PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with David Babani

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Menier Chocolate Factory artistic director David Babani talks about his little London theatre, which has made a big splash on both sides of the pond.
David Babani and Sonia Friedman
David Babani and Sonia Friedman Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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They say the third time's the charm, and for Menier Chocolate Factory artistic director David Babani, the old saying rings true. After garnering Tony Award nominations for transferring productions of Sunday in the Park With George and A Little Night Music to Broadway, he finally cinched the deal with the revival of La Cage aux Folles, which earned the 2010 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical.

There was talk in the press that there were some hard feelings on Tony night when you were cut off during the Best Revival of a Musical acceptance speech. Your fellow producers, Sonia Friedman and Barry Weissler, both had the opportunity to speak.
David Babani: It couldn't have been further from the truth. Absolutely I was frustrated at not being able to say my thanks and get my moment to do that. But, it was nothing to do with Barry and nothing to do with Sonia. We were very organized in what we were going to do well within our time limit, but obviously, not according to the Tonys. I'm sure I'm not the first person to have been cut off at the Tonys and I'm pretty sure I won't be the last. I've never had a more collaborative and thrilling experience than working with Sonia and Barry as a trio of leading producers on this production. I love my partners so much. There's no question that this production of La Cage is successful because of all three of us being so diverse and so passionately involved on all the minutiae of this production. I think each of us brings out the best in each other. It's such a fruitful partnership and I really can't wait to see what we can come up with together on any other future productions.

What had you planned to say?
DB: The two big things that I wanted to say [were] just a tremendous thank you to Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein, who, without them and this fantastic show, we wouldn't have been able to create this production, and I wanted to say a big thank-you to them for their support and for trusting us to go slightly left of field with it when we were originally starting out.

The other thing I wanted to say was, when we were starting out this production three years ago at the Chocolate Factory, I was standing in our bar after a matinee. It must have been literally some point after the end of the first week of previews and a family came out after the show, a mum and a dad, and they had two kids. I think, an 11-year-old girl and an 11-year-old boy. And they pulled them aside with some urgency and I was standing right next to them. And they said to them, "Kids, if you grow up to be half as happy as that family on stage, then we've done our job." And it just put the whole thing into the most incredible perspective for me, and I thought, "It's just so fantastic that that is now the message that La Cage has in 2010, or 2007 back then, and it shows how much the world has changed in the last 25 years since it was originally first performed. It's almost ceased being this political show and having this political message to having this one about morals and family values. I love that that's what people take away from it, and I think if our production stands to anything, it's that sort of message. It just made me so happy and proud to be involved with something like that.

You've managed to strip the glitz and glamour from La Cage, which has overwhelmed other productions, and find the grain of truth in the work. This seems to be a Menier theme.
DB: I think our mission is, bizarrely, one more of necessity more than anything else in that we have a 140-seat theatre, and we want to not compromise on the shows we try to present. But by virtue of only having 140 seats and limited wing space and stage space, it sort of forces the creative team to go right to the root of any show, and the root of any show is what the writers wrote and what they intended and how best to display it without compromising storytelling or what the audience is going to see. La Cage composer-lyricist Jerry Herman and book writer Harvey Fierstein had not seen the Menier production until it arrived on Broadway, is that correct?
DB: Correct. Neither of them got to see the original production in London, but they were both quite involved. I met with Harvey and Jerry to talk about our approach. This was before any director, before anybody was attached, to explain about the Chocolate Factory and the reason why I wanted to do the show. After seeing the last revival, I was so empowered by the show, and I thought, there's this wonderful story there, and it seems to keep getting buried under all the glitz and the glamour of how La Cage has been presented previously, both in the original Arthur Laurents production and in the Jerry Zaks revival. And they immediately latched onto that and said, "That's right, we wrote a play and quite a dark play with music." That's what we attempted to sort of present in our production, and it's the polar opposite [of previous productions]. Again, it's a testament to the piece that it can take such differing styles of production and still be immensely fun and powerful and entertaining and moving and funny. I think that's just the mark of a great piece of work.

The Menier clearly has an affection for American musicals. All of your musical programming, whether premieres or revivals, has been authored by American writers.
DB: The reason why I guess there's such a leaning toward American things is that American musical theatre as an art form is truly extraordinary and incredibly varied and there's just so much more of it proportionally to anything else. And indeed we’re doing our first British production right now — we're doing Aspects of Love — and very much approaching the show in the same way. It's a thrilling experience so far, and I hope the experience translates into what the audience are gonna see on the stage. With any show we do, whether it be a play or a musical, it's more about: How can we best tell the story in our space? And as you say, just that exercise of going through that exploration with creative teams and sometimes the original author, sometimes not, means that ultimately you distill down what was hopefully intended and manage to present it in a way that audiences can really engage with it. And if you're lucky enough to have one of our shows leave the building, we work incredibly hard to not just pick up a production and plunk it down somewhere, we look at where it's going to, we look at who the audience is and how we can still retain that essence of storytelling without either being dwarfed in where we're going or without losing the relevancy, hopefully, of what the production has achieved.

