Manchester-born producer Katy Lipson has been a steadily growing force to be reckonedwith on the London theatre scene now for the past three or four years, developing a reputation for being a champion of new work through her company, Aria Entertainment, as well as earning an enviable track record for charitable fundraising with productions in some of London’s most prestigious theatres.
She had her first transfer to a West End theatre in 2012 with the musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and is currently mid-way through ‘From Page to Stage’ a festival of new writing she’s co-presenting along with The Landor Theatre in Clapham.
I was able to catch her for half an hour during her busy schedule to talk about the touring show she’s put together with Leon Trayman titled The Jewish Legacy, and featuring songs from the last hundred years of Broadway and popular song.
RV: So, Katy: Irving Berlin, Oscar Hammerstein, The Gershwins, Jule Styne, the Stephens – Schwartz and Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, I could go on… What was it, do you think, unique to the Jewish sensibility that enabled such a creative outpouring in what Trevor Nunn has called ‘the dominant art-form of the twentieth century’?
KL: Everyone asks this question. I think the first reason is because of the waves of immigration from Europe and Russia to America, and the fact that a lot of those people were musicians, or from associated trades. There were among them travelling musicians who’d play music on the streets and earn money in that way; these immigrants shared a heritage of story-telling, especially as a way of dealing with persecution – a means of escape, almost. The Yiddish theatrical heritage was thriving in Europe and Russia, and that went to the States with the immigrant communities, and they built it up again from nothing. Israel Berlin, ie Irving Berlin, is a prime example. An immigrant who arrived in America with nothing, whereas the Bernsteins amongst others were more affluent. And as always it is partly to do with being in the right place at the right time. That said, they all clearly had the necessary talent!
I think it’s also because singing is such a part of Jewish life. However religious you are, you have a cultural affinity with Judaism, so even if you’re not practising religiously, you still have a cultural affiliation with music and singing.
Finally it is also to do with the theatrical community of the time. I think it was a lot easier in the golden age of musical theatre [roughly 1943-1965] to create legacy in comparison to today, when there are so many other forms of entertainment to compete with.
RV: What exactly do you mean by legacy?
KL: To me, the Jewish Legacy comprises shows which stand the test of time, and have become key to the Musical Theatre canon: shows which are often watched and often revived; shows which are not only well loved, but well written.
RV: Hal Prince has said that he couldn’t direct Fiddler On The Roof (though he did produce it on Broadway) as he was of German Jewish heritage, and not Russian (Quote ‘Though I’m Jewish, that’s not my family background, so I don’t know it. Mine is German. I don’t understand shtetls.’ Hal Prince). To what extent, if any, do you think the differences in culture between the heritages had an influence?
KL: Well, both Russian and German Jews share an Ashkenazy heritage. I think it’s possibly because of other differences of background – Kurt Weill for example was from Germany and differed politically from some of the other composers we’ve mentioned – even though they all share a common heritage. I guess Mr Prince felt that there were clear differences to living in a shtetl in Russia to living elsewhere and that one needed that affinity to bring truth to the Fiddler story although at the end of the day its real heart lies with TRADITION.
RV: How did you and Leon Trayman first meet? How do you and Leon define yourselves?
KL: We say the concept for the show has been created by both of us, and then it was written by Leon with arrangements by Andy Collyer. We met at The Brit School of Performing Arts about 3 years ago, where we were both vocal coaches (I still teach there but only for a few hours a week – I’m too busy producing!). After about a year of knowing each other we started to talk about the possibility of putting together a show, and as Aria [Entertainment] grew I knew I wanted the portfolio of work not to be just musical theatre, but to be more diverse. We came up with this idea, and I’ve been amazed how well it’s sold. People have been booking three months in advance. I’ve never had that with my shows before!
RV: So will you be following it up with The Jewish Legacy II?
KL: No, but the next show I’m going to be producing is called The Jewish Legends in January 2015, probably using the same venues and expanding to take on other venues as it tours. It will be a celebration of Jewish pop stars and songwriters, of which there are quite a few.
RV: How did you go about choosing the songs for The Jewish Legacy?
