This week In the Hot Seat with Larry LeBlanc: Garry McQuinn, producer, "Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical."
At some point, you can expect Garry McQuinn to do a victory lap around New York’s Broadway theatre district.
After all, it’s a real triumph for an Australian from Wollongong to land on Broadway as lead producer of a popular musical.
In these days of global musical brands, McQuinn is busily mapping out the future international journey for “Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical” in nearly a dozen countries while continuing to oversee the day-to-day of current productions on Broadway, and London’s West End.
As well, McQuinn is one of the licensors of the stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's “Through A Glass Darkly,” which opened June 6, 2011 at the New York Theater Workshop. It runs to July 3, 2011.
“Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical,” with a book by Australian film director/writer Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, is the story of two drag queens and a transsexual traveling to cabaret gig in the middle of the Australian desert.
The musical, which features hit pop songs of the past in its score, is a stage adaptation of Elliott's 1994 film “The Adventures of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.”
Costing $6.5 million (Australian) to mount, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical,” premiered Oct. 7, 2006 at the Lyric Theatre, Star City Casino in Sydney, Australia.
It opened on Broadway on March 20, 2011 at the Palace Theatre. Producers include iconic singer/actress Bette Midler, who joined the production team after seeing the musical at the Palace Theatre in London's West End.
“Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical” is slated to open in Milan, Italy later this year. That will be followed by a production in Brazil, opening March 16, 2012. An American national tour is planned for the Fall of 2012.
McQuinn, who is managing director of Back Row Productions, which has offices in London, and Sydney, has an impressive and comprehensive theatrical past, including stints as a director, tour manager, production manager, and company manager.
Prior to joining Back Row, McQuinn operated his own production company, Stage Business, specializing in mounting large-scale musicals, such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Showboat,” and “The Boy from Oz.”
Back Row both develops new theatrical shows, and oversees productions of well-known shows globally.
The company has presented such international touring productions as “Tap Dogs,” Matthew Bourne's “Swan Lake” (which is the longest-running contemporary ballet in both Broadway, and the West End), “Slava’s Snowshow,” “Mum’s the Word,” “Gumboots,” “Circus Oz,” “Fosse” as well as the Shaolin Monks of China, and Jerry Seinfeld.
Back Row has also provided tour consultancy for productions of “Miss Saigon” (Portugal), “Starlight Express” and “Chicago” (Greece), “Cats” (Portugal), “Grease” (Monte Carlo) and Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” (Dubai).
Following high school, McQuinn decided to apply for a production course at the National Institute of Dramatic Art in Kensington, Australia. He was one of six—out of his starting class of 16—to complete the course, which entailed morning academic classes, afternoon workshops and most evenings at the theatre. Later on, he returned to NIDA to teach the same program for nine years.
After four years as stage manager for the Melbourne Theatre Company, McQuinn went to the U.K., and spent several years there working as stage manager for “Noises Off” productions around the world.
Then, returning to Australia, he worked as production manager of several major productions, including: “The Rocky Horror Show,” and “Steaming,” before moving into producing “Beauty & The Beast,” “The Boy From Oz,” and “Show Boat.”
For a decade, from 1995, McQuinn was in Britain, running Back Row Productions with his partner Liz Koops.
McQuinn moved back to Australia to produce the stage production of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical” for its Sydney run. Afterwards, the show played in Melbourne followed by Auckland, New Zealand for a limited run.
Prior to Broadway, “Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Musical” had a 12-week run in Toronto with the full Broadway cast.
Where are you based?
I’ve been based in New York. I have been commuting regularly to London for the past year. Next week, I move my base back to London, and I will spend, perhaps, one week each month in New York.
With the popularity of the film, was there a built-in expectation for “Priscilla” as a stage musical?
Yeah, I think so, but “Priscilla” was always a challenge (as a musical). There are a lot of people now who say they knew it’d be successful. Well, when we were raising $6.5 million in Australian dollars—which is a lot of money in that market—a lot of those people weren’t there putting their hands in their pockets, I have to say. It was a big leap into the unknown and with the support of Chuggie (Australian concert promoter Mike Chugg)—I have to say—who was there from day one, and has never backed away or even flinched at the difficult times, we were able to get it up.
Due to the film, there are certain expectations about the musical.
