20 Questions with...Arthur Whitelaw
Date: 26 July 2004
Veteran US producer & director Arthur Whitelaw returns to London to reopen the New Players’ Theatre with Snoopy - The Musical. He compares arts on either side of the Atlantic & reveals there's more money to be made in theatre than TV.
The New Players' Theatre in Villiers Street has just reopened with the 21st anniversary West End production of Snoopy - The Musical, which is directed by legendary Broadway director and producer Arthur Whitelaw - who conceived, co-wrote, produced and directed the original production.
Whitelaw began his career 50 years ago working his way up through the ranks from an apprentice, child actor, press agent, writer, director and producer to television executive.
Whitelaw's first producing venture in the New York theatre was the hit revival of Best Foot Forward, which introduced Liza Minnelli and Christopher Walken to the stage. Other original New York productions include: You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Butterflies Are Free, Minnie's Boys, Strider, The Taffetas, Snoopy and Sweet Sue, starring Mary Tyler Moore and Lynn Redgrave.
In the West End, Whitelaw has previously presented ten productions, including Hildegarde at the Arts, Charlie Brown at the Fortune, Butterflies Are Free at the Apollo and Snoopy at the Duchess. His numerous UK television specials include Separate Tables, which starred Alan Bates, Julie Christie and Claire Bloom and was directed by John Schlesinger.
In film, Whitelaw was vice president of Apjac International at Twentieth Century Fox, and as head of Drama for HBO he originated a theatre series, that included the TV versions of Camelot starring Richard Harris, Barefoot in the Park, Plaza Suite, Sherlock Holmes, Vanities, The Rainmaker and Wait Until Dark. His productions have been nominated for or won every major industry award including Oscars, Tonys, Emmys, Aces, Obies, Edgars and Drama Desks.
Following Snoopy - The Musical, Whitelaw will embark on his latest project, a new 500-seat theatre that will be part of the new Performing Arts complex in Miami, where, under his non-profit American Musical Theatre Group, he will produce and develop new musicals.
Date & place of birth
Born in New York City on 7 March 1940.
Lives now in..
I now live in Coral Gables, Florida, which is about ten minutes west of South Beach. I moved there ten years ago for the weather - and some friends who were anxious to get me down there.
First big break
The first musical I produced, a revival of Best Foot Forward in 1963, with a cast that included Liza Minnelli and Christopher Walken. It was Liza's first stage role - she turned 16 during the run of it. I was the same age then as the producers who are producing this revival of Snoopy are now - 21. It was done at a little theatre on the east side of New York, on 73rd Street, called Stage 73. It was an old Czechoslovakian beer hall, and it then became the Manhattan Theatre Club, before they moved to City Center. It got good reviews and played a year there, and as a result, everyone then took me seriously. It opened all the doors. I had been an actor, a press agent and an apprentice starting when I was 13. You had to be 16 to be an apprentice, but they saw a kid with passion and they took advantage of that.
Certainly the shows I helped to create - You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, Snoopy, which I not only produced originally but also co-wrote with Shultz and directed, and The Tafettas, which has never been done here as yet but has been done all over the world and maybe we'll get to do if this is a success! But there are so many other highlights, my goodness! They include Butterflies Are Free, Strider, a national tour of Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady with Nancy Kelly, and my first show in London, An Evening with Hildegarde, at the Arts Theatre in 1964. She's still alive - she's 97 - and very much with it. She appeared about seven years ago in New York at the Russian Tea Room before it closed. She's a wonderful lady.
A musical called 70, Girls, 70 wasn't a hit but was one of my favourite things I ever was involved in. It was just wonderful to be a producer on that show. The average age of the cast was 70.3 years old and I was 30 at the time, so it was like being surrounded by your grandmothers and grandfathers. But one terrible thing happened: David Burns, one of the actors in it, collapsed on stage during a performance, and died in my arms in the wings of the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia. He was one of the funniest men I ever knew in my life, and he was doing a scene in the second act where they all have to act old because the police are coming. I used to love to watch that scene. I ran in to watch it from the back of the theatre, and saw him fall behind a sofa on stage and throw his hand up. I went running down the aisle and through the pass door. The stagehands were dragging him off stage, though the audience didn't know what happened. They didn't realise it wasn't part of the show.
What has been your worst theatrical experience?
A musical I did in London called Blockheads about Laurel and Hardy. I wrote, produced and directed it, and I shouldn't have done all three things. It was a terrible experience; the only terrible experience I've ever had in all the years I've been in the theatre! I just couldn't wait to close it.
Amongst the people I've worked with, Gloria Swanson, Frank Langella, Robert Morley, Trevor Howard, Alan Bates, Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Liza Minnelli, her sister Lorna Luft, Chris Walken, Chita Rivera, Bille Burke, Basil Rathbone, Mary Tyler Moore, Lynn Redgrave and Vanessa Redgrave - two giant actresses and adorable people - the list goes on and on. They're favourites because they're decent people to know. They are people who were my idols. Of those I’ve never worked with, there's an old cliché about not meeting your idols because they don't live up to your expectations. But one who lived up to and beyond my expectations was Fred Astaire. He was once of the nicest, funniest, loveliest people. I just adored him.
