Flowers For Mrs Harris | Pre-Show Talk | Chichester Festival Theatre

Flowers For Mrs Harris | Pre-Show Talk | Chichester Festival Theatre


Kate: Thank you very much. Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome to the “wrong theatre”. We are in Copenhagen, not Paris. That is because the wonderful new musical that is previewing then opening on Friday night, directed by the artistic director, your artistic director of this theatre (Cheers from the audience.) they’re just making sure it’s all shipshape. So we are back in Copenhagen and we’ve been told we must not break the chairs, so nobody throw anything at us. Daniel, welcome back to your theatre. It always seems stupid to welcome you to your own theatre and stages. I saw the first preview and it’s just a delight. I’m not sure I’ve seen a musical quite like it. Daniel: I don’t know if there is one. Kate: In a good way – all the good ways. A mixture of an amazing central lead character, incredible cast but playing multiple roles around her. The idea of a character who is a charlady just after the war when rationing is still going, being the hero of the piece, the protagonist of the piece. It was just amazing, a wonderful piece. I know that you started work-shopping it in 2012. It was on in Sheffield in 2016. Can you just explain a little bit first about the piece and the musical, and secondly how it is that musicals develop over such a long period of time? Has it changed from when you first did it in Sheffield? Daniel: Yes, Stephen Sondheim has a quote that I like to quote. He says that that musicals aren’t written they’re rewritten. I think he says that because – and I don’t know why it’s pertinent for musicals only but it seems that whenever musicals are developed they can lag in development hell. I say “hell” sometimes for the authors. Authors always want to see their work put on. I guess it’s because often, not always, but often, there are many more collaborators. You sometimes have aas well as a composer. Sometimes it’s a lyricist/composer like Sondheim or Richard Taylor who wrote “Flowers for Mrs. Harris” . Then you get a book-writer. Very rarely do you get someone who can do all three of those disciplines. I think partly it’s about the team. Then a director, a designer and sometimes a choreographer come in. They’re making the piece together. This particular piece is unusual because people tend to describe it as something that is sung through like “Les Miserables”. Actually it’s not. There are dialogue scenes. But it gives the impression because there’s a lot of underscore. It gives the impression of each act being one arc. That is what the authors are attempting to write. It’s a piece where time and location are fluid. Even though it starts in a kitchen and you think you might be watching something by D H Lawrence… Kate: Except more cheerful. (Laughter) Daniel: Yes, more jokes, sometimes. Very quickly Mrs. Harris goes to clean for her friend Violet’s client, Lady Dant in Belgravia. Violet is still in the kitchen in the present but Mrs. Harris is in Lady Dant’s in the future They are able to talk to one another so it’s a complex thing. That’s why figuring out the language of how word and music and also how time and place knitted together took a long time. Kate: You’ve mentioned people thinking it’s sung through and explained what that means. But it’s a delicate sort of musical. We’ve just had the wonderful “Me and my Girl” which was just fabulous. Daniel: Not a delicate musical. Kate: It’s not that it’s not “delicate” but there are “numbers”. I think that’s the difference. People talk and then they do big numbers. Daniel: It’s robust isn’t it? Kate: In “Mrs. Harris” they talk in notes in a way and then there are big songs. but it’s not it’s not dance routine-y. Daniel: No and that’s why I think Richard Taylor’s big influences are Benjamin Britten and Sondheim. Richard might not say that himself. The thing Sondheim can do, and I remember Sondheim telling me this, that’s not me dropping names it’s just I had the great privilege to work with him twice on a piece, the thing I love about what he does is that if you are acting the thoughts as characterized by his writing, and you speak them according to the intention, then you’re almost acting in pitch. So if I think of “finishing the hat” well there you are “finishing the hat”. It goes “finishing the hat” (Daniel sings). That’s a Sondheim song and I think that’s the same thing that happens in “Mrs. Harris”. Albert says to her “what are you waiting for?” and that’s the pitch, “what are you waiting for?” (Daniel sings) So it’s fascinating to me as an actor who’s also done some singing but also working with a cast of actor/singers because they love this kind of work. But you’re right. It’s not like there’s a song and then a scene. Whereas “Me and my Girl” had that kind of music hall robustness, “Mrs. Harris” is much more delicate. Kate: Rachel Wagstaff and Richard Taylor were working together with you. When it was on in Sheffield it was a huge