There are a bunch of expectations that you have to juggle. Not the least being the expectation of the people who created the film in the first place. They actually came with me. This is something that complicates my life occasionally. We, in the end, only got the rights from Stephan Elliott, the writer/director of the film, on the basis of my personal guarantee to him—and that I have struggled to maintain—that we wouldn’t Disney-Ize the show; that we would be authentic to those characters; that we would continue to tell those stories with a measure of truth in the way we tell those stories, and to the characters that they are.
That’s been a bit of a battle because there’s a bit of a contradiction here between our need, frankly, to reach a solid middle class audience who are going to buy ten to thousands of tickets, and with characters whose lifestyles and lives themselves are, sometimes, a little outrageous.
Audiences might also go to the show expecting to see an exact replica of the film.
I expect that most of our audiences have never seen the film now. If they have, it might have been on late night television. More people in London have seen the musical many more times than people ever saw the movie on its first release. I can’t speak about DVDs or cable television, of course; but, in terms of the receipts in Australia, our grosses there were many, many times what the movie grossed. I know they are different finance economics, and you can’t really compare numbers; but, my point is that “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, The Musical” has now achieved its own life which is built on that of the movie but is beyond that of the movie. They are very different things.
The list of producers for “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the Musical” is quite long. Can you spin on a dime and make whatever changes you need to make quickly on the show or is there a corporate-type committee?
To some extent, there is a little bit of a committee. It is far more onerous than I intended it to be. In fact, the number of those producers gives some indication of the lack of corporateness in a way. We would be in a much worse position if there was a single producing name next to ours.
Why we ended up with so many (producers) is partly an issue of my naiveté in fund-raising for Broadway combined with a significant amount of interest in the show. With the benefit of hindsight, I would have probably given bigger slices to fewer people. In the end, it actually works for me. And yes, I can sort of spin on a dime.
What roles do these producers play with the show?
One of the great things about the American mind-set—in this territory only, and bear in mind that I am kind of new to this—is that the definition of “producer” on Broadway is a very, very broad definition. I have people that I would call “bundlers”—people who committed to raising relatively a small amount of money—and it’s all in writing—and then they went out and loaned that money off. In the end, some of those names don’t have any of their personal money in the show. They bundled (their share), and sold it off to other people. Still, that definition of “producer” extends to them.
The Broadway community gets around that by identifying the lead producer (in a show). Everybody can call themselves a producer, but I’m the lead producer. Basically, that means not only do I have that kind of authority but, the doubled-edged sword of that is that I have the responsibility. Translation, it’s my fault if anything goes wrong.
Bringing in Bette Midler as a producer for the Broadway production was a PR triumph, if only because she has deep roots in the gay community. She’s a great figurehead.
I think that’s exactly right. Bette Midler’s involvement is exactly what it appears to be, and exactly what she says. She came and saw the show in London. I happened to be in London, so I went there that night, and took her backstage. She said, “I’d like to be involved” or, “Can I be involved?” I took that to mean money. When I got back to New York, I reached out to her thinking that it was probably just a nice chat-up for the show.
But it wasn’t.
Bette said, “Yes, I would like to be involved.” It was then handed over to the Nederlanders (The Nederlander Organization which own nine Broadway theatres) to progress because they are close friends of hers. Before I knew it, she was genuinely involved, and had an investment in the show. But beyond that, she genuinely wanted to be creatively involved.
Bette’s role has been crucial in advising you how to tinker with the show to appeal to an American audience.
She said to me not long after we started rehearsals, “I am interested in trying something new. I would like to be involved in how this progresses. I would like to give you my opinions. Take them or leave them. But let me give you my opinions.” I said, “Sure.” We’d be mad not to (to hear them). And that’s exactly what happened. She flew to Toronto a couple of times, saw the show there, and sat down with Simon (director Simon Phillips) and I, and gave us her thoughts.
The most significant one—and, she was quite adamant about this; though not in any way foot-stamping—was, “Guys, the show is too long. You have to cut 15 minutes.” We kind of felt that, but it was Bette saying it that made us confront it. That’s where getting ruthless about the opening of the show, and the end of the show—where most of the 15 minutes (dropped)—came from. She was incredibly helpful to us.
Bette Midler’s name on your marquee certainly creates interest.
We have done focus groups on the show, and Bette’s attachment to it brings fantastic value to us. I hadn’t really thought about that (before she came onboard). It was, “Bette Midler? Great. That’s wonderful. People will recognize her name. That’s cool. Like Whoopi (Goldberg) on ‘Sister Act’ or any of the others.”