KL: Well, we went through every decade with a sort of a ‘bucket list’ of the composers we just knew we had to have in the mix. We’ve got so many medleys. There’s a Kander and Ebb medley which goes from Chicago to Cabaret, and includes New York, New York, which a lot of people don’t realise is a Kander and Ebb song and is a Barmitzvah favourite! We have a Rodgers and Hammerstein medley; we have a Stephen Schwartz medley. We even have Jason Robert Brown in there as well as Heisler and Goldrich’s – Taylor the Latte Boy. We’ve even got Lionel Bart, stuff from lesser known shows such as Blitz and Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be.
RV: As a champion of new work, do you have any plans in the pipeline that you’d like to share with us?
KL: Ooh! When’s this going out? I’m going to be announcing soon that I’m putting on an evening of RAGS, the musical in concert by Stein, Schwartz, and Strouse. It’s going to be on at The Lyric Theatre in aid of Centrepoint, a homeless charity on April 28th. It’s really interesting, as it was originally intended to be a follow up to Fiddler on the Roof. There’s a song in it called Penny A Tune which begins with a character asking “so how do you make your money on the street?” And the answer is, “we’re making our music and we’re earning money from it!”
I’m a huge fan of the writing. I think it’s one of the best scores Charles Strouse has ever written. It’s never been in the West End before, and we’re having a twelve piece orchestra alongside a huge cast. So that’s the 28th April at the Lyric. wwwragsinconcert.com
And after that we’re hoping to go back to Edinburgh [Festival], and get started on a number of other projects too.
RV: You’re been the recipient of a number of awards including The Stage One Bursary for New Producers. What advice would you give to anyone wishing to become a producer?
KL: To make sure they’ve written down their vision, and the steps they’re going to take to achieve that vision.
RV: Do you have a three-year plan? A five-year plan?
KL: Yes, I do. My three year plan it to be taking my productions to regional theatres, by partnering with regional theatres, to continue to cultivate new work, and to be a leader in musical theatre development and musical theatre revivals. For me, because of the structure and logistics of the West End, things need to start regionally. I would love to have a hit, a great show which has legs in the West End – but by no means is my three-year goal to be a West End theatre producer. For me it’s to be a successful commercial theatre producer, with a reputation for musical theatre. I’m also interested in getting into straight plays – well, comedies. I’ve got a play currently in development called “The Toyboy Diaries”, and another big play that I can’t tell you about yet, but watch this space! Plays are very often a more commercial proposition for a younger producer as it’s obviously very important that your investors get a return on their investment to give them money to reinvest in your new shows, especially musicals!!
RV: You raised some of the budget for your current festival of new writing, From Page to Stage, via crowd funding. Do you think that’s the way forward, given the perennial problem of raising the money to mount a production?
KL: Yes, we did. I decided to use crowd funding for one part of my budget. We raised £2500. At the end of the day, it’s a new way of getting people to invest in new work, and to feel good about that. Just like Twitter, where people can connect with their favourite celebrities, crowd funding is a way for people to actually feel that they’re making a difference, which with this season is important and true, given it’s about developing new work. Contributing to the season’s crowd funding campaign, or being in the audience for £10 a ticket for a reading, can genuinely help subsidise this small theatre, because all that money goes into paying the artists so that they aren’t just working on a profit-share model.
RV: Drawing to a close, can you give us a flavour of what people can expect from the Jewish Legacy?
KL: In The Jewish Legacy, you’re going to hear the songs in ways you’ve never heard them before. You’re going to hear beautiful special four-part arrangements, barbershop harmonies, everything from Somewhere Over the Rainbow to To Life from Fiddler. You’re going to hear songs you haven’t heard, anecdotes and tales, and most importantly songs you grew up with. Songs from Funny Girl and Gypsy, from The Wizard of Oz, The Sound of Music, Cabaret, Chicago, and Company. The most modern song we have is from Jason Robert Brown, and is called Shiksa Goddess, from The Last Five Years. Come along. There’s something for everyone!
The Jewish Legacy is visiting The Paragon Theatre, Prestwich on 30th March, The Radlett Centre, Radlett, on 6th April, and Queens Theatre, Hornchurch, on 25th June 2014. For tickets and further details, visit: www.TheJewishLegacy.co.uk Tickets start at £13.