In Conversation with Director Thom Southerland

Director Thom Southerland is arguably one of London's most exciting directors of musical theatre. Together with producer Danielle Tarento the pair have redefined musicals on the London fringe, pulling up the standard across all venues whilst offering an intelligent and artistic alternative to the commercial West End.

Tapping into audience's thirst for challenging and interesting pieces of work that might not usually get an opportunity to be seen, Thom has created some of the most memorable London fringe productions of the past few years. From 'Parade' and 'Mack and Mabel' at the old Southwark Playhouse, to glorious revivals of 'The Grand Tour' and 'Grand Hotel' and the UK premiere of 'Grey Gardens', Southerland's skill for re-examining and presenting intricate work is matched by Tarento's astute ability to make the fringe economically viable, and assembling high quality casts and production teams.

Almost three years since the Southwark Playhouse production of Titanic, the 1997 Tony Award-winning musical by Maury Yeston and Peter Stone, the ship of dreams sails back into London, this time at the Charing Cross Theatre where Thom has become the Artistic Director, programming an exciting season of musical theatre. Having opened at the 230 seat south London venue, the show was met with universal critical approval, and even had Broadway Producers interested in transferring the show directly to New York.

It's the fourth time Thom has begun rehearsals for the production, which has now been seen on three continents. Meeting him in a break between rehearsals, I'm keen to ask if his process has changed or evolved with time. “I find the show in rehearsals when working with actors and the rest of the creative team” he replies. “By no means do I go in with any preconceived notion about how it has to be done. If a show has been received really well then to revisit it, you use the same formula – keep trying to find it in the rehearsal room. If the actors are different, it's unsure if it will be received in the same way.” It must be even more daunting revisiting a show that audiences and critics have previously enjoyed, as there's a huge sense of expectation – let alone the fact that the production is opening a wider season. “The score is the same, the dialogue is the same and the concept is still the same - and it's such a brilliant show. Maybe that will mean it will all be smooth sailing” he laughs.

Opening on Broadway in the same year as James Cameron's overly romantic yet shockingly realistic film version, the thought of musicalising the greatest maritime disasters in history was met with some disapproval. “It's in no way sombre or macabre” Thom states. “It has the potential to be distasteful, but Maury's show never ever inhabits that. It's about the human being, people, and the parallels it has with our own life today is tremendous”.

I ask if people's perceptions and familiarity with the film changed audiences reactions, or at least set them up with unrealistic expectations. “Peter Stone was always very conscious of not making it about a fictional couple or going down the traditional musical route of having a protagonist who falls in love”, he explains. “He wanted to create a story that tells you many different aspects and many different stories. In the past that's what some people have called the weakest elements of the musical, but it doesn't add sentiment falsely to the story by adding a protagonist – everything that we tell in Titanic really happened, the characters really existed. It leaves you wanting more, and the stories remain with you.”

Within the wider context of Thom's inaugural season at the Charing Cross, I'm interested to know how he made the step to becoming Artistic Director of one of London's most well known smaller venues. “I love the Charing Cross” he replies instantly, “I love the layout and how it works and the scale of things. They casually asked me if I'd be interested in being an Artistic Director and working within a building and programming a season. It was something I've always wanted to do”. The skills involved running a venue are quite different to those of a director working primarily within the rehearsal room. “I was always very conscious of how the shows work within the context of other shows in the building, and the opportunity at the Charing Cross is to do exactly that – to have artistic control about what an audience is going to come in and enjoy. We can start to build an artistic reputation – almost try and create what people see as a regional theatre in the very heart and centre of London.”

Looking further ahead, the show I'm most excited for is the UK première of Maury Yeston's Death Takes a Holiday, a wonderful musical that originally ran off-Broadway in 2011. “I've become a close friend of Maury” Thom explains, having directed his shows at both the Southwark and around the world. “I listened to the score and hearing him talk about the show, it seems like it was perfect in terms of scale to create in Charing Cross. It is a new show, so it was nice to be able to programme a tried and tested revival, a new revival and a new show into the season. Yeston's shows will bookend the season, which I think is a great touch.”

As someone who has followed and enjoyed Thom's work for a number of years, I've noticed a pattern in the work that he choses to direct, that of 'flawed' musicals, or shows that perhaps haven't found the right amount of love on their first go out of the gate. I'm interested to know if that's something he's conscious of. “A flawed musical is difficult to define” he laughs. “Anyone who has ever been part of a rehearsal process knows that there are various different ways that a story can be told. Take 'Mack and Mabel', Jerry Herman cannot write a bad tune. He's one of the best songwriters there will ever be. Maybe it was a breakdown in the creative team, or not the right cast or not the right season to present the show. None of that means that the material is weak – perhaps it's just been lost in translation somewhere. In London you can have the scope to try things out – a rehearsal process on such a show where we have the permission to re-examine certain things, we're almost work-shopping it and rehearsing it at the same time. That's what preview periods are for, to hone in on the real reason why a show was created – I think there's no reason in reviving a show unless you think there's a new way to display it.”

I firmly believe that Thom is part of the 'Fringe Revolution' that has raised audience expectation about what can be achieved in smaller venues, and the standard of work that is happening outside of the traditional confines of the West End. That said, whilst the London Fringe scene continues to expand, it's struggling to create an economic model that means actors and creatives can get appropriately paid for their work.

A number of Southerland's productions have gone from the fringe to find wider commercial life – both 'Titanic' and 'Grand Hotel' were subsequently produced in Tokyo, along with a Canadian run for Titanic that was whispered as being a 'pre-Broadway' engagement. With increased pressure on shows succeeding, I ask if future commercial life something that's getting to be considered before a show even takes life on the Fringe?

“I would never approach a piece thinking 'this will sell well - let's do it on the fringe so we can do it cheaply'” he replies. “You never think about doing a show because it will have a life elsewhere or outside – if a show does work then you have the conversations about where it will go next. I desperately want fringe theatre to continue, because it's being proved now that some of the most exciting work is being produced away from commercial pressures and that's maybe what an old rep company used to do – trying something out away from the demands of a commercial enterprise. Grey Gardens was a wonderful experience at the Southwark Playhouse, I couldn't think of any other theatre in London that I'd want to put it in. Whether it transfers into another theatre in the West End later this year – who knows. For me I want to create these shows, I don't want to create transfers and I think there's a danger with people wanting to do that".

For the next year at least Thom's attentions are firmly on The Charing Cross Theatre and making sure his first season is a hit. “Charing Cross is now a producing house and that's what's exciting, it's a new chapter. It has a wonderful history and I think it has everything going for it, I hope that audiences come and appreciate the space and the work we're trying to create in there as well.”

Book tickets for Thom's Charing Cross Season

Titanic (28 May - 6 Aug 2016)

Radio Times (20 Aug - 1 Oct 2016)

Ragtime (08 Oct - 26 Nov 2016)

Death Takes a Holiday (3 Dec 2016 - 21 Jan 2017)

Looking for the best seats...