In fact, from our focus group research, one of the strongest marketing tools that we have is Bette Midler’s name attached to (the show). One of the things that we are learning, in terms of the public perception of Bette, is that she is perfect for us because she combines safety, quality and integrity with a bit of bawdiness, and a bit of cheekiness. If you wanted to design a name above our title, it would have to be Bette Midler. For me, it was incredibly fortuitous. I wasn’t expecting it. We were terribly lucky.
Bette Midler has been in several over-the-top Broadway productions that rival “Priscilla,” including “Clams on the Half Shell Revue” in 1975.
I’d like her to make a guest appearance as Shirley. I think that would be hysterical.
During the Toronto production, I sat next to two grey-haired ladies that gasped at some of the more outrageous moments in the show.
From my experience, quite surprisingly, some of our best audiences are what I would call the “blue rinse audiences”—certainly in London and Australia. I haven’t seen them (in New York), perhaps, because we haven’t yet reached that demographic.
In London, and in Australia, our Wednesday matinee audiences were substantially older, and mostly made up of women. They loved the show. They were some of our best audiences. I came to the conclusion that we gave them permission to be a bit naughty. But I do think it’s possible to overestimate the conservativeness of your audience, or your potential audience. Certainly, that is a dilemma that we have had to confront in New York.
Those (older) people probably came of age in the ‘60s. Despite a Victorian sensibility, there is a degree of assumption that they do live a modern life, particularly now with shows like (Bravo TV’s) “Queer Eye For the Straight Guy” and (NBC’s) “Will & Grace” and other shows. I think that there is an increasing acceptance of different lifestyles among all demographics. I think, to some extent, we have been able to take advantage of that.
When does “Priscilla” open in Brazil?
We are scheduled to open on March 16th of next year (2012). Brian and I are working on the Brazilian production right now. They asked us to consider an incredibly popular ‘70s song in Brazil called “Freneticas.” We listened to it, and said, “That kind of makes sense. Why not?”
There have been reports of productions for Italy, Germany, Scandinavia and Singapore as well. Are they all possibilities?
Yes, they are all possibilities. (Developments) are ranging from discussions, to in-depth negotiations, to about to sign. The likely ones are in the short-term. I would say that, in the next 15 months, we will have Brazil up, and almost certainly we will have Italy up. They are ready to go in Milan. We haven’t quite found a theatre that is appropriate, but there are a couple of options that we are negotiating. As soon as they have a theatre that can fit the bus, frankly, we will press the button on Milan.
[MAS Music, Arts & Show, a co-producer of the Broadway production of “Priscilla,” has announced that an Italian adaptation ”Priscilla, la Regina del Deserto - il Musical" will open in the 2011-2012 theatre season. The show will start in Milan, and will then tour around Italy. MAS will also be producing the musical in Spain and Portugal.]
The third (adaptation) will be the U.S regional tour which will go out in October (2012). We have penciled in a fairly big prominent touring town just to take it and start it. In fact, I just went to a meeting to work out how on earth we can build a bus that moves in a week, and then in another month. So I think that will be the next three (productions).
[“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the Musical” will commence a full U.S. national tour in Fall 2012, with the first city and date to be announced shortly.]
Also on the table is Singapore which is part of an Asian mix that, at the present time, includes Korea and probably Japan, depending on the language. Meanwhile, the Scandinavians are desperate to do the show. They just need a little help. I need to hop them onto another European market because, as a standalone to capitalize the show, it just doesn’t work out. But, if we put them together with, say Germany or German-speaking Europe, then they are ready to rock and roll.
Your background in staging shows in different markets is helpful as “Priscilla” goes more international.
I have always disliked what I would call “add water and mix” productions. I promised myself I'd not choose to preside over such an 'auto-pilot' reproduction. We are experts in those in Australia. Here’s how it works. Somebody out there decides to do a show which is a hit on Broadway or in the West End. You get the associate or the stage manager to come out and tell our guys where to move; and how to get a giggle because that’s how they do it (in the original show). In essence, what you get is a blind reproduction of someone else’s performance in another city to another audience.
If you are really lucky, your performers get it right, and they are given the ability to tinker (with the part), but that doesn’t always happen.
I have always thought to myself that if I am in that (overseeing) position ever; and if we go into a rehearsal with a new company that they will have that right, and have the ability to bring their things to the show—and that’s what we persist with; and Simon, I think, is together with me on that. We go into a new company, and every new rehearsal, with a bit of an open mind within the framework of the show itself. I think that “Priscilla” is a living, breathing thing that causes us problems sometimes, but I think it pays off.
