Nigel Harman interview - 'Kelsey Grammer is a force of nature, we're lucky to have him in Big Fish'

Nigel Harman

Plenty of now-celebrated directors began their careers on the other side of the footlights as actors, from Jonathan Kent and Michael Grandage to Rufus Norris (NT artistic director) and Robert Hastie (Sheffield's Crucible). But typically they give up acting altogether when they cross the divide; not so Nigel Harman, who I meet the day after the first preview of Big Fish, the professional British premiere of which he is helming at Victoria's The Other Palace, and that afternoon tells me he is off to an audition.

"In my tea break I'm going to sing a song somewhere. I'm totally unprepared, don't tell anyone!", he adds. "But directing feels like something I want to explore more - we'll see where it goes. This profession has a way of doing all sorts of things." His West End roles stretch from starring in musicals like Guys and Dolls, Shrek, and the short-lived I Can't Sing!, and plays like The Common Pursuit and Three Days of Rain, while on TV he has starred in EastEnders, Downton Abbey and Sky1's Mount Pleasant.

It was in fact in an audition situation that he originally encountered Big Fish. "The first time I'd heard it was going to be a musical was when I auditioned to be in the original production in America. I was in Shrek and they were looking for someone to do the try-out in Chicago, and I put myself on tape for them. I learnt a song that was then dropped ages ago, and “This Much I Know”. I also knew the movie, but I'd never met the creative team because I'd only sent a tape. In my mind's eye I had an idea of what it might be, but then I saw the production images and it was very different - they gave it a lot of opulence on Broadway, but I always thought it was a smaller story with the fantasy and magic coming out of something that was really intimate."

And when he was pitching possible projects to a producer, he asked them if the rights for it were available to do it in England. "It didn't make any money on Broadway, so they were reticent. But last year it was done at ArtsEd [the drama school that specialises in musical theatre training in Chiswick], and I said we should go to see it. It was nice to be in the room with it and of course I went to ArtsEd, as well [graduating in 1992]. And it was really good!"

Talking charge of it directorially meant he was able to work with the authors - composer Andrew Lippa and book writer John August, the latter of whom had also written the screenplay to the original film - to re-shape it a bit. "We had a conference call with them, and I suggested my idea to re-imagine it, setting it all in a hospital ward and splitting the characters of the father and his younger self as they do in the film. Then I went to New York and spent two days with them, going through the numbers. There are now two new songs. They were kind enough to let us pursue it and do a workshop last summer to try out the new structure. There's no overture and no songs for 10 minutes. It's a new take, and all of Edward's story comes out of the hospital environment, so it stops it becoming a road movie and instead it’s a show of the heart and the family's journey, where the humour really pings out. There's a low-tech intimate energy to it."

Nigel Harman in rehearsalsThe casting of Kelsey Grammer, the star of TV's Frasier as the older Edward, turned out to be a major coup. "His name just came up, so I said let’s just ask him, he can say no and then we can move on. But in an extraordinary set of circumstances, he was in London and had flown to Europe to watch the Grand Prix one weekend and was coming back for a connecting flight on a Tuesday. He delayed his flight and we saw him that Tuesday afternoon. And I found out that he not only knew the movie, but also the musical - he'd been working with Hugh Jackman, and Hugh had been involved in a workshop in New York at one point, so had told him about it."

And instead of saying no, he said yes! "You learn in the casting arena that things come and go, but suddenly he was coming!" He joined rehearsals straight after filming in the Caribbean: "He flew in overnight and came in and sang straight away. We went through all his numbers, and in the part of the show where has to do a fake death, he just threw himself on the floor and did it. He is quite a force of nature, the company loves him, and we're very lucky."

Harman feels he is lucky to be exploring this new avenue for his own talents, too. "It's something that has been coming over the years, and I was waiting for a point where I could carve out some more time to commit to it. Then I was asked to direct the first UK tour of Shrek, which I'd appeared in the original West End production of, and it coincided with a patch of time when I wasn't working, so I started to pursue it more seriously."

He found out new things about the show. "I thought I knew it inside out, but there are some scenes I'd never seen as I'd be offstage changing. We fiddled with the structure a bit, re-shaped some songs and took out some air. The brilliant thing I like about Shrek is that each time we change and evolve and try-out new things. We're doing a new tour launching in Edinburgh next month, and now there's a mad Morris dancer in this version. The comedy in Shrek is something we can really shape - it comes from a very British-centric, vaudevillian tradition that is something we're steeped in."

To turn from leading man to the captain of the ship, however, is a different thing. "I'm now involved in every conversation and I love that. I would find myself looking over at the creatives and wonder what they are talking about, not in relation to me but in relation to the whole thing. So now I'm part of all those conversations, but I don't have to deal with having to go onstage and all the tensions and anxiety and excitement that comes with that. When the lights went down on the first preview last night, I knew what it’s like to take those first few steps in front of an audience for the first time, but it was also nice to be away from that! I also have to learn to let it go and give it away, too. Until now we've just been in a room in this great family environment, and creators have come and all been in it together - now we have to open the doors and say to people, it's yours now."

And with that, he returns to the make some final adjustments ahead of the opening of Big Fish, attempting to get it right.

Big Fish is at The Other Palace until 31st December.

Big Fish Tickets are available now. 

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