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical School of Rock. 

Following tremendous success on Broadway, rehearsals are currently underway for the London production which opens at the New London Theatre on 14th November 2016 (previews from 24th October).

Laurence began his career as an actor; whilst performing in the UK tour of Les Misérables he was asked to direct charity gala A Slice of Saturday Night at the Liverpool Empire Theatre. He then took on resident/associate director jobs, working on shows including The King and I (London Palladium/UK tour) and The Phantom of the Opera (Her Majesty’s Theatre).

Laurence’s big break came when he was asked to direct a new touring production of Miss Saigon. He recently directed the musical’s West End revival at the Prince Edward Theatre which is about to be shown to cinemas worldwide before opening on Broadway. 

His directing credits also include: Les Misérables (Broadway/UK & US tours/O2 gala), The Phantom of the Opera (UK & US tours/Royal Albert Hall gala), Oliver! (UK tour) and Jesus Christ Superstar (UK & Australian arena tour).

I recently sat down with Laurence at the London Palladium during a break from rehearsals to discuss why he’s thrilled to be bringing School of Rock to London, the challenges of taking on huge shows such as Les Mis & Miss Saigon and how he fell into directing…

I know the idea of working on a musical adaptation of School of Rock was something you were interested in for a while, but when did it become a reality? Have long were you and Andrew working on it?
We started about two and a half years ago; Andrew (Lloyd Webber) and I were doing the arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar and I think we had just opened at the O2 when we started having a serious conversation about it. When we were casting Jesus for the TV show we had discussions about what would make a good musical, and Andrew was talking about this idea he had for Stephen Ward and I was talking about the idea of School of Rock. I never realised this conversation would lead to anything. 

A few months later he told me he was trying to get the rights, so eventually we sat and had dinner and looked at it. Andrew was close to getting the rights, so at that point Julian Fellowes (book) came on board as well as Glenn Slater (lyrics). We had a meeting of minds in Sydmonton at which point Andrew had an idea of it being a jukebox musical using a lot of songs from the film. Once we thought about it neither of us thought it was a good idea because actually from the film there isn’t enough material for a score. It doesn’t realise itself in a musical form, and we needed songs to push the narrative and tell us where the heart of the story is. Julian was very much of the mind that we wanted to focus on the children and their parents a little more, and I really liked the idea. We started to talk about creating an original musical and just using a little bit of material from the film. That’s how it all began.

Julian then started putting pen to paper and Glenn and Andrew worked on ideas for songs, some of which we had talked about. We eventually had a very, very rough script and a few pages of music and lyrics. We went to New York in December 2014, assembled a bunch of actors suggested to us by Tara Rubin (casting director) and worked through the show. It gave us a really good indication of what it could be.

Interestingly after the final workshop, School of Rock opened straight on Broadway. Was that a bold move? Most Broadway shows have out-of-town tryouts.
We were going to do an out-of-town production but when we looked into it, it seemed such an expensive experiment. To take over a theatre, create a show with costumes and automation when you don’t know whether it works or not is a risk. Andrew talked about the Gramercy which is a rock club in New York where we could try it out as a workshop. I liked that idea because we could just focus on the book and the music. It ended up being a very rough around the edges show… we staged it and got a sense of what the energy would be. 

We originally started with the idea of introducing Dewey and the children straight away, but at Gramercy we discovered that if we introduced the children at the top of the show it was very hard to make the audience care for people like Ned and Patty. Once you show them the children that’s all they want. We ended up moving ‘You’re in the Band’ to later and made sure the children weren’t seen at first so we could really tell our story. If we did it out-of-town, we wouldn’t have been able to unpick the entire fabric of our show. Whereas within two days we knew what worked and what didn’t. It was a really great experience! And six months later we opened on Broadway.

What was the experience of premiering on Broadway like? When did you realise you were onto something very special?
I suppose the real moment where I knew the show was special was the first time we auditioned the children. We saw a lot of kids and eventually decided that we needed to put the children into groups and send them the drum parts, the guitar parts and so on. Then we had a workshop day with them and saw how they got on. I remember the first time we assembled a band and they played Teacher's Pet’ the energy these 10 year old kids created was incredible. It filled me with such joy, and I knew it was infectious. I was confident that the children and show had heart and something that would reach out to people. 

As a director you need to give more than just good performances, you need to make sure the whole flow of the show works. I was extremely nervous; I’ve done quite successfully revival shows, but this was my first time having a completely brand new show… and to try that on Broadway [laughs] was quite something. Fortunately I’d had a Broadway show (Les Miserables) already so I knew how it worked. It meant a lot to me, and to finally see it realised was truly wonderful and exciting. 