There were many challenges in translating “Priscilla the movie” to “Priscilla the musical” that took nearly five years to work out. There was the dilemma of having a bus onstage that would contain four actors. And it couldn’t look like a minibus.
I think that we spent 18 months or more trying not to have a bus. We headhunted the best production and design artists in Australia putting their heads together. The initial response from all of them was, “If you are going to have a realistic bus, then there’s just not going to be room for anything else onstage.” (Thinking of) having a bus was just ceded by the practicality of actually having it.
So, we kind of started from a premise of, “How can we do “Priscilla” without the bus?”
In fact, that was solved in a snow storm in Berlin by the director Simon (Phillips), Brian (Thomson) the designer, and me—acting as a bit of a note taker—where we sort of sat, looked at each other, and said, “You cannot avoid having the title character on stage. You just can’t. If you are going to do ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’ you have to have Priscilla. Once we reversed our thinking, and just assumed that we would have a bus—and, therefore how would we deal with the other stuff—then, in a way, it became easier to design around the bus. But Priscilla’s a challenge. She never leaves the stage. She’s hidden onstage because there’s no way to get her offstage. But she never leaves the stage.
[Director Simon Phillips was working on an opera in Hamburg, and the design deadlines were looming, so Garry McQuinn and Australian theatre, opera and film designer Brian Thomson met up with him there. The three spent a week in a small apartment in a snowstorm working through the show.
Thomson—who designed the original London and Australian productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” and was the original designer of “Rocky Horror Show” and the film, came up with the idea for a ring revolve to give the impression of bus movement and passing scenery. If the external diameter of the revolve matched the proscenium width, the width of the revolve was one meter to fit cast members without colliding with any of the scenery, and the bus had to fit within the revolve, then the maximum bus length would be two meters less than the proscenium opening.]
The other major stroke of luck that we had, although we didn’t know it at the time, was the casting of our costume designers (Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner).
[Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner won an Academy Award, a British BAFTA Award, and an Australian Film Industry Award for their costumes for the film “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.”
The film’s director Stephan Elliott sought out the pair after seeing their work on the Australian television soap opera, “E Street” on Ten Network.
For the Oscars, Gardiner wore a dress made completely out of American Express Gold Cards.
This week Chappel and Gardiner won the Tony Award for best costume design of a musical for “Priscilla.” Their work on the stage musical has also won Olivier, Helpmann and Green Room Awards for Best Costume.]
Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner were the original costume designers for the film.
Correct. To be frank with you Larry, that was as much of a marketing thing as anything else. We thought, somewhat arrogantly I guess, we will get the Academy Award winners on the show, and that will attract a bit of attention. Then, we will put a decent costume supervisor on with them to kind of hold their hands, and make sure that they do whatever we needed them to do.
They had zero experience in theatre. For about a year, that caused us enormous problems—that lack of experience. But we gradually came to see, as we went through the design process that, in fact—for them and for us—that it was the lack of limitation that was driving their design ideas.
To the extent that when we began this we allowed what we thought was an appropriate costume budget. We based it, frankly, on “The Producers” which at that stage was probably the biggest costume budget in Australia. And, it had one big show-stopping number, “Spring Time For Hitler.” We thought we would have a “Spring Time For Hitler” moment. Well, because these guys were totally unconfined by such old-fashioned habits as budget attendance, or timing and reality, they just kept coming up with these ideas. We, as producers, sat there saying, “How can we say no to that? That’s brilliant. That’s a fucking wonderful idea. Of course, we are going to having dancing paint brushes, and singing cupcakes.”
We ended up having 12 “Springtime For Hitler” moments (in the show), and a costume budget that was practically twice that of what we had allowed. It blew the costume budget out of the water, but the result was clear. More importantly, I think what they gave us was the language of the show and, in a circular way, allowed us to cope with the scenic difficulties imposed by having a huge piece of machinery (the bus) onstage.
This is a fantastic world of “Priscilla” that is fueled by those costumers, and Brian was clever enough just to give them a background, an Australian-colored background to perform in front of.
Music in film is background; in a stage musical, it has to propel a narrative. That’s a different usage of the music.
Totally. I think that the (“Priscilla”) film is not a musical. It’s a film with some music in it. A musical is an entirely different beast, as you say, if you are not just going to get into some random jukebox musical kind of paradigm, where you write a story around existing songs because you can try to frame them to be appropriate.
