But it was only this spring that New York audiences got to see Grandage in action. His celebrated production of Peter Morgan's Frost/Nixon — a hit in London — opened in April to admiring reviews and is expected to be major contender in the play categories when the Tony Award nominations are announced. The play's move to Broadway is all part of Grandage five-year plan for the Donmar, which included getting the warehouse's work out in front of a larger number of eyes. He has also increased the company's exposure by producing works such as his star-studded revival of Guys and Dolls in larger West End theatres, and hopes that Frost/Nixon will soon be followed on Broadway by another Donmar production. Grandage talked to Playbill.com from London about building up the Donmar profile in New York, on the West End and beyond.
Playbill.com: Frost/Nixon is your Broadway debut as a director. What was the experience like? Just as you expected, or a surprise?
Michael Grandage: Very well put question. Let me just think. It wasn't as much a surprise as it could have been simply because a number of friends and colleagues over the years have made Broadway debuts and their report of it is very specific. But you can't really feel it until you feel it yourself. What I do know is that it was a hugely enjoyable experience from start to finish. There is a level of commitment to the business side of putting on a big Broadway show that I find quite awe-inspiring. I think the way Americans put on their productions, there's something very impressive and thorough about the way that process is approached. The feeling of no stone unturned, the feeling that they treat it as they would any serious business. I don't just mean about the need to get their money back. I mean the whole approach to selling a piece of work at the highest possible level…and it continues once the show is open. They produce! I'm not comparing this with anything that's lacking in England. It's just that it's a very present force. I was thrilled to discover that every single element of the production from the marketing of it to the support system technically in the theatre — all of that, it seems to be working well together.
Playbill.com: In other words, all those things that you have to address in your role as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse. Here, you just had to worry about being a director.
MG: I think you've hit the nail on the head. Even though we were presented a Donmar production of Frost/Nixon, you're absolutely right. I was very quickly able to look around and assess that all of that was very thoroughly in hand and therefore get on to working with the actors. That was a thoroughly enjoyable part of the experience, because the quality of actor here in American is absolutely extraordinary. This work demands a wonderful kind of American authenticity. In doing it with new actors, one discovered all sorts of extra things that really brought the play alive. The rehearsal process became something quite invigorating for me. There was no sense that we had been here before and we were just repeating it for a new audience.
Playbill.com: You've been in your position at the Donmar for five years now. If you were forced to, how would you describe your reign there, artistically? What are the earmarks?
MG: Well, a very strong attempt to shift the axis of our repertoire. The European repertoire, in particular, was something the Donmar had never investigated prior to my time there. It happens to be something that I particularly like. To be able to put on works by authors as diverse as Camus and Pirandello and Strindberg and Ibsen and Dario Fo was something that I wanted to do. Of course, you can want to do something and you can passionately believe in it, but until you do it you have no idea whether an audience wants to do it with you. I took some risks, given that I had inherited a theatre in a very strong position. I also wanted to develop the work for a bigger audience, get our work seen by more people. Audience development is a sort of ugly phrase for something that is fundamental to the growth of a theatre. But audience development is what it was. As you know, we have only a small capacity in our space in Covent Garden. So it was about starting a national touring program; it was about doing work in the West End under the Donmar name — Guys and Dolls was a development of that kind of thing. That's at the center of what we spent five years trying to achieve.
Playbill.com: To many American theatregoers, the most interesting part of your coming season was your decision to include Jason Robert Brown's musical Parade. What brought you around to that booking?
MG: A number of things, but perhaps first and foremost I've collaborated for a number years with the American choreographer Rob Ashford. We worked together on Guys and Dolls and then we worked on Evita. We've formed a very strong working relationship. I was aware that he had a huge gift beyond his choreographic skills. We talked a lot about him developing his talent. I told him that we hadn't done a musical at Donmar space since Grand Hotel. We try to look for musicals with a strong social sense to them and a strong dramatic throughline and something that can be reinterpreted in that small space. He came up with the idea of Parade. Jason Robert Brown has some profile in London. We all knew about him. So all those connections started to make sense. I went away and got to know the piece and immediately identified the piece as the kind of thing the Donmar is able to do best. In our small auditorium, we can forensically investigate the kind of character that those kind of musicals offer. It's a perfect fit for us. And this transformed into an offer for Rob to make his directorial debut. Rob was actually in the original production. Playbill.com: Is Brown planning on making any changes to the score?
MG: Oh, yeah, I've been involved in a fair bit of dialogue between [bookwriter] Alfred [Uhry] and Jason and Rob about how they can actually work on the musical. The most obvious thing to say is the Donmar is not able to do the kind of scale a musical like that was written for in terms of orchestra numbers and in terms of cast size numbers. That is always the case when we take on these sorts of musicals, historically — certainly, when I directed Grand Hotel. We always tell directors, "This is an opportunity to be liberated, rather than to feel it's a problem." So the inevitable changes that are going to have to come from consolidating the cast are going on.
Playbill.com: Does that mean that certain minor characters will be eliminated?
MG: What I don't want to do yet in the early stages is speak for specific changes that I know they're discussing. It's going on right as we're talking.
Playbill.com: Another thing in the season that is highly anticipated is the new Michael Frayn play The Crimson Hotel.
MG: It came about because I've long wanted to investigate the British absurdist movement, and I was trying to put together all sorts of seasons of plays together based of existing work. It's only when I started to put some feelers out that I discovered that Michael Frayn had written recently a small piece in the absurdist manner, in this case about a man and a woman who disappear off into a desert and have a secret liaison. They have to conjure up a massive amount of stuff to continue to have this affair, all out of their imagination. Douglas Hodge, who've we invited to direct this world premiere, has already set about trying to put that production on in the context of two other plays, with the same actors playing all the parts.
Playbill.com: There was talk that your production of Guys and Dolls might come over here. Has that talk died down?
MG: It's died down a little, though we're still trying to find out if it's possible to make that work. A thing like that is heavily dependent on getting the casting right, heavily dependent on the availability of a number key individuals. At the moment, we are all in a place where we're trying to find out if that production could go in the spring of 2008, and I think the truth is in the next couple of weeks, we'll have a very strong idea if that time frame can be achieved, or if we put it off until another time frame when it can be more easily achieved, or whether we move on and just continue to produce it in other places than the West End, like we are already with the UK tour going on. There are very serious attempts to get it on in Australia in the next 12 months.