success. Everybody was talking about it and not everybody got to see it. What did you decide about how you would revisit it? Were there things that you as the creative team thought:- “if we do it again, we’re going to do a little bit less of this and a bit more of that”? Just explain how you decide to fiddle with something that worked really well. That’s a dangerous thing, isn’t it, to have a go at something that had been so successful? Daniel: When you put it like that, yes! (Laughter). I wanted to do it again but I didn’t come to Chichester thinking I would bring “Mrs. Harris” here It was just after I arrived, I was thinking about what kinds of things our audience might enjoy or might not know yet that they might enjoy. A few of our supporters said to me “oh we heard about Mrs. Harris in Sheffield, please bring it” Some people asked for it. People seemed to know of Paul Gallico more than Richard Wagstaff and Richard Taylor. This is natural, I read some Galico when I was at school. The Snow Goose is a story most people know. Kate: And the “Poseidon Adventure”. He’s one of those names. It’s astonishing that I didn’t know that he had written “Mrs. ‘Arris” as it’s actually called. Daniel: He was an American who came to live in the UK and settled in Cornwall. That was the first thing, thinking this might be something that our audience might enjoy. The second thing was that even though it had been a success in Sheffield, we knew there was some work to do on it dramaturgically. ‘ll give you one example of how things have changed. In Sheffield Mrs.Harris sees the dress – I’m not giving anything away here – but she she sees the dress on page 16 in the original Sheffield version. In the Chichester version she sees it on page 7. Kate: Right, so you accelerate? Daniel: We swapped some scenes and the order of the structure around. The inciting incident of the play, the event that causes the rest of the play to happen, happens earlier in the evening. That has paid great dividends to us not least because you get what it’s about sooner. Just from just from a plot point of view the narrative just jumps to it. But also having that event there had an effect on following events. Then when we meet Mrs. Harris’ clients, her own clients, in the next song, her interaction with them also then changed. One of her clients is an actress. She doesn’t know what to wear to this audition. Mrs.Harris is now able to have a conversation with her about Christian Dior dresses which she wasn’t able to before because she didn’t know they existed. Kate: Yes, she hadn’t seen it. There’s a wonderful design by Lez Brotherston who’s the resident designer in many ways. But there’s something about that sense of rationing after the war. The grayness of life. Daniel: Austerity. Kate: Then the sudden colour. That’s why it’s so powerful. It’s actually quite political from that point of view. It’s not just a dress. Daniel: I think it’s hugely political but with a small “P”. Kate: In a nice way. Daniel: One of the things that Mrs. Harris says when she’s turfed out, she eventually gets to Paris and that is giving something away, but you’ve probably read some things about it anyway she’s on the cusp of being turfed out of a showing. She says to the manageress of Dior “If something is beautiful it’s beautiful for everyone no matter who you are.” I think that is a political statement. Art is for everyone and you can enjoy opera or you can enjoy Netflix. You can be from whatever strata of society or from whatever background and these things, whether it’s film or fashion can speak to your heart and move you. They can change the way you view life, your own life, or how you might interact with others.. I know you keep hearing me say this, over and over, but I know that the theatre changed my life. It keeps changing my life in such a great way. The great work that we do here with our “LEAP” department and our work with young people in the community, we know, because they tell us, it changes the lives of these young people and indeed older people that we collaborate with. At its heart it’s got a real strong message about what art can do for everyone. Kate: It’s an epiphany in a way when she sees it. Daniel: It is. She says it’s like she’s been blind until the moment she saw the dress. There’s an invention that Richard and Rachel, our authors have added. It’s not in the Gallico. Well it’s hinted at in the Gallico but this I’m not going to tell you because it does give something away. It’s hopefully a nice surprise in the end of scene one. Kate: This is a good story I think. Daniel: I’m sorry, I’m intriguing and teasing you. Kate: I thought the thing that is so powerful and joyous about the piece was In a way, telling the story, even if you did, doesn’t tell you anything about what you’re about to see. Daniel: No it doesn’t. Kate: Strangely it doesn’t. In some things it does. Daniel: That’s right. She says herself, it’s not really about the dress. It’s not. It’s about her realising that she’s been holding on to