Where we started, and I think back now, it was creatively one of the most fascinating times of my life, and interesting. I wish I had been paying more attention to it all, in a way. Of course, we were totally caught up with the practicalities, the monies, and the legalities and so on. But sitting in those (rehearsal) rooms, listening and being part of a discussion which was incredibly wide open—to the extent of, “Okay, this is the moment that we need”—it was just a terribly exciting time where we started with a blank slate.
We kind of knew the genre that we wanted. We knew we were certainly subject to rights. We put in (Gloria Gaynor’s hit) “I Will Survive” (ending the first act) and (Ce Ce Peniston’s hit) “Finally” (ending the show). Of course, they are iconic and there should be a place for them in the show, and there always was.
With “Mama Mia” being a smash hit as a musical and a film, it was obvious you weren’t going to get rights for the songs from Benny Andersson, and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA.
Well, we did ask them. They said “No. We’ve got our own show. Thank you very much.” We did do previews in London, and there were expressions of positiveness about it (from them). It was, “Well, maybe, we will think about it.” But, I suppose by that time we were comfortable enough about music tracks not to push it, especially. By that time, “Priscilla” had achieved a critical mass of a life of its own that was beyond that of the film.
I understand that Tony Sheldon (who plays Bernadette) was quite helpful in choosing music.
Totally. To be frank, a lot of the songs that we wanted, we couldn’t get because the rights issues were complicated. We were an Australian show that nobody had heard of. Certainly, the larger (music) publishers weren’t that interested in us. I think they were feeling a little bit burnt—I don’t know the specifics—but I think that “Dirty Dancing” (the musical “Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage” that debuted in 2004 in Australia) had caused some problems with the music publishers.
I would think that half of the songs that we wanted we did not end up with. But I can’t remember what they are anymore because we got what we got; and they are entirely appropriate. It works for the show.
[Song selection for “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert the Musical” was a collaboration between authors Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, director Simon Phillips, associate director Dean Bryant, musical coordinator Stephen “Spud” Murphy and some of the cast. All of them provided suggestions. Murphy took the final song list, and arranged them for a large musical theatre cast, and a relatively small orchestra.]
Did you at anytime look at developing an original score instead?
Certainly, in the early stages, I would say that there was a 50% chance that we would write original music. That was in the workshop stages. But as we progressed, it became evident that there was an integrity about using existing music when you are doing a show about drag queens who lip-synch to existing songs. Simon was, of course, in the middle, if not driving this kind of discussion. I know that we get labeled with being a “juke box musical” and that is probably right, but there is a reason for those songs to be existing songs, and that is those characters live their lives through those songs.
As for (original songs) we had to say, “Only if we can’t find the songs that are appropriate to those particular moments that we think are important. So when Tick is talking about his son early on in the show we will, perhaps, get something written for it.” But, to be honest, that debate didn’t last very long. We found the songs that we wanted and, eventually, we were able to get the rights for them.
[The “Priscilla” character Tick is modeled on Richie Finger (aka Cindy Pastel) one of the great stars of Sydney drag in the early 1980s, who had a child with his best friend Karen.]
Didn’t you also change the music for Broadway?
Yeah. There’s a misconception about that change. Having been in every single discussion, participating, if not responsible for, every single judgment on the show, I can say that any notion that we were kind of pushed to make those changes by anybody else is just not right.
When we started the show in Australia, knowing we had a blank slate, the obsessions of Felicia (drag queen Felicia Jollygoodfellow) were important. It was important for Felicia to have a gay icon to obsess on. In Australia that decision was easy. It was to have (Australian pop singer/actress) Kylie Minogue. That flowed through to London because Kylie is incredibly well known there.
So that wasn’t a hard choice.
When we came to North America, both market research and our own personal instinct was that Kylie is not a particular presence here. Certainly not in the gay community and, maybe even, not in the theatrical community. For the middle American audience that all musicals count on, to have a character obsessed with a performer that nobody has heard of, just defied sense. So we drove the notion to replace Kylie with another icon. We went through a few. We tried Cher, and Madonna. In the end, mostly because the songs that she had recorded were far more appropriate to the storyline, we settled on Madonna. That was most of the changes.
