20 Questions With...Jeremy Sams
Date: 29 September 2003
Writer, director & translator Jeremy Sams, currently represented in London with Noises Off, Chitty & an updated Cosi fan tutte for ENO, talks about getting the call, Sondheim's rewriting of musical history & laughing on Broadway post-911.
After reading languages at Cambridge, Jeremy Sams trained as a pianist and embarked on a career in music and opera. He first broke into the theatre world 20 years ago when he wrote a musical pastiche for a production of Ring Around the Moon at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre. Since then, Sams' eclectic theatrical credits have encompassed everything from composing to writing, directing, translating and arranging.
Sams has contributed musically to more than 50 productions including, for theatre, The Wind in the Willows, Arcadia (National) and The Merry Wives of Windsor (RSC). Sams also wrote the book for the award-winning musical stage adaptation of children's film classic Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, still running at the West End's London Palladium.
Amongst his numerous stage translations are: Les Parents Terrible, The Miser, Mary Stuart (National), The Rehearsal (Almeida and West End), Becket (West End), Amour (Broadway), The Coffee House (Chichester), The Merry Widow (Royal Opera) and, for English National Opera, Figaro's Wedding, La boheme, The Magic Flute, The Ring Cycle, Cosi fan tutte and Twilight of the Gods, the last two of which feature in ENO's season at the Barbican this autumn.
As a director, Sams has staged productions, in the West End and elsewhere, of: Wild Oats, Marat/Sade, Passion, Neville's Island, Enter the Guardsman, Maria Friedman by Special Arrangement, The Wind in the Willows, Two Pianos Four Hands, Benefactors, The Water Babies and the multi award-winning Spend Spend Spend.
Sams has also directed the current hugely successful revival of Noises Off, Michael Frayn's classic backstage farce which marked its 21st anniversary last month. The production first opened at the National Theatre in October 2000, after which it toured the UK twice and transferred to Broadway. It's now back in the West End for its second extended season at the Piccadilly Theatre.
Date & place of birth
Born 12 January 1957 in Croydon, south London.
Lives now in...
Crouch End in north London.
I read languages (French and German) and music at Cambridge University, then I studied piano at the Guildhall School of Music. And then for many years I was just a pianist, till I was 26 or 27. I was mostly a lieder accompanist, rehearsal pianist, vocal and opera coach.
First big break
The first break of all was Steven Pimlott. I was working with him on an opera project, conducting videos of all the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and he said, "I bet you could write theatre music". I didn't write music and hadn't really gone to the theatre or had any interest in it in any shape or form. I was interested in concerts and lieder, and French and German song and opera a little bit, but not straight theatre - I didn't know anything about it. Steven said he was directing a show at the Manchester Royal Exchange and he'd like me to write the music for it. "Can you do pastiche Ravel and Poulenc?" I said, "You bet!" He offered me the job, which was for a production of Ring Around the Moon nearly 20 years ago.
I walked into the stage door of the Royal Exchange and had one of those moments where you go, "I see, this makes total sense", and I felt I was at home! You often meet other people in the theatre who also come from strange places - like the people who turn up on the mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, we don't quite know why we're all here, but we've all come for a reason.
Though music served me fine until then, what I discovered was that it was a means to an end, and the end was to get me to work in the theatre, even though I had no idea about it. Theatre is forever gathering up lost souls. They work in accounts, in wardrobe, and do whatever they can do, and bring and buy whatever talents they have, and they're all very welcome. So what I do is absolutely no different to what any other people do. I have been a director for a bit now, but basically I've always been a backroom boy. You get to know other backroom boys, and we all have this in common. Without sounding wanky about it, you get the call - you can't describe it to anyone who hasn't got it, but it's very hard to get rid of. What's been handy for me is that people have asked me to do different things and they've all been useful in the theatre.
You've added lots of strings to your bow, from translating to directing. How did that come about & how do you juggle so many balls?
I wanted to stay at the party. So whatever work I was able to do, I would keep doing in order to stay working in the theatre. Those were the days, when people would say, "I bet you'd be good at this, have a bash at it!" For some reason, that doesn't quite happen anymore. I try to do that now as a director myself - just say to someone, I'll take a risk on you! But people are more cautious now, because there's so much more riding on a show and also there's a lot less work around.
Juggling it all really depends on what's offered. Stuff comes through, and I accept some offers and don't accept others. The theatre is a fallow place at the moment. It's hard to get stuff off the ground, but often I do the thing I've been doing least of recently. So having just opened a show like The Water Babies at Chichester, I don't want to go into a rehearsal room for a few weeks. I can't direct more than two shows a year - it's too time-consuming and exhausting.
How would you describe yourself first & foremost?
