Shortly after formulating a new Nutcracker commissioned from Opera North, Bourne had craved to recreate more "classics." So he decided to tackle Swan Lake. The show — a theatrical, wordless dance piece — sparked with audiences and went on to win Olivier, Evening Standard and two Tony Awards. It recently returned to its U.K. home at Sadler's Wells for a 10th anniversary run and is currently touring across the U.S.
Bourne, meanwhile, is busy juggling productions of My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins and his new dance theatre piece Edward Scissorhands with plans to leave his mark on Pal Joey.
Playbill.com: Take us back more than 10 years to before Swan Lake. What inspired you take on re-inventing such a classic?
Matthew Bourne: Swan Lake certainly wasn't something that had been in my mind. With a company of six, you don't think of doing Swan Lake. It was a project and we went to the Arts Council of Britain and asked for more money to be able to do this project. So, it was going to be on for two weeks at Sadler's Wells and then tour for 10 weeks and that was it. Then the project would be over and we'd go back to being a small company. And carry on quite happily with what we were doing. [Laughs.]
We just had no conception of what would happen or what did happen with that piece when it premiered. And to suddenly find ourselves in the West End and on the front page of the newspapers, then Broadway, unheard of. If you'd have asked me 10 years ago would I choreograph Swan Lake on Broadway, it was a ludicrous idea. Absolutely beyond comprehension. I couldn't have predicted any of what happened, it's been a fantastic journey.
Playbill.com: You've worked more frequently on traditional musical theatre works, how does the directing and/or choreographing differ from your own works?
MB: With my own shows, obviously I'm directing and choreographing, working with dancers I'm very familiar with. And I'm getting a lot from them and we create the work together. Whereas, doing a musical, I'm working with a director, with Poppins I co-directed with Richard [Eyre] — and co-choreographed with Stephen Mear — and it's much more of a different kind of team effort. With Poppins, there were two of everything — two sets of composers, two lots of producers, two directors, two choreographers [etc.] — and it was the craziest mix. You would think it would be a recipe for disaster [laughs], but we all got on incredibly well and it was one of the most genuine collaborations I've ever had, in the sense that we weren't sure where one started and the next one began, because of the way we worked. We all contributed to everything in a very organic way. It is very different, but I don't approach a musical any different than a classic ballet because the musicals that I've tended to work on are classics anyway. They already have classic status, they are already...pieces that people have a deep love and affection for.
Playbill.com: Does the same apply to directing for a tour as opposed to a sit-down production?
MB: I always insist now that I'm available to put the piece on and I'm there for the rehearsal period. I have people who do recreate it, step by step, but I need to be there to direct it; to make sure the standards are up to scratch, etc. And I try to visit as much as possible. With a new show, like Edward Scissorhands, I'm here every night. I've watched them from beginning to end. So I'm really hands-on at the moment because it's a new show, whereas Swan Lake, I'll visit once in a while to see how it's doing. You know, you'd like to be more present because I think there's always an encouraging word or a thought that you could plant in people's minds that's going to change the whole show.
Playbill.com: With Edward Scissorhands, lead me through the process of adapting it into one of your works for the stage.
MB: Obviously, the first thing is to think theatrically about it rather than cinematically. You've got to find a theatrical language for it, theatrical ideas for it and then, of course, dance ideas as well. That was the first hurdle to overcome with it: Was that possible? Could we find enough ways to make that work on stage? And we've come up with some lovely ideas in terms of the imagery from the films, the topiary in particular. We have some dancing topiary which is such a strong memory or image from the film, but it makes [for] a theatrical coup, really. Edward and Kim dance through this whole garden of dancing topiary, it's quite a sight. I think it's finding those parallels, but also create surprises for people who do know the film, so that it's not just an experience where they sort of know what they're going to get. And telling a story to people who have not seen the film or don't have any knowledge of the film. We've done a prologue which explains why Edward was made in the first place and there's a new ending and many different scenes and opportunities for movement and social comedy and this fantastic love story at the center of it. I've been so thrilled by the audience response to it, particularly young people, teenagers, which is an audience that's quite elusive in the theatre. And an audience that really respond to this, that Edward is their hero they could identify with his awkwardness. He's like a child, he starts off as a baby almost and turns into man by the end of the piece and I think young people respond to that so much.
Playbill.com: I know one point in the show's evolution, the film's composer Danny Elfman was attached.