We’d always had a concern about (Joni Mitchell’s) “Both Sides Now.” It was one of the compromises that we had to make because the original number that we wanted—which I can’t ever remember now—we couldn’t get the rights to. So we kind of compromised on “Both Sides Now.” And, it felt like a slightly down moment in the show where it should be a turnaround moment for Tick where he begins to feel empowered. So the move from “Both Sides Now” to (Cindy Lauper’s) “True Colours” was actually a theatrical and dramatic surgical (procedure) that we had been trying to make for some time.
The only other change in music was the opening of the show which was originally (Petula Clark’s hit) “Downtown” and is now “It’s Raining Men” (originally by the Weather Girls) which I think is one of the greatest show openers that you are ever going to see. It’s a great opening for the show.
At 16, you had no interest in the theatre.
Not particularly, I was a jock. I was a runner, and a football player. I was meant to be a football player more than anything else.
You might have played for the Sydney Swans in the Australian Football League.
I never played for Sydney Swans. There’s a bit of me that I wonder if that would have happened, if only if. I played VFA (Victorian Football Association) for Williamstown in Melbourne, and for the all-university team. In essence, I tried to balance those two things (theatre and football) because I loved playing football. I felt incredibly at home on the football field. And I was moderately good at it.
The whole football thing came as I was finding my feet in terms of who I was and my physicality and all of that. It all came together wonderfully. But the dilemma for me was terribly clear when I combined both for awhile. I played mostly university football while I was at NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) because it was close by. I made the all-Australian team when I was playing there. I could probably have pursued a football career but who knows?
My first job was with the Melbourne Theatre Company, and I had a stark choice to make. You’ve got a matinee at 2 o’clock on a Saturday or you have a football game at 2 o’clock. You have a choice. So I played what you call semi-pro football in a Sunday league for awhile—VFA Melbourne—which were either people that were going to play in the professional leagues or had played and kind of got past (their prime). I played that for awhile. In the end, my theatre career just took over. I still wonder occasionally what would have happened.
How did you get into theatre?
Here’s the honest truth. I dated a girl in a school drama group. That’s it. I’d stay around to walk her home after the drama class; and because I was the only person (there) that didn’t want to act, they made me the stage manager. That’s how I got into the theatre. That’s true.
The National Institute of Dramatic Art was very important to your career.
Totally. I actually think that it’s the strongest tool I have in my personal armory to be honest. That time was life changing. I was a 19 year old kid out of Wollongong with no real expectation (of being in theatre). I was meant to be a mechanical engineer or a phys education teacher.
After four years as stage manager for the Melbourne Theatre Company, you went to the U.K. and spent several years working for “Noises Off” productions around the world.
That was in a different life, really. That was as a stage manager. Throughout my life I have had a number of significant mentors. That’s one of the reasons why I am quite keen to continue that and, frankly, why I continue my relationship with NIDA. We offer a scholarship every year to a NIDA kid to travel overseas. I’m on the board there. I think that it’s my duty to return that mentorship.
What brought you to London?
One of my earliest and strongest mentors was Michael Blakemore, a great Australian theatre director who has lived in London for many years (Blakemore, an erstwhile actor left Sydney in1950 to attend drama school in London). He came out to (Australia) to do a show with the Melbourne Theatre Company where I was a stage manager. He took me under his wing and encouraged me to come to London. He had a house in Biarritz (France), and he said, “Come and stay with me on the way through,” and I did. He was working with (playwright) Michael Frayn there. They were kicking around an idea which had come from a sketch. That was “Noises Off.” I was there when “Noises Off” was written. I was essentially a note-taker saying, “You can’t forget that you have the box of groceries on the bookshelf, so you need to get off stage,” or whatever.
Just secretarial stuff, really.
That, to me, was a connection for the original” Noises Off” that lasted for three or four years. It got to the point that Michael trusted me to get the show up, and he would come up near the end (of rehearsals) and polish it. It was an absolutely appropriate and timely profession (for me) because what I had done up to then had been production heavy. Suddenly here I was talking to actors as if I knew what I was talking about.
That whole professional development thing certainly was expanded and nurtured by the “Noises Off” experience. It moved me into another creative level. That kind of additional professional tool in my armory created a perception where I can sit and talk with Simon about “Priscilla” matters as if we are creative equals. “I think that’s running too long, son. We need to do something about it,” and he’s generous enough to listen to me.
How long have you worked with Liz Koops in Back Row Productions?
About 15 years.
You are both partners in Nullabor Productions Limited as well.
