Jonathan Kent is the director of Gypsy at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, which will transfer to the Savoy Theatre, London in April 2015. Gypsy, which was first staged on Broadway in 1959 has not been seen on a West End stage since 1974. It was awarded The Peter Hepple Award for Best Musical [new or revival] at the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards 2014: below is a short interview with Kent from the awards ceremony on 27th January 2015.
Q: New musicals have had a bit of a rough time in London over the last couple of years – the likes of Stephen Ward, From Here to Eternity, Made in Dagenham, I Can’t Sing all closing well ahead of time. Whereas the classics and the long-runners are established shows, like Les Mis, and obviously Gypsy has done very well at Chichester and is highly anticipated coming to the West End. Do you think there’s something inherently wrong with how the West End has developed in the fact that it’s not giving opportunities to newer musicals?
JK: Well, I mean, here we are with Book of Mormon, which is American, but it’s a new musical – certainly to London – and actually I have to say, Gypsy, because it’s not been done since it was first done forty years ago, is a new musical. I know it was written in the fifties, it happens to be probably one of the greatest musicals ever written and certainly one of the greatest musicals of the golden period of fifties musicals. But I don’t think one can draw huge conclusions because those particular musicals [Stephen Ward, From Here to Eternity, Made in Dagenham and I Can’t Sing] didn’t do as well as they should. It’s a crapshoot, musicals, they are incredibly hard to achieve – I mean I’ve only done one new musical and it was not a success. And it’s a very difficult and treacherous form, and I don’t think one can daw too many conclusions from those particular four musicals – they just didn’t catch our imagination, whereas, for instance, Book of Mormon apparently has.
Q: in some ways Gypsy is – obviously it’s quite fundamentally very American, set in Vaudeville America – did you worry at all about how it would translate or how an English audience – or a British audience – would interpret the play?
JK: Well, no, actually, funnily enough, because I think, sadly, we’ve slightly caught up with it in that – it has some of the greatest songs ever written for Broadway and some of Sondheim’s greatest lyrics. But the book is about the pursuit – I mean, particularly of the American dream – but the pursuit of success, and the collateral damage that celebrity and success can inflict. And I think that’s something that we understand. What I was sort of amazed by down in Chichester was – of course I knew people would love the music, how could you not, the overture alone is enough to make you cry – but the book engrossed people, and they were moved and sort of taken with the book in a way that, as much as I admired it, I didn’t anticipate – so I don’t think it just appears as a sort of American oddity with some great tunes, it seems to have a theme which people can respond to.
Q: And that’s a reason why some musicals succeed more than others?
JK: Possibly, yeah. Yes, possibly. I think we are in a slight time of shift, you know, in that the sung-through musical perhaps is now receding and the book musical is starting to come back, and you have to have a theme which engages, as much as you need glorious music.
Q: So the storytelling through the actual book, and the lyrics really have to have –
JK: Yeah, yeah – I mean, this is a textbook of how to stitch music and lyrics into a narrative. I mean, there are two songs, I think, which frankly, don’t advance the narrative, and illustrate, rather than advance. But the sort of genius of it – well, we use that word too easily. But in the genre, this is a work of genius.
Q: And this is your third production with Imelda [Staunton] – in as many years, I think?
JK: Yep, yep.
Q: What’s the secret of your kind of working relationship – what is it about Imelda that makes you want to work with her again and again?
JK: Oh, I think she’s as good as it gets, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with great actors – again, it’s not just theatrical hyperbole, great actors – and she is as great as any of them, and she’s got a sort of Protean talent, she’s a shape shifter. When you think of her Mrs. Lovett [Sweeney Todd] and then you think of this, they are in some ways worlds apart. And when we first set out to do this people said, ‘I know Imelda’s a great actress, but can she sing it?’ Of course she can sing it! She can knock your head off, singing it. You think, ‘how does that tiny little frame produce that huge noise?’ So, if you ask me why I work with her, it’s just, I’d be a fool not to. I admire her enormously. And I think we get along, we understand each other’s working methods.
Q: What are you expecting from the show’s West End run?
JK: What am I expecting in what way?
Q: In the sense that, what are you hoping the show will achieve, or what do you expect? The audience reaction.
JK: Well I hope it’ll duplicate, and better, the Chichester reaction. But it’ll be interesting because well, we got them to dig a pit in Chichester but we couldn’t get them to redesign the theatre entirely, so it was a thrust stage. So it’ll be interesting to see what happens to it when it goes back to its natural home. So that’s what I’m sort of curious about. I would be very surprised if audiences didn’t respond in the same way to, as I say, the story and of course Imelda’s performance. But what I am thrilled about the production is that it’s a performance in depth, it’s a company in depth, you know, it was written in the golden age of American Broadway musicals when they could afford to be profligate with their talents, so there was a cast of 46 or something and I think as a band of 28 we’re, I’m afraid, half that. But it has the same precision: you go from a little girl of eleven to a man in his seventies, and I think they are all – and I think Imelda would be the first to say this – they all give performances of absolutely nuanced and textured depth.
Conducted by three theatre critics, including Rivka Jacobson
Transcribed by Nicola Watkinson