Which other directors do you most admire?
Milton Katselas who did Butterflies Are Free and who is a wonderful movie director and also acting coach. And Joe Hardy, who did the original You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, is a wonderful, wonderful director. Of those I've not worked with, I'm a great admirer of Lloyd Richards, who did many of the original August Wilson productions; and I think young Joe Mantello is top-rate. And certainly Gower Champion, Bob Fosse and Michael Bennett - giants of the musical theatre and no one has ever replaced them or probably will replace them. Amazingly, they're all gone - they were all so young when they died. They understood musical theatre. Hal Prince also has to be on the list - I adore him as a person, and we've worked together twice. One of my earliest jobs on Broadway was being the associate producer of Baker Street, the Sherlock Holmes musical that Hal directed. And then we did a terrible play, Some of My Best Friends. We got such terrible reviews, but it was one of the funniest scripts I'd read - and it played two weeks.
I have to mention Leonard Gershe, who wrote Butterflies Are Free - he was adorable to work with. AR Gurney, known as Pete Gurney, I did Sweet Sue with, and he was just wonderful. Neil Simon, I've done a lot of plays of his for television and The Gingerbread Lady on stage. Noel Coward, whom I knew but never worked with. Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, both giants of the stage. Of the younger writers, I love Richard Greenberg, who wrote the terrific Take Me Out; and Yasmina Reza, who wrote Art. Of musical writers, John Kander and Fred Ebb are at the very top of the list, and they are as human beings as well. They're the most decent people I've ever known, and Freddie is my closest friend in the world, and in fact I stay with him when I go to New York, because I've sold my house there. I also love Cy Coleman, Richard Rodgers and Irving Berlin, all of whom I knew and to some degree worked with; the Gershwins, though I never knew George, but Ira and Frankie and the kids were like a separate family to me.
You've worked in every facet of the entertainment industry, from actor, press agent, writer, director & producer to TV executive. Which of all these jobs do you prefer?
I've enjoyed them all. I love producing, because I love being in the back, knowing I helped put all those pieces together. But I also love writing, because I love to create. And I love directing, being in charge of putting it all together and helping to make it work, and not stepping back, as you do as a producer sometimes, but getting down and dirty and working to create something. I'm a very strange guy - I've got two sides. One is all business, and one is all creative. It's worked for me. There are not a lot of producers who can do that. Hal Prince is another. But we're dinosaurs. There are very few people who are like that now. It used to be the norm.
From a producing point of view, surely there’s more money in TV. Why do you continue to produce theatre?
I don't think that's true! If you have a hit, you make much more in theatre than you do on television, unless you get a hit series. If you do just one-offs in television, you get a fee - and most of the time you don't own the project, and ownership is what it's all about. If you have the copyright, you have the royalties! That goes into your estate, and keeps going and going and going. It's very nice in this third act of my life to have that! I have ownership in the shows I helped to create - Charlie Brown, Snoopy, The Tafettas, and I get money from the movie of Butterflies Are Free which we did, but the stage rights are no longer mine.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British - or American - theatre?
Support. The first thing the government does when they want to save money is cut the arts budget. That's like a bad producer, where the first thing he cuts is his advertising budget. How can you get people into the theatre if you don't advertise? It's the same thing with the arts budget: if you don't have culture, you don't have a society of any kind.
You’re about to launch a new 500-seat theatre as part of the new performing arts complex in Miami. Why did you want to do this?
First, I live there, it's a wonderful place and the arts are really beginning to burgeon. We're part of a complex being built for the Florida Grand Opera, one of the major opera companies in the world. But, secondly, I've been asked to do this, and it was an offer I just couldn't refuse, because it'll give me a chance to work with all my Broadway friends and London friends to help create new musicals. I'm going to do only that. I'm not going to do revivals of any of my shows or anyone else's. I just really want to do what I've done all my life, which is to help create something new and, without the spotlight of New York, give people the chance to do a proper production in a proper theatre with a proper stage - to do a Broadway production at a fraction of the cost, to try things out, like we used to. In New York, we used to go out of town with shows, but that's become economically prohibitive. In Miami, here we'll be able to do that. We've got wonderful critics in Florida, and musicals have to be tried out in front of an audience, and a paying one - you pay your way in, you have an opinion. And the critics have to tell you if you're good or bad, and if you have enough people saying one thing, you start to listen. I'm going to be the artistic director, but we'll only have the theatre for about three months of the year. The rest of the time it'll be rented to other outside productions, and also used primarily for the opera to stage young opera productions.
What do you see as the key differences between theatre in the US versus the UK?