It's one of a number of companies that I’m involved with, and next to Back Row, the most significant, because it's the one that holds the international rights to “Priscilla.” I’m one of four shareholders in Nullabor. With Liz, I’m the largest individual owner of the company. Liz and I have equal shares in Nullabor. We usually establish separate corporate vehicles for each production, and sometimes subsidiaries in different territories for tax reasons because the partnership is different or to handle legals and finances in the appropriate jurisdictions.
You and Liz have different roles in the companies?
We have different experiences, talents and backgrounds—I think that is why we have such a strong collective—so we tend to allocate the workloads appropriately. It happens that I’ve been driving the Broadway launch, although Liz is and was involved in all critical matters.
Back Row was sold to Clear Channel Entertainment in 2000, and bought back in 2005. What went wrong?
I realized during that time that I’m just not a corporate person. This is a bigger issue for me than it ever was for Liz, although she was good enough to support and stand by me throughout, I think that you are spoilt once you have worked for yourself. I think that it mucks you up, probably, for the rest of your working life.
I found it incredibly difficult going into a very large, and a very successful American entity where the rules of the New York Stock Exchange determined a lot of what you did in ways that I felt were antithetical to an entrepreneurial mind-set. Common with pretty much all of those big publicly-owned companies is that there was an institutional aversion to entrepreneurial risk that just doesn’t sit with entrepreneurial activity. It was kind of ironic to me that Back Row—before and since that Clear Channel experience—has been prepared far more to take financial risks than the world’s largest entertainment company.
[In 2000, Back Row Productions was acquired by Clear Channel Entertainment. While working within Clear Channel’s London office, Back Row consolidated the European and Asian touring circuits for all of their U.K. theatrical productions, and took responsibility for developing new international theatre markets, partnerships and strategies. In Jan. 2005, Back Row Productions principals Garry McQuinn and Liz Koops re-acquired the company from Clear Channel.]
The same year Clear Channel bought your company, it bought SFX for about $4 billion, in hopes of synergizing its live and radio businesses. Owning Back Row made sense for their portfolio.
What Clear Channel bought with Back Row was some great strategic contacts, and a fairly interesting producing mind set. We left 12 months earlier (than our contract) We were supposed to stay five years, and we stayed four. The parting was kind of amicable. I think we were the second acquisition after SFX.
As well, the other thing that happened and you can’t underestimate in the impact of this, was 9/11. The consequences of 9/11 extended beyond the obvious. Meaning that on the one hand, essentially, that American corporate mind-set kind of withdrew a little bit from embracing the world.
Americans became more America-centric.
That’s absolutely right and, on the other hand too, Europe, which essentially is our backyard, kind of withdrew from corporate America. We were right in the middle of that.
Everybody, including the Clear Channel guys, went into the Back Row venture with a fairly clear vision of what our role was meant to be—which was to do what we had always been doing but with better funding, and better support, better strategic influence, and greater contacts—essentially stepping up to a larger life.
That didn’t happen?
What we ended up doing was taking the existing Clear Channel licenses and exploiting them; just essentially re-mounting and regurgitating existing productions from other companies that were required throughout the world. Kind of blindly licensing throughout Europe and the rest of the world, wherever we could get a gig. For people used to making their own art—from creating (shows) from the ground up—essentially becoming traveling salesmen for existing products wasn’t really the way that any of us intended it to work out. It was nobody’s fault, and we ended it well. We still work with all of those people in various capacities.
What shows did you do under Clear Channel?
The kind of musical theatre stuff like “Cats,” and “Starlight Express.” They weren’t shows that we created. They were shows that Liz would go out and sell and I’d make sure that they put them on well. It really wasn’t how any of us, including the Clear Channel folks, intended (the co-venture) to be. I think that world events more than anything conspired to derail that.
But beyond that, I am just not a good corporate person. I realized that about myself. It means I will probably never have a pension. And, I will probably have to keep working until I die. It’s been 20 years now of working for myself and I think that you are spoilt once you do that. I’d find it terribly hard to contemplate going back into an office now, and having someone I’ve never met before direct what I do. It’s arrogant; and, it’s probably not right; but I don’t know what to do about it.
How does it feel having two shows running in New York?
I’m not sure many people outside of my circle know that I am involved with “Through A Glass Darkly.” I have been quietly nurturing that.
Is the stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's “Through a Glass Darkly” Broadway produced by Back Row Productions?
