Year of the Producer: Chicago's Barry Weissler On ... Celebrity casting & getting your hands dirtyDate: 14 May 2012
Like Whatsonstage.com, the current West End production of Chicago marks its 15th birthday this year. The show opened on 18 November 1997 and since then – first at the Adelphi, then at the Cambridge and now at the Garrick Theatre - has proved a perennial favourite with theatregoers.
Over the years, Chicago has earned a reputation for imaginative and occasionally audacious casting with David Hasselhoff, Jerry Springer, Brooke Shields, Kelly Osborne and Christie Brinkley and Ugly Betty star America Ferrera among the names to have headlined its bill.
Tonight, in a case of life imitating art, Raza Jaffrey, one of the stars of the American TV show Smash, joins the cast super-slick lawyer Billy Flynn, playing for nine weeks only after which Olympic Olympic gold medallist skater Robin Cousins take over the role. Chicago producer Barry Weissler spotted Jaffrey in the Steven Spielberg TV drama about the making of a Broadway musical, and immediately offered him the role. Jaffrey’s previous West End credits include Mamma Mia! and Bombay Dreams.
Barry, with his wife Fran, have been producing for some 40 years and have so far racked up six Tony Awards, for Othello, Gypsy, Annie Get Your Gun, Fiddler on the Roof, La Cage aux Folles as well as Chicago, which is now the longest-running American musical on both Broadway and in the West End. The Weissler’s revival of Kander and Ebb’s 1975 musical has reached over 23 countries and been translated into 11 languages.
You’ve made so many incredible and sometimes very surprising casting announcements. How do you decide who to approach for Roxie or Velma or Billy?
I can’t really explain it other than it's my maverick style; my idiosyncratic approach to things. I make lists!
Who was the most difficult to get on board?
“I chased Melanie Griffith for years. Melanie went to the same acting teacher that I had been to so I knew her but I just couldn’t get her to do the show and I knew she’d make a brilliant Roxie. Then, lo and behold, I read that her husband Antonio Banderas was coming into New York to do Nine so I called Melanie and said, “Your husband is going to be across the street from us - wouldn’t be a great idea if you could be in Chicago while he was here? She was a huge success and - across the street - so was he. So the crowds were so big we had police cordons on both sides of the street. That was fun.
Do you think, as a producer today, you need to have a name that people recognise from television or movies?
It’s a safety net but the real qualification is that it must be someone who has talent and ability. If it’s a television star that can’t cut it, it’s worse than not having a star.
The Garrick is Chicago’s third West End home. How does changing venues affect the production?
Moving theatres energises all of us and we've found along the way that each theatre has suited us better. The Adelphi was a very large house. Then we went to the wonderful Cambridge and all of a sudden the show had a very intimate audience and it felt good. Now we are at the Garrick and it's perfect. It has a 1920s feeling and we've turned the bar and lobby into speakeasies. A pianist plays 1920s rag and jazz in the lobby.
America Ferrera starred as Roxie Hart when Chicago first opened at the Garrick
What qualities does an effective theatrical producer have to have?
I think the most important ingredient is taste. Others could have done Chicago, but I don’t think they would have felt the same way about the actors and actresses we brought to the stage. It’s an instinct, a feeling. It’s based on experience which in turn is based on longevity in the business. But there aren’t too many of us, to be honest. It’s a craft that’s disappearing.
Why do you say that? Do you think younger generations aren’t as interested?
They are, but they aren’t training themselves; they are not working the way we did. I worked backstage, I worked on stage as an actor, I worked as a director. I trained myself and others helped me train. We’re not getting that from the young producers. A lot of the producers that are coming along are what we call “angels”, meaning they give money to the production and hire a general manager. That’s not producing.
So you think to be a proper producer, you need to be hands-on, that you need to know all elements of a production?
“Yes, all elements. You need to be able to talk to your director and understand why an actor or actress isn’t hitting the target. You need to know why a lighting man isn’t giving you the right texture for the show. You need to know when sound is off. You need to know who to hire. You need to know all elements of the production. A producer is not some white-collar fellow sitting behind a desk answering the phone.
I think producers should learn the craft from top to bottom, inside and out. They should tour, they should do musicals, they should do the classics, they should try their hand at acting, they should know what the stage-hand does.
In the various top-to-bottom aspects of the job, you haven’t mentioned raising money…
Good point. It is one of the producer’s jobs, but it is not the most important thing. There is always a way to find money; it is not as easy to find the right show, or to get the right scriptwriter to fix it, or to get the right song in the place it’s needed, or to cast properly. Those are much more difficult tasks.
Chicago has been going for 15 years now. What keeps audiences coming back?
You fall in love with these marvellous characters. The music and script are as good as it gets. The show never lags for a moment. It's filled with sex. And it also says something about the justice system: if you’re beautiful enough, if you’re rich enough, you can get away with murder.
- Barry Weissler was talking to Terri Paddock