Going back to the intimacy of the Menier, is it limiting to produce in such a confined workspace?
DB: Bizarrely, what we do have on the Menier stage is quite a large footprint. Most of the shows that we've moved to the West End, we've had to make the footprint of the set design slightly smaller rather than larger, but we don't have a humongous amount of height. So, by having that smaller footprint is why we can do shows with 17, 18, 19 people and not have it look like a car crash on the stage. We do have that size, but again, you don't normally find a venue with that sort of size and only 140 seats, but ultimately, though it's very limiting financially, I think it's sort of the secret to our success and it's something that – "who'd a thunk it?" It's a thrilling experience both for the audiences and the practitioners involved, and so far so good. We've had really good people really enjoy working on our space and hopefully making good theatre.

It is rare these days that a Menier production doesn't transfer to the West End, if not cross over to Broadway at some point. Do you feel pressure to create programming that has commercial legs?
DB: Well, there's always pressure, but I have to say, we always have done and hopefully will always try to create productions for our space, and I think that's the best thing that we can possibly do. If we create productions for our space and they work out critically and they work out with audiences and it's right that we should explore to try and give them a future life, fantastic, but we work very hard to not try to cynically put on a show that is guaranteed to go the distance. Because, ultimately, that's when you get complacent and that's when you make mistakes and you start to take things for granted.

I think one of the other things that's so unique about the Chocolate Factory in the [London theatrical] landscape is we don't have any subsidy at all, so even though we're only 140 seats and we produce hopefully very high production values, we sort of live by the sword and die by the sword. We don't have any funding from the government helping prop us up and make the difference between, [what] will it cost and what will ticket sales bring in. We have to do that ourselves and we do that through our own restaurant and our own revenues, our royalties that come through our own productions, which are now playing all over the world. It's a very delicate balance, which means we can't afford to produce flop after flop after flop. So, it means that...when we're deciding if we're gonna do a production, we have to be really, really careful that we think it's gonna kick the boxes, it's gonna entertain our audiences, it's gonna hopefully sell tickets, it's gonna hopefully please the critics, and it's gonna hopefully be something that people actually want to see.

Is there any apprehension about bringing Menier revivals to Broadway, to American audiences who may have loved them the first time around?
DB: Are you kidding? Of course! You're quaking in your boots! You're pinching yourself and you think, "Surely not. This is crazy. What do we know?" And to have done it three times in a row with two Sondheims in their first revival on Broadway, both with Sunday in the Park with George and Night Music, and then also La Cage, which is almost the antithesis, the third [production] on Broadway, of course you think, A: "We're gonna get found out at some point" and B: "Who are we to do this?" The amount of raised eyebrows, I'm sure, with the announcement we were bringing another La Cage to Broadway, far outweighed the number of people that said, "Yeah, sure, that's a great idea." But hopefully, we've been vindicated. The show is wonderful, it has fantastic reviews, the audiences love it, we've had these wonderful Tony Awards bestowed upon us. So you know, it feels like the gamble was the correct gamble and a lot of people truly believed in this production and it's so wonderful that between all of our co-producers and investors who really went out on a limb. On paper, the show seems madness. It's one of those wonderful "the little show that could" stories and, again, I'm so proud to have been a part of it.

Do you have a wish list for future Menier productions?
DB: Oh, God, yes! I have to say, City of Angels is one of my favorite, favorite shows of all time, and I would love to be allowed to work on that and have a creative production of City of Angels. I just think it's one of the most perfect musicals ever written and I think it's brilliant. I'd like to do a little bit more classic work. We did The White Devil, a Jacobean tragedy, two years ago, and it was one of my favorite productions we've ever produced. I'd love to do maybe some Shakespeare or another piece of Jacobean tragedy. We are hopefully looking at doing a couple of new American plays, as well, so hopefully, if all that works out, that would be very exciting. So it's a whole mixture, and that's another thing — although we've become known for our musicals and indeed our musical revivals, we work really hard across the board to create a really balanced year of programming. And I guess musicals are naturally a sexier product, but whether it be new plays or old plays, new musicals or old musicals, we work really hard to create quite a really interesting and quite challenging year set of shows for our audiences, and what I'm so proud and excited about is that they've really responded. Somebody who comes to see The White Devil who might never go to a musical might trust us to come and see something like Sweet Charity and then go and see something else. It's about broadening people's pace of interests. And we take that very seriously, it's part of our duty, I think, as being at the forefront of musical theatre to use the trust of our audience to hopefully introduce them to things that they wouldn't necessarily otherwise pick to go and see.

(Adam Hetrick is a staff writer for Playbill.com. Write to him at ahetrick@playbill.com.)

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