Alex Brightman in School of Rock on Broadway

How did it feel to start from scratch with a completely new musical as opposed to working on a revival?
Fortunately this material is very me – I was in a rock band and I’ve listen to rock music my whole life. That’s probably why the film really touched me, because I was just looking at myself. I also really enjoy working with comedy. Lots of the shows I’ve done before have been pretty heavy dramatic shows, so it was fun to explore humour and joy. Also I really enjoyed working with an American company to build something because it’s a very different dynamic over there. Working with Alex was just a joy! He actually read Laurence (one of the children) when we did the very first reading, because we had adults reading the children roles. 

At the time we didn’t know what to look for in a musical theatre Dewey; we wanted Dewey to be very likeable and for the audience to feel safe… and for him to be the biggest kid on the stage. Alex (Brightman), from the minute I met him, had all of that in bucket loads. I really liked him, and I remember telling the casting team that I thought Alex could be a Dewey. I didn’t know if he was ‘the’ Dewey, but I definitely wanted him in the company – maybe even as a cover or as an alternate. When I saw him with everyone else I called Andrew and said “Remember that kid? He’s the one.” I felt very strongly about it. He was an unknown and hadn’t done a lead before, but I wanted to take a chance. Andrew came to see him and sat in the audition and by the end of the audition agreed. 

What was it like to go through the whole casting process again over here?
I wasn’t sure we would find the children… that was the reality. To find three teams felt impossible. We looked for a year in America, and I didn’t think we could do it over here. It’s nice to be proved wrong, because we turned up and there were these kids who could rock! It is one things playing instruments, but you could sense that they had a hunger. The kids had a reference point because they could watch things on YouTube and listen to the cast album. They start training themselves for it and came wanting it. It has been the same on Broadway for finding replacements. It was an exciting process, it means a lot that we get to do the show in our country and show what music can do – it changes lives. With children here, and with our government and the way music is not pushed enough in schools, the opportunity to show how important music is, is so important to us and couldn’t be more important to Andrew. It’s a very good time and a very good message to be doing the show over here.

David Fynn is so funny, I’ve just been laughing so loudly with him all day long. He is fabulous and has so much energy – it’s a really tough role, Dewey never leaves the stage. He sings these incredibly high songs with a guitar and has to make it look so easy. When you can do all of that plus come to work with such a pleasant attitude and be as much fun as David is it’s a joy.

So let’s rewind back to your acting days! I believe you were in Les Mis alongside my very good friend Bobbie Chatt who asked you to direct a charity gala… and the rest is history! Before then did you want to be a director or did it just come and find you?
That’s right! It totally just came and found me. I had no desire to direct, I was just a jobbing actor who was picking up work and struggling like the rest of us. I never even imagined that I could direct, and it was Bobbie Chatt (now an agent at Global Artists) who was very accommodating in suggesting I directed a charity gala she was producing called A Slice of Saturday Night at the Liverpool Empire Theatre. I was happy to play so said “Sure, I’ll direct it” and found myself really enjoying it – I think we did a pretty good job, it was a fun show and Bobbie was amazing. 

It’s like fate – fate has such an odd hand in everything. We didn’t know at the time that it was going to be such a big deal, it was just for charity. Bobbie had booked the theatre on the Sunday, and on the Monday we were starting rehearsals for the new company of Les Miserables which we were both in. Colm Wilkinson was re-joining the show so there was a lot of attention… so… on the Sunday night Cameron Mackintosh turned up to the gala, along with Matt Ryan our director at the time and all these very important people. I actually ended up being in it as well as directing because someone dropped out, so I remember being in character in the auditorium and Ryan came up to me and said “You’ve done such a wonderful job!” 

It wasn’t what I expected at all. Afterwards I was asked if directing was an area I was interested in, and then they asked me if I would be the dance captain for Les Miserables. There’s obviously not much dance in the show, so I served as an assistant to the resident director who was Shaun Kerrison. Before I knew it I was suddenly moving away from acting and starting to look for work in directing. That led me to being children’s director on The King and I here at the Palladium, one thing led to another and I was getting jobs as resident director.

Jon Jon Briones in Miss Saigon
And then what was your first major job as director?
The tour of Miss Saigon. I was working with Cameron on The Phantom of the Opera in London, I was the associate director at the time, and suddenly there was the opportunity to do a brand new tour with new ideas. We put that out on the road and it was very successful – it had a very different set which was based on a small touring production which was in America at the time. It was re-thought; we looked at the grit and moving the show in a different way. That was, gosh, ten years ago and I was very proud of it. I think it was a very good production. It was especially pleasing to be allowed to come back to it for the West End revival at the Prince Edward; I had gone on to do so many other things and think I was a much better director. To come back to that piece and re-examine it was very interesting. Now it’s being celebrated and about to be released as a movie and open on Broadway.

