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Jonathan O'Boyle interview - 'Pippin shows that it can be difficult to deal with your own life, we can't all be Beyonce'
When I reviewed the London transfer for Pippin from the award-winning Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester for LondonTheatre.co.uk, I compared this production to a spectacular 2013 Broadway mounting of the 1972 musical and said that while I loved that one "for its extraordinary circus thrills, this unmissable production has even more integrity and dramatic conviction."
Jonathan O'Boyle, the fast-rising, 34-year-old director of this production, admits he was slightly daunted by the memory of what he'd seen on Broadway five years ago. "I had that production in the back of my mind - everything they did really activated the show. I knew the music but hadn't known the book before that, and I thought the music, characters and the world they created was so extraordinary. I put it on the back burner, thinking I'll never have the chance to do it, because it's so huge - the scale of it was quite immense. And I was wondering: how do you do it without setting it in a circus? It seemed so definitive. But then I thought perhaps I could go for making a bit darker, more Victorian and vaudevillian."
The far more intimate and small-scaled production he has created duly unfolds with its theatrical references made explicit - "these are actors playing players playing parts - you see their transition from player to character. You need to make it clear that these are players playing parts, or you'd get lost." His choreographer William Whelton - co-founder of Hope Mill Theatre - explicitly references the work of the original production's Bob Fosse to give it a sparkling, angular edge that - like the more famous Chicago that Fosse staged three years after Pippin on Broadway (and is soon to return to the West End) - also has a strong vaudevillian flavour.
The show also investigates its title character's struggle with depression, as do at least two other characters, his grandmother and foster son. This production now also has an even deeper resonance for Jonathan and his company as one of their original number Olivia Faulkner died, aged just 19, last November, in-between the Manchester and London runs. The producers have included her biography in the programme as a tribute to her, stating that they 'hope that Pippin remains a fitting final tribute to Liv's talents.’ As Jonathan comments, "It's pretty dreadful. We announced we were doing it again at the end of October, and we offered everyone the chance to do it again. I wanted them all to be in it. It was devastating to find out about her, she was so fantastic and so young. For Liv's memory and the brilliance she brought to the show, the actors are connecting with the material in a different way now - in a way that we could never have prepared for before."
There is a growing awareness around mental health issues in the theatre industry, but he says, "I know that when I was at drama school, which was only 14 years ago, it wasn't spoken about. I'd moved to London from Derby when I was 18, and the pressure that puts on you and entering a profession that is tough and insecure, with no support, is pretty dreadful. But that's changing. Liv's parents have set up a foundation in her name for that very reason, to help people at a particular stage in their lives who are finding things difficult."
Addressing the themes of the show itself, he says, "Pippin is everybody's journey. It's sometimes difficult to deal with your own life. We can't all be Beyonce, Bruno Mars or Stephen Spielberg - eventually we have to accept what our life is."
And O'Boyle's own journey has not been without its challenges. After graduating from Central School of Speech and Drama, he acted for five years. "Nothing major, mainly regional tours and a bit of telly. So I started dabbling as a director on the fringe, and then became an assistant director to Daniel Evans at Sheffield's Crucible, and then to Jonathan Church at Chichester Festival Theatre for a year each."
He was recently the resident director on An American in Paris for its London run at the Dominion, standing in for director Christopher Wheeldon who is based in New York; and is currently also resident on the new national tour of James Graham's play This House for the original director Jeremy Herrin. This has given him invaluable insights into the process of putting on bigger musicals and plays.
But initiating his own projects has always been the dream. "When I was at school, I also loved maths as well as drama. So I wanted to be either a pilot or an actor, and applied to do maths at university or to train as an actor at drama school." When he was accepted at Central, he abandoned the university place he was also offered. But he acknowledges that directing and being in charge of an aeroplane are quite similar: "They could both go down with you at the front!"
In 2016 he first directed at Hope Mill Theatre with a revival of another great Broadway musical Hair that subsequently transferred to London's Vaults last year. Next up he will be directing a new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's late 80s musical Aspects of Love there (set to run from 5th July to 8th August)."I've never seen Aspects of Love onstage, so I'm coming to it with a completely fresh eye. It's of the 1980s era of sung-through musicals which are always tricky to nail, mainly because the way musicals work is that when a character has to break into song to emote, you understand the leap they are making from a scene. But if they are completely through-sung you lose that element so you have to work harder to get those shifts back into the show. But we are doing it with three instruments - two pianos and percussion - so we're stripping it right back, and I hope that the scale of it might give it a new breath of life."
He's particularly loving working on musicals in this way. "In another life I probably would have been a musical theatre performer. I'm thrilled I get to work on them now and to help shape them. And having been an actor, I love actors. With the playwrights or authors, the actor is the other half of the show, and I'm passionate about that. With musicals, too, you get such open, generous people to work with."
Photo courtesy Pamela Raith