Interview with theatre producer Kenny Wax
PUBLISHED: 06:00 18 December 2016 | UPDATED: 16:42 29 December 2016
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Kenny Wax started his career as an usher at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane at the beginning of the run of Miss Saigon in 1989. As his latest production in a string of stage hits opens in the West End for the Christmas season, Sandra Deeble talks to the Hadley Wood producer about penguins, heist capers and a Great British Bake Off musical
‘Everyone loves penguins,’ says Kenny Wax, the day after his latest musical, Mr Popper’s Penguins, opened in New York. ‘I don’t produce anything that I don’t want to see myself. I produce because I love that particular project.’
He’s due to go to America to see the show at the New Victory Theatre with his family during half-term. And after that it will come much closer to home, to the Finchley Artsdepot, before moving to the Criterion Theatre in the West End for the Christmas season. But today, we’re in his office in Shaftesbury Avenue, with a perfect view of the Palace Theatre, home to Les Misérables. The walls of Kenny’s office are covered with posters and photographs from his shows. It’s an impressive line-up: Top Hat, The Gruffalo, Hetty Feather, The Play That Goes Wrong, Aspects of Love, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, We Are Going On A Bear Hunt, The Tiger Who Came to Tea..
So what are the skills needed in order to become an award-winning theatre producer? What’s the trick when it comes to creating a top-notch show?
Taking a pause before he speaks, Kenny says, ‘Putting the right people together. You put designers and directors with the composers and lyricists and once you’ve got it all together you shake it up and put it on the table and wait for it to settle.’ As he describes the process, he is visibly fizzing. There is a joyous and infectious enthusiasm about this man.
Mr Popper’s Penguins is based on an American children’s book of the 1950s that was made into a 2011 film with Jim Carrey. It’s a tale about a painter and decorator who dreams of going to the Antarctic. One day, a packing crate arrives on his doorstep and when Mr Popper opens it, a penguin waddles out. A big hit on the cards? ‘It’s a gorgeous hour,’ says Kenny, eyes shining.
Putting people together is something that first interested Kenny when he came to London from Cheshire to do business studies at the Polytechnic of Central London. He thought he might go into human resources. But a year out at the Dixons head office, with much of his time spent inputting staff absences into a database, made him think that his talents lay elsewhere.
He’d always loved musical theatre. He didn’t want to perform – although he was in a school production of HMS Pinafore and once played an Oompa Loompa in Manchester – but he could see a way of combining his interest in business with musicals. It was a good time to start.
‘It was the eighties,’ he recalls. ‘And it was the decade of the mega-musical, particularly this one,’ he says, gesturing out of his office window at the Les Mis sign. ‘I came to London at a time when Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber were in their absolute heyday. There was Phantom, Cats, Evita and Miss Saigon.’
Working as an usher at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane when Miss Saigon was just beginning its run, Kenny got to meet Mackintosh.
‘Cameron was kind to me in the early years,’ he says. ‘He gave me a chance to go and chat to him and now I always do that with people’.
Kenny has offered full-time jobs to several of the interns who spend three months with his company, doing everything from running auditions to propping shows.
Out of all of his shows, does he have a favourite? ‘Top Hat will always be incredibly dear to me,’ he says. ‘The show was nominated for seven Olivier awards and won three. Part of the inspiration came from seeing Me and My Girl with Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson in 1985. Top Hat had the same sentimentality as Me and My Girl.’
The story of how Irving Berlin’s three daughters granted Kenny permission to produce a stage show of the Astaire and Rogers film is the stuff of dreams. He almost met the sisters before a snowstorm swept in and closed down New York. He then had a telephone ‘audition’ with them on speakerphone with their first question being, “So, why did you choose these songs?”
‘When they heard my response, they knew that I had done my preparation,’ Kenny says, ‘I had drafted a structure of a stage show and I’d brought in some of the great Berlin classics to up the hit count.’
He’s seen the show in Sweden and Japan, and next summer Potters Bar will be Puttin’ On the Ritz, as the amateur rights have just been released. ‘I will definitely go and see it in Potters Bar,’ says Kenny.
Did Strictly Come Dancing help with the popularity of Top Hat? ‘We certainly benefitted.’ Pursuing my thinking along TV lines: could there be a musical the Great British Bake Off? ‘Probably. And Mel Giedroyc calls herself a crazy fan of the Gone Wrong shows.’
The Play That Goes Wrong is currently playing in Paris, Budapest, Broadway and Melbourne. You can see it at the West End Duchess Theatre. Peter Pan Goes Wrong is on at the Apollo.
While someone once gave him the friendly advice that live theatre was not going to be around in the future, Kenny Wax seems to be on a roll. ‘If something is good, people will absolutely go and see it,’ he notes.
He clearly has great intuition about what will work. With another successful production, The Comedy About A Bank Robbery, currently at the Criterion Theatre, Kenny describes how in early meetings about the show, people weren’t sure about the idea of a heist caper.
‘I remember putting my foot down and saying “It’s got to be a comedy about a bank robbery”. You fight for these things.’
Kenny generously offers me tickets for The Comedy About A Bank Robbery and I go to see it with my mum. It’s very, very funny and full of tricks. On a Tuesday night, sitting in the beautiful, intimate Criterion, it certainly seems that West End theatre is in rude health. It’s a full house, and I realise afterwards why – laughing out loud for a couple of hours is fantastically uplifting exercise for body and soul. It’s half-term and the audience is full of families. Children, parents and grandparents are all enjoying the fast-moving, visual comedy with wonderful plays on words. As my mum said, ‘There’s something happening every single minute!’
You might think that Kenny Wax is starry, given that he’s a friend of Andrew Lloyd Webber (he recently invited him to see England play at Wembley), and that on his office walls there are photographs of superstar director and producer J J Abrams and childhood favourite Henry Winkler, aka the Fonz.
But he is very modest and extremely likeable. He loves spending time with his family and they all play lots of sport at home in Hertfordshire. He tells me, with the perfect timing of a seasoned commuter, that the journey from Hadley Wood to Piccadilly is 50 minutes.
He has been producing musical theatre now for several decades, but his energy and enthusiasm are akin to someone just starting out. Can he believe how things have turned out, since he first worked as an usher? Could a young person today, I ask, go from showing people to their seats to producing a string of award-winning shows? Is it all hard work, or is there an element of luck involved?
Kenny pauses again and then quotes something he once heard and still likes (and that I later find out is attributed to the Seneca, the Roman philosopher).
‘Luck,’ he says, ‘is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.’
Kenny’s top Herts theatres
Gordon Craig Theatre
And pre-show dining
Thompson’s, St Albans
The Sun at Northaw
The Fox at Willian
Lussmans, St Albans
Wicked Lady, Wheathamstead