Taking on titles such as Les Miserables and Miss Saigon is such a huge deal, these shows mean so much to so many people and there is a huge level of expectation. How do you begin to approach them?
You just have to forget about it and have a clear idea of how you want to tell your story. Ultimately when they’re just in book form they’re really just words on a page with a score. It’s just how you approach it and how you visualise it off the page. Miss Saigon and Les Miserables are masterpieces – they work. What we did at the O2 with Les Miserables shows that you can just stand and sing and that show is still incredibly powerful. Having been an actor, drama is where I enjoy working. To have a show like Miss Saigon where the power is so passionate and beautifully written is not daunting, it’s done for you. You just have to lift those performances and get people to understand how important it is to be real and truthful. 

And you’ve worked with the most remarkable creative teams – what are people like Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh like to sit down with in a creative meeting?
Terrific, those two are very different. Collaborators are the best way to describe them. Cameron especially is a very passionate producer and is very hands on and has very strong opinions. It’s interesting because I’ve worked with him for a very long time – we don’t always agree on things and don’t always see eye to eye, there is a level of negotiation… and he often wins [laughs], but as long as you’re collaborating and listening and understanding I think you can deliver great things together. I’ve always been very lucky that my relationships with everyone I’ve worked with have been strong. 

Working with Andrew is completely different because he’s the composer as well as the producer, so he’s very much coming at it as an artist protecting his music and his work and yet having to be smart to realise what sells and appeals to audiences. Both of their knowledge on such things is way beyond mine, so it’s a joy to learn from them. I’ve been very lucky to have developed not only working relationships with them, but great friendships too.

How do you balance so many different projects at the same time?
I’m quite lucky to have very good teams working with me; I have a great associate team on pretty much every show I work on and they help – you have to know how to delegate and get people to be the best they can be. Not just the actors, but everyone involved. You have to have trust because you can’t do it all. At the same time you do need to keep an eye on everything and make sure you’re watching out. It’s difficult, I won’t lie. I travel the world a lot – I’m backwards and forwards from America and Japan and various different places. I’m constantly looking at videos of actors auditioning for different things and if I’m not doing that I’m in a casting or in a rehearsal. It’s the job; it’s fabulous in the sense that I get to travel the world and meet incredible people. It’s a fantastic job; however, on top of that I have to balance the fact that I’m also a father and need to be very present in my children’s lives – it’s a lot but it’s fun, so when it’s fun it doesn’t feel like work.

Have their ever been moments when everything has hit you? Do you ever get a chance to digest it all?
Yes, there have been a few pinch me moments, there are times where I just go “wow”. You have to keep your feet on the ground, you need to know that this doesn’t happen every day and when I look back on my career as an actor or any other field I tried where I wasn’t quite so lucky. Life can just as easily go away as it came. When you have these great moments you can’t take it for granted, you have to look at how wonderful the opportunities are and it’s a blessing to work in a field that you love more than anything. 

I spend moments where I think about it, for example I was walking in Times Square and saw a huge Les Mis poster with a School of Rock one right next to it… it was literally huge. I stopped for a second and just looked. I felt this need to call my mum because I thought ‘oh my god my mum’s at home and has no idea where I am at this moment, but there’s this reality that I’m staring at this huge billboard on Broadway for two gigantic shows which are there because I had some involvement’. I thought ‘How did I get to this point in my life? How have I been so lucky to get to this moment where I can see this?’ When you have those moments you have to take it in because it is very important. 

Finally, tell me about the support from audiences. As mentioned, shows such as Les Mis, Phantom and Miss Saigon mean so much to so many people, and now you’ve got School of Rock which is inspiring the next generation of talent. What’s it like to have that response and support behind you? It must be incredible knowing your work has such huge impact on people!
It’s wonderful, you have to remember that’s who we do it for. I get such lovely messages from people. It’s not always the case… for example when you take on a show like Les Mis, or recently I did a new production of The Phantom of the Opera which is touring, those are such beloved shows that the idea you might do something completely different with them is a little hard for some people to swallow. Generally speaking, the reaction I get from audience members is lovely. I get stopped in the street at times and people will talk about how much they loved something they’ve seen. It’s wonderful. 

Randomly I was in Melbourne going for a coffee and this woman literally stopped me and wanted to talk about Jesus Christ Superstar and how wonderful she thought it was. It was one of those amazing moments… I was halfway around the world and didn’t expect anyone to know who I was! It’s about the work and something you’ve done that has made someone brave enough to come up and say they loved it! That can only make you feel good because you know you made a difference to that one person. It’s a gift, and I think we’ve been very lucky with the fact people are happy to come forward and say those things.

Interviewed by Andrew Tomlins (Editor)

Laurence is represented and managed by Michael Garrett of Global Artists (London) and Jack Tantleff of Paradigm (New York). Please visit for further information about School of Rock.

Photo Credit 2&3: Matthew Murphy

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