I remember the day I was proud enough to be able to say 'musician' in my passport. But it was a nightmare. I might as well have said 'drug addict', because thereafter I got stopped and searched every time. I would now say 'writer/director'. I like the social side of directing. I'm writing a lot at the moment, and I try to make it as un-lonely as possible. The theatre is a collaborative medium, and I like collaborating so directing is great. Anything that will get me into a rehearsal room is lovely.
Career highlights to date
Ring Around the Moon was one. The first show I directed was a big thing, too. It was at Greenwich, a show called Schippel the Plummer, and the man who played the title part, a wonderful actor named James Saxon, died a few months ago. I had no idea what I was doing, but it went fine. In fact, it went so fine that it wasn't any use to me at all - I had no idea why it worked!
Doing Noises Off on Broadway was another remarkable experience. Our first stage rehearsal was the tenth of September; our second day was disrupted by Osama Bin Laden - so we didn't rehearse. I was downtown, and I went and watched what everyone else was watching. From that minute on, it was the most astonishing rehearsal period. The first preview I will never forget: the audience at Noises Off laughed more than they'd ever done before, and I did as well. There was such relief in the air, to be able to laugh again. It went hopelessly wrong. At one bit in Act Three, the actors got caught in a loop and kept going round and round and round and couldn't get out of it. That struck both the audience and me as the funniest thing that had ever happened. I literally fell off my seat and rolled in the aisle, which I've never done before.
I've worked with a lot of actors in all sorts of capacities. The ones that immediately spring to mind are three women: Juliet Stevenson, Fiona Shaw and Harriet Walter, three astonishingly different but amazing, fantastic actresses, each of them with consummate skill. I also love Eileen Atkins - she's an unbelievable actress, what can't she do?
I adore Schiller. He's totally underrated - an amazing playwright of ideas and huge drama, but no one puts him on anymore. It's all too big. I love Mary Stuart and Don Carlos. I'm also very fond of Noel Coward and Joe Orton, although every time I work on an Orton play, about halfway through I suddenly feel, what am I doing with these terribly, terribly unpleasant people? But they make me laugh out loud. I was thinking the other day about Tim Firth, whose first West End play, Neville's Island, I directed. I admire him very much.
Favourite musical writers
That's easy: Stephen Sondheim. I was thinking about this today actually. I don't really think Sondheim writes musicals as such - he's doing all sorts of other things but doing them by writing these shows. So the musical is almost the medium rather than the message. I venerate him as a human being and an artist. The only thing I have against him is that he's covered every exit and nailed it up, and it's very, very hard for everybody else. I've been listening to a lot of new musicals recently, and they either sound like Stephen or they so haven't been influenced by him that his ghost is there in absentia. He is as big to musicals as Wagner is to opera, and the history of the musical will never be the same again until he is written out of it. And that will take a century.
The whole future of musical theatre may not be in the shapes we know at all. I've been advising people a lot on how to write musicals, and I'm not sure that my advice is of any use. I have a feeling that the new musical will be something quite different and won't emerge for a while. I don't think it will have anything to do with Shaftesbury Avenue. What will happen in the future, I think, will be from the bottom up, not the top down; not from posh people advising people to listen to Irving Berlin. I think those things are decadent and have died.
What's the secret of a good translation?
The secret of writing a good translation is to write the play the author would have written if he was writing in English. You've got to get behind the words. To translate the words literally is to translate them wrongly. The words are a symptom, not a cause. So you have to get yourself a couple of steps back, to generate the words that will have the effect on this audience that his words or her words would have had on their audience. It's all the original author - but me pretending to be him or her.
The fact that there are multiple translations for plays is as it should be. Every generation, and every production, should have a new translation - it's entirely appropriate, though expensive to commission. The people I envy are the French, who can rediscover Shakespeare every two or three years in a new translation. We are lucky ones to be able to find new things in Chekhov. A director and writer can think about the work afresh, so that the translation can illuminate a production. Language dates; but Chekhov is a modern writer, he doesn't write historical dramas. He writes modern works in modern language, so it's right that we're as modern as we possibly can be.
Other translators I admire are Martin Crimp, Ranjit Bolt and Edward Kemp, and in the opera world, Amanda Holden.
What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
Nathan the Wise at Chichester. What was so great about it was that it was a play from the late 18th century, talking about why Jews and Christians and Muslims should live together, and that in essence we are all Jewish and Christian and Muslim at some level, because we're human and also because we're so genetically interbred, who can tell? That thought winged down the centuries and made me howl with the beauty of it. It was assisted by Edward Kemp, who was the translator there and did an absolutely brilliant job.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
I think one has to split one's subsidies, in the same way that you might split your investments. We should be subsidising arts as much as we possibly can; however, certain art forms and certain ways of expression have in a sense yet to really be born. In a Darwinian way, if it's left to develop on its own, it might develop in a way that is defined by people's need to make work. Until we can really identify what people who make theatre actually want to make, it's hard to know what to subsidise. So can we also have a part of the garden that we let grow wild and see what happens there? I sometimes think there are things that don't fit into the old shapes and old theatres and box offices and the balconies and the stage doors and the eight shows a week. What the National is doing is an object lesson in how to do things: to give loose shapes and adapt them endlessly to whatever is growing. But what we have in the West End is predicated by a world that doesn't exist anymore, to which young people have no relation, access or interest. If there were some way of watering that garden, I'd be fascinated to see what grows next. It's probably got nothing to do with me, apart from as an audience member.