something that in order to live a full life she has to let go of. There was wonderful quote by a Anais Nin which encapsulated to me what the story’s about. It’s in the program but it says something like:- The day came when the risk of remaining tight in a bud became greater than the risk of blossoming. That’s really what the piece is about. It’s about a woman, a person of a certain age, deciding that it’s time for her to blossom. I find that very very moving. Kate: The amazing Claire Burt who played Mrs. Harris for you in Sheffield and is reprising it here is obviously a fabulous performer anyway and it’s a wonderful piece. But there are several very strong female characters. I know this is something you’ve talked about before. You have an insanely brilliant cast for this one. Particularly since many of them are playing a French waiter here and so forth. She’s the only one who’s herself. Daniel: She’s the only one who doesn’t double. She gets to go to both cities. I think she’s the only one who does that too. Everyone else doubles if not trebles. Kate: I’ve suddenly thought, there’s an element of “Wizard of Oz” there. Daniel: Yes, there is. Kate: Of course with Kansas, and with the Paris/London thing. Daniel: Indeed that is a story about her going in search at what she thinks of as home is out there. Part of Dorothy’s learning is that home is in here and it’s a similar quest. It’s a quest story. I often talked in rehearsals about it, comparing it to something like an obvious quest story. Like the Tolkien stories where Frodo has been given this task and has to find his fellowship, his team of people who will help him and acquire weapons along the way that are going to help him. It’s the same with Mrs. Harris. She has to find the things that are going to enable her to get to a different country To enable her to be able to pay for this thing that she thinks is going to transform her life. Kate: It’s a very strange thing to have a huge lead, such a big central part and also it being an ensemble piece. I’ve never seen that balance before really. Daniel: Yes, that’s true. I think that’s one of the joys of the piece. You have this still central performance but then this constellation of a small cast of ten actors. There are also other people who appear in Act Two who revolve literally around her which hopefully is exciting. But you’re right, it’s an embarrassment of riches in terms of asking Gary Wilmot to play a French maitre d. They’ve all played leads in their own right. Louis Maskell who plays two parts was the lead in “The Grinning Man” in the West End. Laura Pitbull too, it’s wonderful for us, a great privilege. Kate: Returning to it with all the work that’s happened in between, does it feel new? Does it feel happily familiar? It’s quite close but it’s not following straight on. I just wonder what that feels like, returning to a piece. Daniel: Around 30% of the material is new. Kate: So is that enough? It does feel new. Weirdly the restructuring which happened, I’ve given you just one example, does make it feel new. Also we’re on a different stage. I know both are thrust stages but actually they do have crucial differences. So we’ve had to find new ways of telling the story. In a way it is like meeting an old friend. However that friend has had a facelift, maybe. Something has happened. They’ve had a transformation. They’ve had a makeover. Kate: Quite a few of the cast are the people you did have. Daniel: Half the cast. Half are new. This of course also helps to make it feel new. In rehearsals we had to be careful that we never said “oh well last time…” We banned that phrase on the whole. So it does feel new and also the reaction from the audience is new. We get many more laughs in Chichester. (Laughter) Kate: I feel that should be a round of applause for Chichester! Daniel: We do, we get more laughs here. Kate: That’s really interesting. Is it places you were not expecting to get them? Daniel: Yes, true. Kate: I’m sorry, that sounded pointed. I didn’t mean it to. Also there were laughs that we got in Sheffield that we don’t get here. It’s really interesting. I don’t know if it’s because we are literally closer to France, (laughter) but the French jokes… I don’t know if it’s because it’s easier to get to Paris from here than Kate: …to get to Sheffield from here! Daniel: Definitely! But Paris in particular we get more laughs. But that’s great because then we dive into something very different towards the end of the piece. Kate: That’s so interesting. We’ve talked about this many times before when we’ve been on this stage and with other directors. That moment of moving from the rehearsal room into the theatre and having an audience in for the first time. The nerves about that and waiting for things. With something like this are you still working, heading for press night on Friday when it will be printed and that will be it or is it itself already? Daniel: Well musicals are not written they’re rewritten. We’re getting a very nice reaction so far. We are making