No, it's owned individually by different partners. This was an odd "labor of love” that sits outside Back Row, with the international rights held by a U.K. company called Glass Darkly Ltd, owned by three partners, Liz and I individually, along with our friend Andrew Higgie. That entity licensed the North American rights to Glass Darkly LLC (a U.S. corporation) which has slightly different ownership—strategic and financial partners that we enlisted for this (U.S.) territory only.
What is your role with the “Through a Glass Darkly” production?
Since Glass Darkly LLC licensed the show to the Atlantic Theatre Company then, technically, I guess that I’m one of the licensors. However there's an approval process. We sign off on all significant decisions including creative staff, casting, and materials; and I’ve tended to oversee the development of the show with a producer's eye.
[“Through A Glass Darkly,” directed by David Leveaux, opened June 6, 2011 and runs to July 3, 2011 at the New York Theater Workshop. It features Jason Butler Harner, Carey Mulligan, Ben Rosenfield, and Chris Sarandon. It is being presented by the Atlantic Theater Company. The stage adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's 1961 film was adapted for the stage by Jenny Worton.]
Over the years you have worked in theatre as a director, tour manager, production manager, and as a company manager.
I kind of feel now that I’m able to sit down and talk with every single person in the theatre collective—from the stage manager and the crew, to the prop’s maker, to even the wardrobe staff—because I have either done those jobs or have been closely involved with people who have done those jobs. I think that, in the end, makes me who I am as a producer.
Whether that is a distinctive difference from anyone else (as a producer,) I don’t know.
It feels to me here in New York that producers are defined as essentially business-heavy people. And I took the time to go off and get both a law school degree, and an MBA because I wanted the backing of the confidence of knowing that what I am talking about is true or, at least, provides some kind of proper business structure for me. I think that way, that what I bring is the ability to understand every single facet (of a production) as possible—even acting, just by virtue of having spent a decade or so in rehearsal rooms with the best directors, and the best actors. So, I think I’ve been lucky in the range of experiences. They all seem to combine here with “Priscilla.”
Your experience in overseeing productions internationally will come to play in launching “Priscilla” in different markets.
Correct. The sum total of all my experiences in the past have come together in this show. And the requirement for those experiences has been quite supreme to the extent that I have been focused on “Priscilla,” to the exclusion of everything else, for three or four years now. I think that there’s another two or three years before that phase moves on, and I can step back, and take my hand off the controls.
You worked as a production manager for “Rocky Horror Show.” So you know that you could be working on “Priscilla” 20 years from now.
I hope I’m a bit beyond that now. If I am still doing this show in half a dozen years call me, and remind me. But I do think that there comes a time…we are on the verge of this now as the business of “Priscilla” has grown to such a point that I have to step back a bit otherwise I will lose sight of the big picture. As much as I adore the process of re-mounting the show, being part of it, and being in the rehearsal room while it’s being re-mounted, the business requirements now are huge. The show is now a big multi-national business and doesn’t allow me that luxury. I think that trend will continue. We are in the fortunate position of licensing the show now. It’s a lovely position to be in.
All the way from Wollongong to triumphing on Broadway. So far a nice life.
I have been incredibly lucky. If the title wasn’t already taken, my autobiography could be called “A Fortunate Life” because I have been guided and mentored by some very, very generous people, and it has turned out well.
[“A Fortunate Life,” a 1981 autobiographical novel written by Albert Facey, is one of Australia’s most beloved books. Published nine months before Facey’s death, it tells the complete story of his life. It chronicles his early life in Western Australia, his experiences as a private during the Gallipoli campaign of World War I, and his return to civilian life after the war. In 1986, the book was turned into a Channel Nine mini-series, and became a national success in Australia.]
In my world, and if you look at my background, you will appreciate the truth of this: It is quite an amazing journey. I have not done much but work in theatre since I was a teenager. In fact, I have done nothing else, really. I am what you call a lead producer on a Broadway musical. Anything else I do in my life is a bonus. I am not sure what to do next, actually. It’s a pretty big box to tick.
Larry LeBlanc is widely recognized as one of the leading music industry journalists in the world. Before joining CelebrityAccess in 2008 as senior editor, he was the Canadian bureau chief of Billboard from 1991-2007 and Canadian editor of Record World from 1970-89. He was also a co-founder of the late Canadian music trade, The Record. He has been quoted on music industry issues in hundreds of publications including Time, Forbes, and the London Times. He is co-author of the book “Music From Far And Wide: Celebrating 40 Years Of The Juno Awards.
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