I read a lot. The books I keep coming back to are Chambers Dictionary, which I just adore, it's laid out beautifully. Another dictionary that's a must is Sammy Cahn's Songwriters' Dictionary. I've got loads of rhyming dictionaries that are also constant companions that I always come back to.
Favourite holiday destinations
Venice. I'm doing some teaching there next year, teaching kids about opera, and I can't wait. I've been there maybe 12 or 14 times, and I'm still looking in corners. I never tire of going to New York. I go a lot for work, but when I go over the bridge, I'm still singing "New York, New York" in my heart. I feel at home there - but everyone is at home in New York. I feel sometimes, as we all do, that I don't quite make sense. I do odd things like I sing in the street and conduct imaginary things. No one looks odd in New York!
Whatsonstage.com - I look at it every day. I never miss Talkinbroadway.com, either. But I've never posted a message on either: I like being part of the lunacy as a spectator sport. People care so much!
If you hadn't become involved in theatre, what would you have done professionally?
I was being a musician, but all I ever wanted to be was a Home Office pathologist! I always wanted to say, this person was murdered for this reason, like Marius Goring on The Expert.
Why did you originally want to direct this production of Noises Off?
I was asked, it was as simple as that. They said, would you like to direct Noises, and I said yes before the word 'Off'. My approach has grown a great deal over the various casts, tours and transfers. The stuff that is happening on stage now is based on what happened at the National Theatre in the rehearsal room originally - it shares DNA with it, but a lot of it is accretions over the years. Every single actor has brought something of their own to it, and I've thought of different gags every time we've re-rehearsed it, so it's a bit like one of those stews they have in Italian homes - you're always adding bits and it gets tastier and tastier. Michael Frayn re-wrote a huge amount of the script for the National, which he always wanted to do - so a great deal of it is new, so much so that they've now published a new version of it. As for keeping it fresh, it's impossible for actors to coast their way through Noises Off - it's this big hamster wheel, you can't walk through it. It keeps itself fresh. It's a massive feat of dramatics, which you can't not do.
What are the special challenges of directing/performing comedy?
In the first instance, everything has to be done for a reason, and that reason isn't getting a laugh. The reason is that you have to want to do something when you do it, and it may or may not be funny. If it isn't, there you go - but at least it was real, and based on an absolute reality. That can go as big or small as you like. If it's just there to amuse people, then it irritates them very quickly. The basic thing is about story. All comedy is simply storytelling. And who is to say what’s funny? My sense of humour is different from yours, but if you tell a clear story, people at least get that.
Has Noises Off killed off the type of farce that it parodies?
It's certainly killed off a lot of farce. It's done for farce what Sondheim has done for musicals: it has closed the exits. It hasn't done so on purpose. The reason it is so good is because of the amount of energy and work and effort that Michael and then directors like myself have put into it. Noises Off is this massive, cathedral-like edifice, and like a cathedral, it is a great tribute to the human imagination.
What's the funniest thing that's happened in the runs to date of the production?
It's supposed to be the show in which nothing can go wrong, because if it does, it looks like it's part of the action. But on our first night at the National, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. The set fell down in Act One, and at the top of Act Three, a crew member was seen onstage with headphones directing scenery into place. Both of them got huge laughs! When they did it in the West End originally, the iron got stuck between acts, and the house manager had to go onstage and say the play can't continue. It got huge laughs. Then he said, "No, really". Even bigger laughs! Then he said, "The show would have to end here - please leave the theatre". Massive laughs. They couldn't get the audience to leave! The other thing that happens with Noises Off is that everyone sooner or later acquires the characteristics of the fictional actors they're playing. So Selsdons become forgetful, Belindas become company mothers, Dottys become dotty, Lloyds become control freaks, and so it goes. I love the violence of it, I love Brooke walking into a bit of scenery and hurting herself badly. It's very funny.
What are your plans for the future?
Two translations I've done are being done by English National Opera: Cosi fan tutte and Twilight of the Gods. At the moment I'm also doing translations for two new plays, one French, one German. And I hope the next big thing will be King of Comedy, which I've adapted for the stage and hope will happen next year. It's always struck me like a stage play, and it's all about stand-up.
- Jeremy Sams was talking to Mark Shenton
Noises Off continues its extended season at the West End's Piccadilly Theatre until 8 November 2003. Cosi fan tutte is currently playing in repertory at the Barbican Theatre until 11 October 2003. Twilight of the Gods runs from 25 to 29 November 2003.