changes daily. That’s one of the great things about working with living writers and composers. We’ve just put a whole lot of edits or amendments to lines. Also to some sung lines too. It’s very much moving. That is hard work for the cast. They have to be able to cancel what was before and learn something new and do it in front of an audience for the first time. In terms of tonight they’re not major. There’s no brand new song being written. But that does happen from time to time. For example in “Sunday in the Park”, George Sondheim’s piece, one of the songs in Act 2 was written during previews. Mandy Patinkin had to learn it and go on that night and sing it. It turns out of course to be one of the best songs in the piece. It’s not to that extent but probably after tonight we will let the dust settle a little. When the critics come towards the end of the week and over the days after that they see a consistent show. Kate: When you’re making those changes is it you as the director? Is it Rachel and Richard as the book writer and the composer? Is it Tom Brady the amazing musical director? There’s a wonderful orchestra down there and lovely melody under our feet. Is it everybody saying:- “can we just do this or that?” Or is it very much at this point you? Daniel: No, it’s a collaboration. That’s why I love doing what I do because you get to work with people and you get to work with people who are better than you so it’s a proper collaboration. Even some of the actors come up with great suggestions. I say “even” some of the actors as if that meant “shock horror”. Of course the actors who are inside the parts are often the people who say:- “actually could I say them this way?” So it’s a proper collaboration where we’re all getting our minds and our heads together to make the best version we can possibly make for Chichester. Kate: I’m going to go out and ask the audience for their questions in a moment but I’m going to be very naughty and sneaky as chair’s privilege sitting here. There’s been some amazing things on over the season already and there are some wonderful things still to come. You’ve also taken “Quiz” into the West End, “Lear” into the West End and you also did “Me And My Girl”. How do you keep all of those different things, you as a director, not you as the king of all this, when you’re doing four such different shows and scripts, how do you keep that sort of passion for each thing going and not just get totally worn out? It’s a lot of work this year isn’t it? Daniel: Yes. I guess the passion also comes from your collaborators. It also comes from what you work on. You choose the things that you hope the audience will feel passionate about and that you feel passionate about and that both things can come together. But it is really collaborators that also inspire you. Also I have to say the team at the theatre are an extraordinarily diligent and talented team of people who are working just as hard as I am if not harder. One couldn’t do it on one’s own. You are buoyed up by other people’s enthusiasm even when you are learning painful lessons. We had a difficult first half last night because we had some sound issues. I purposely talked to some audience members in the interval to get their experience. It’s really hard to hear that when people have paid some money and the sound isn’t quite there yet. But it’s great because then I could talk to Mike Walker, our brilliant sound designer and Mike could make some amendments. The second half was already better. We’ve worked on it again today. So it’s a conversation and it’s a constant conversation. When that stops then I guess I should stop. Kate: When you’re walking around here or you’re walking down St Martins Lane or you’re up in Hampstead and now “Caroline or Change” is going to the Playhouse I think, so another move, you must feel “Yes – that’s a “Chi” show!” Daniel: Oh definitely, you bet. Kate: You’re allowed to boast in front of this audience just a tiny bit. Daniel: We’ve got our first NT live at the end of the month on the 27th. That’s something we feel really proud of that we’ll be beaming into theatres Ian McKellen’s performance as King Lear with his wonderful cast globally. That feels very proud that we’re able to take the work we make here for our audience to the world. As I say all the time it’s not that we make our work, we make our work for our audience. We don’t make it to transfer. Nor should we but of course it is wonderful when we get an opportunity to share it with a wider audience and have a representation of Chichester Festival Theatre in our capital city and in cinemas all over the world. Kate: I know a lot of friends and supporters of this theatre have long been wanting an NT live from here. It’s brilliant that has finally happened. Daniel: Remember we had to ration tickets to “Lear”. You could get two because it was in the Minerva which in many ways was bonkers. Even at the Duke of York’s we’ve managed to reduce the seating capacity. It’s one of the smaller West End theatres and is