Working in London is the biggest treat always in my life, because the people here are so serious about what they do. It's not about money, it's about art and creation. There's a certain passion that all of you have about the theatre, that I grew up with as a child and saw in New York at that point, but it's gone out of style there - it's now become Big Business. Unfortunately, a lot of corporations have taken over, with young executives, who really don't have a background in theatre, making bad decisions. That's why the flops are so horrendously expensive and why the ticket prices have gotten to be so outrageous. If you can write a cheque, you can now be a producer, and that's not the way it was or the way it should be. There should be a test to get into that guild, like any other guild, but there isn't. The only test is how much money you have in the bank! And many of these new producers are like bulls in china shops - they break everything and then they leave the theatre, but all the damage is left behind. I've seen it over and over again. The people who really matter in the theatre, and who've had long, long careers like mine, are people who have passion and who care and are sensitive to other people they’re working with. They know how to get a writer to write, and a director to direct.
I've got to tell you, these boys (Stuart Piper and Stephen Carlile), who are producing Snoopy - The Musical, are like that, even though they're so young. I don't know where it comes from, but they really have it. They're absolutely amazing. They're the kind of people who should be producing.
If you hadn't become involved in entertainment, what would you have done professionally?
I love science, and was interested in medicine for about ten minutes. Or maybe law - it's sort of like the theatre!
You've directed both straight plays & musicals in your long career. Which do you prefer? What are the different skills needed for each?
I prefer musicals, because they're much more challenging. I think it's a miracle when a musical comes together. That's why I want to do them. All those divergent parts, all those different people who contribute to the whole of it, all have to be on the same wavelength, and to get them on that wavelength is incredible. When that happens, you have a hit.
What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
The current Tony-winning Best Musical, Avenue Q. I think it's a lot like Snoopy and Charlie Brown, in fact, because it's very, very simple, and it works on your emotions. It's just so clever, wonderfully done, and I love the chaps who produced it.
Moss Hart's Act One. It's about something that I love, and it's so dear, his experiences started me going. I was 16 when I read it, and I thought, “I want to live there, I want to have that life”, and I do.
Favourite holiday destinations
Tuscany and the south of France. I love the lighting in both places. The way the sun sets and comes up is so beautiful. The houses in Florence, those red rooftops - my God! I also love the Cotswolds. I've been so many times, and it's all so beautiful, always.
Why did you want to direct Snoopy - The Musical again?
The boys asked me to. They did a production last year, which evidently was wonderful, but they weren't supposed to get the rights to it. My agent - who has been my agent for 47 or 48 years and my friend since I was 15, Louis Aborn at Tams-Whitmark, the largest agency in the world for musicals - called me and told me he had some news I wouldn't be very happy about: Snoopy had opened at the Jermyn Street Theatre in London. His representative in London didn't realise I had approval. They sent me the reviews, and I was a bit mollified because they were so good. Reading them, I realised they obviously knew what they were doing, because they didn't present it as a children's show - which it's not, but so many people do it that way and lose a whole aspect of it and a huge audience they could have had. I came to London for a week, and I arranged to meet them for lunch. They said it was a very important anniversary for the show. I said, "what anniversary?" They said it was 21 years since it opened in London. And I said, "How old are you?" They said 21! I said, "Thank you!" They said they'd really like to do it again but at a bigger venue. I told them that, when I was their age, I wanted to do a revival of a show that had played 20 years before, called Best Foot Forward, and Louis was the agent on that as well, and I had to get the rights from George Abbot. George was exactly the same age then as I am now, and he and I had lunch just as I was doing with the boys, and I’d told him exactly what they'd just said to me. He said yes back then, so I said yes to them, too! Then they called and asked me to direct it, I said I'd be delighted, and here we are!
The show re-opens the New Players Theatre. What do you think of it?
It's a sweet little theatre! I remember seeing Divorce Me, Darling, many years ago, the sequel to The Boy Friend that had also played here originally, so I had that in my head. It's a charming space, and I hope the show’s going to be a hit for their sake as well.
Why do you think this musical - originally produced in 1983 - will appeal to a 21st-century audience?
Snoopy is an old-fashioned, feelgood show that appeals to the basic emotions of almost anybody. I've seen it all over the world in every language you can think of. I saw it in Japan a few years ago, in a revival as this is - I've lived long enough to see my things revived in foreign languages! - and the Japanese are not very demonstrative, but they certainly were for that!
What's your favourite number from Snoopy - The Musical?
The closing, "Just One Person", always brings a tear to my eye. The lyrics are wonderful. It says everything that the show is about, which is to open your heart and take a chance. That represents me and everything I believe in.
What are your plans for the future?
I've got the theatre in Miami to open, and I'd love them to do The Tafettas here. It's played all over the world, but it's not been seen in London yet. It's a small musical that I did off-Broadway about 12 years ago that ran a year there, and there are probably now 10 or 15 companies playing it simultaneously as we speak. It has popular Fifties songs, and tells the story of a group called The Tafettas, who are a prototype of the Maguire Sisters.
- Arthur Whitelaw was speaking to Mark Shenton
Snoopy - The Musical reopened the New Players' Theatre on 21 July 2004 (previews from 14 July).