MB: Danny was really, really keen to do this, he was very excited about working in theatre. He was quite nervous about writing what he saw as a ballet score. I didn't see it that way, I thought it was like writing a film score. His original score for "Edward," if you look on the CD tracks, it refers to dance quite a lot — there's the "Ballet de Suburbia," there's the "Ice Dance," it's all written in suites and it really has a dance quality or sense to what he's written. He was just too busy in the end with films and he'd recently got married and had a child with Bridget Fonda and [with] the intense time you need creating a full score for music and dance, it just couldn't happen. There's still a lot of Danny in it, work that's from the film. There are some themes that Terry [Davis] expanded upon, but we've tried to be as authentic to Danny's stuff as possible, and there's a lot of new stuff by Terry.
Playbill.com: What comes first: the dance or the music?
MB: A little bit of everything really. We explored the soundtrack to see what was really usable, what we could use complete and what we could use a little theme from and what would work for us. I was constantly listening to try and find sections that would work and envision them in different ways. Of course, it wasn't written to accompany a dance necessarily, it was written to accompany scenes, so in some cases we had to give a bit of rhythmic variety so it was more expansive. Sometimes, the way I work with Terry, I will stage something and then the music will arrive and I'll be a little bit surprised by it and then go "Okay, well that gives me a different idea" and it will change what I'm thinking and vice versa really. Sometimes, I'll do things he hadn't imagined when he was writing. But even the last couple of weeks, we've been doing some fine-tuning. That's the great thing about having a living composer, you can actually tighten the whole thing up. You don't feel you're playing around with a great piece of art you can't touch.
Playbill.com: Mary Poppins is Broadway-bound, what can audiences expect?
MB: Our approach was similar in some ways [to Edward], it was about creating a new book musical for the theatre. To do that was to honor the film and Mrs. [P.L.] Travers, who wrote the books, and to incorporate the two and to try to re-imagine a lot of the famous numbers, which we've done. I think the one that's nearest to the film is probably "Step in Time," in terms of its chimney sweeps on the rooftops. But every other number is conceived in a very different way. "Supercalifragilistic" and "Jolly Holiday" and there's plenty of new numbers as well, by [George] Stiles and [Anthony] Drewe, which amazingly fit in extremely well with the Sherman brothers' famous score. The word "dark" has been applied to it, but it's certainly not dark. I think that's a real misconception. It has a modern feel about it, in the sense that it's about a family that are drifting apart and Mary, when she arrives, has a real job to do in bringing this family together. It's quite contemporary in that sense. And the kids are quite badly behaved, I suppose, as kids might be if they're a bit neglected by their father; they're snobbish and rude. With the kids in the film, they're already quite sweet and it feels like she hasn't got an enormous task ahead of her, so that's what we tried to set up. It's a little deeper than you'd expect it to be.
Playbill.com: You're a self-confessed movie fanatic, had you known the work well?
With Poppins, I was the arbiter of what was appropriate because I was apparently the person who knew the film the best. I could quote lines from it, correct people if they were getting the lyrics wrong. [Laughs.]
Playbill.com: You also worked on My Fair Lady recently. There's talk it might tour the U.S.
MB: I think it is, actually. Cameron [Mackintosh] keeps saying it is or it might be. But there is definitely a plan to tour it. I suppose, depending on fantastic casting, it could play on Broadway. But I think it's casting-dependent really. The production is doing very well around Britain.
Playbill.com: You're also planning to revive Pal Joey for the Broadway stage.
MB: Yes. I'm talking to Joe Mantello about co-directing it. We're looking at the various versions of it that are currently in existence to see what version we would like and what we would want to develop. It's quite casting-dependent for me. The thing that's going to get me excited is a really sexy casting. I think we're also looking to do it in not a traditionally conventional space. But, it's sort of early days yet. It won't be this year, it would be the following year, I think. But, it's exciting, I don't think it's a musical that's got a strong identity attached to it, in terms of a director or choreographer from the past. I've been offered revivals of things, like Sweet Charity and shows like that and I just can't see it in any other way than how the original creators created it. I'd rather not put myself up against that.
Playbill.com As if all that weren't enough, are you working on anything else?
MB: I think the next thing I do for my company will be small and experimental like Play Without Words was. Little did I know it would turn into a touring hit show [laughs]. It's something about the way I work, I'm very audience-conscious, so [even] when I try to be experimental and avant-garde, I end up entertaining the masses.
Playbill.com: Some curse.
MB: It's a curse, I know. [Laughs.]