now even smaller. That’s partly because Ian was absolutely determined that he wanted to recreate the Minerva as much as possible and be able to speak it rather than shout it, the verse that is. Kate: A chamber piece. Daniel: A chamber piece. Those who saw it will recognise that portrayal. I don’t know how he’s able to do it. He’s 80 and manages to endure 20 minutes of rain every night and every matinee. He gives such a moving portrayal of a mind disintegrating. He wanted absolutely to hold on to that. I’m really excited to see how the camera and close-up portrays that in a different way again. Kate: Are you going to be in the theatre? Daniel: I’m going to be at the theatre, yes, at the Duke of York’s rather than at a cinema. Kate: Well I think we should all support this and go to a cinema as well. Daniel: Great, thank you, please. Kate: Let’s have some questions! Audience Member: Daniel you’re on record as having said about “Flowers for Mrs Harris” – and I quote:- “It’s the best piece of musical writing I’ve heard in a long long time”. I have to say I agree with you. I’ve seen it and I think it is absolutely brilliant. It’s beautifully and movingly presented. Thank you to you and to the whole company. My question is – are there other similar productions from your own previous experience that would also lend themselves to being re-imagined for the Chichester stage? Daniel: Oh wow! Kate: Wow! And that question was written down! Daniel: Can I just clarify? Productions from my previous experience that would benefit from a re-imagining on the Chichester stage? Well there’s one I can’t talk about. Kate: Everybody goes back to Sheffield. Daniel: Let me just think. I actually cannot answer that. The things that are in my head are possibilities and I don’t want to give the game away. But let me think more broadly. There have definitely been performances that I wish we could share with our audience here. For example John Simm’s Hamlet. John Simm is a wonderful actor. He does a lot of television. He was the most witty Hamlet that I’ve ever seen. I think our audience would eat that up. He was devastating, partly because he was so funny, so witty as well as then being the tragic prince. Kate: I think that’s fair enough and also I think it’s a great question. In a way you’ve answered it by saying there are things and I’m not going to tell you because you might be seeing them and that’s the best answer of all. Everybody can go back to the archives and that would be fine. Another question? Audience Member: It’s been a fantastic season so far. I believe musicals are almost your chief love. Am I right? Daniel: I wouldn’t say that. I love them equally with plays. But I just happen to love music and so I’m drawn to certain things. I was wondering about the whole thing about collaboration. It seems to me that in a musical that really comes up. Daniel: It does, yes. More than in plays. Audience Member: That’s what I wanted to ask – do you find that? Daniel: Yes, it’s true. That’s partly because there are so many different elements. Already Kate’s mentioned the musical director and the movement director. Also the language of lighting and sound is entirely different in a musical. Kate: Lighting? In what way? Is that because you need to highlight particular performances? That’s really interesting. Daniel: You probably know the phrase but not everyone knows it “the button”. At the end of certain musical numbers there is a thing called “the button”. It’s the moment you tell the audience that we would like some applause here. It’s like at the end of (Daniel Sings) “Doing the Lambeth Walk” dumba dum dum pum!!! That final “pum” is called “the button”. On Broadway, believe it or not, there’s a brilliant book about the making of Spider-Man the musical. It’s called “The story of Spider-Man”. No it’s “The song of Spider-Man”. In it there’s something I’d never heard of. It was directed by Julie Taymor who is the wonderful director behind the Lion King. I don’t know if you’ve seen it but the Lion King is incredibly inventive. This book is an account of his time writing the Spider-Man musical. There’s a moment where things aren’t going well. They decide that one of the solutions is to bring in a writer to write the “buttons”. So they bring in someone who specialises in how to write the end of a song and ask for applause. The reason I bring this is up is because the lighting of “buttons” is crucial. You’ll see this twice in “Mrs. Harris”. But you saw it multiple times in “Me and My Girl” where the lighting goes with the last note of the song. Kate: So we’re being subliminally told? Daniel: Oh not subliminally. I think very, very actively. There are broadly two versions where the lights go brighter on the “button” or they go dimmer on the “button”. It’s a signal of a culmination of an event which is a song in musicals. That’s partly the conversation that happens between audience and performers. Audience Member: Fantastic! Kate: Question from the gentleman there? Audience member: The question is about revivals. You also did a show by Tim Firth called “This is my family”. A little bird told me in Leeds that that might be revived? Daniel: Well the little bird hasn’t told me. Audience Member: So that’s not the secret one you mentioned? That was wonderful too though. That was also sung through in the same way. Daniel: It was actually, more songs than dialogue but oddly enough had the same leading lady. Claire Bert was also the mother in “This is my Family”. There’s an unusual case in point, Kate, where Tim Firth on “This is my Family” is the book writer, the lyric writer and the composer. Kate: That is amazing. Daniel: I’s a different experience when you are working with just one brain. Kate: Presumably sometimes it is one thing that’s a bit creaky and sometimes another thing. If they don’t feel that then there’s no safety in numbers. Daniel: No indeed and that’s why I’m such a mad fan of Sondheim. It’s because the music and the lyrics marry so incredibly well. They’re coming from the same brain. Audience Member: How do you budget for a for a musical? Daniel: That’s another big difference between musicals and plays. They’re more expensive. That’s because it involves musicians and orchestrators and copyists. For example one thing that you might not know about when there are changes being made. You can imagine a change being made to a part of the score then someone has to go and type in those different notes to a computer software called Sibelius. They then print them out and give all the different parts to each instrument. So you make one change and there’s a cascade of events that has to happen in order to make it that night. You just cross your fingers that everyone’s got the right part. How do we budget? It’s a team effort. It starts with looking at the text and looking at how many actors you need. How many musicians does the score demand? Sometimes, for example on “Caroline or Change” it was non-negotiable. We had to have 14 musicians because Jeanine Tesori, the composer, just won’t let it be done with less in the band. There are certain diktats that you have to adhere to. Obviously the cast size will vary accordingly. There were 24 in “Me and My Girl”. There are just 10 in “Mrs. Harris” You then take into account how much income you can raise against our budget so how many performances? I think we did in the region of 60 of “Me and My Girl”. We’re just doing about around 24 of “Mrs. Harris”. That has an impact so again it’s a team effort. All the creative team give their impressions of the kind of musical style of the scenic work, the lighting. There was video in “Me and My Girl” There is none in “Mrs. Harris”. It’s a fact-finding mission to begin with. and then a balancing act of income versus expenditure. As Mrs. Harris finds out herself. Kate: Final question? Audience Member: I think you’re great and I’m going to see the show tonight. I flew to the UK just to see it. Daniel: Wow! From where, may I ask? From Prague in the Czech Republic. Daniel: Ah welcome! Audience Member: My question is more general. I’m a dramaturgy graduate, doing a PhD at the moment. Directing and dramaturgy students in my country do a lot of internships where you can be attached to a production and watch the whole process. I’m just wondering, you mentioned working with young people, does something like that go on here as well? Would there be ever a chance…. ? (laughter and applause) Kate: You’ve got to admire that, blimey that’s fantastic! Actually it’s a good point about how you support the next generation, the younger people coming up. You could answer about the programs you have. Then Greg will work out the new shows that are coming. This gentleman will tell you what you’re doing and this lady will be directing them. Daniel: We have a literary associate here, Kate Bassett is our resident dramaturg. Kate works closely with me and our playwrights on reading plays. Well you know the work of a dramaturg. The reading first of all is enormous. You’re reading extant work as well as new work. You’re working closely with experienced playwrights as well as younger playwrights. The line between director and dramaturg can also blur sometimes. There are some directors, for example Natalie Abrahami who directed “The Meeting” which was here earlier in the season. She worked very closely with Charlotte Jones herself as a dramaturg in collaboration with our literary associates. We don’t yet run (the Czech scheme) but you’ve given me an idea, thank you. We don’t yet run a scheme for young dramaturgs. The position itself “dramaturg” is something that’s considered more European than British. It’s only in the last 20 years that theatres have acquired a literary associate. That’s apart from new writing theatres which have had them since the ’60s. But I’ll think about it. Send me your CV. Kate: Very good. That is a wonderful note of which to finish. Ladies and Gentlemen, your artistic director, the director Daniel Evans! (Applause)

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