Here, as part of our Year of the Producer series (in association with Stage One), he talks to Whatsonstage.com about the enduring success of Jersey Boys, the effect of the Olympics, and his route into the industry.
What was the ‘eureka moment’ that made you want to produce Jersey Boys in the West End?
When I was in New York in 2006 I was asked to go and have a look at this new show called Jersey Boys. At that time I had no idea about the show except for what I’d read. So I went to see it and I thought 'for once here's a musical that not only has a compilation soundtrack but it has a track listing that works perfectly with the true story of four amazing guys.'
You could just see how much the audience were not only taking in the songs but taking in the story that they were accompanying. The songs may have been heard by millions of people worldwide but the story behind them was not so well known. And it's about four guys who are working class, who came from the same sort of background as a lot of the general public who go to the theatre these days. It's universal. So the decision to get behind it and help bring it to the West End was a very easy one.
Jukebox musicals are all the rage at present. Why do you think this is?
I think it's partly that people in today's economic climate want to know what they are spending their money on, which I completely understand. I think as much as we're all trying to push new musicals and writers, we're having a difficult time and I think we're seeing that most of the general public want their entertainment to tick boxes. The more we can give an audience member before they go into the theatre - if they know the director, they know the name of the show, they know some songs from the show - the more chance that they're going to buy a ticket for our show. Plus, it's great escapism - you can go in to the Prince Edward Theatre and forget what's happening outside.
What do you say to critics who argue that long-runners make the commercial theatre stale?
Well there's clearly an argument for that but if these shows were becoming stale the audience would act with their feet and not go and see them. People come to London for numerous things - Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London, Madame Tussauds - but also majorly for our West End theatre. We mustn't forget that our tourist industry is huge when it comes to theatre. Not just tourists from across the water, but tourists in our own country as well, people who come shopping for the day and go to a show. We're still considered the best in the business and I think sometimes we forget; we should be proud of our theatre history. And we should be proud that we have a lot of theatres that are full most nights and even if they're not full they're certainly getting enough people in to keep those theatres and those productions open.
How has business been during the Olympics?
There were clearly fewer people out on the streets of the West End during the Games. But the plus side was that our shows benefitted from the higher ticket yields - higher than we had seen in the weeks leading up to the Games. So for us we didn't notice a huge impact, though I appreciate that many bars and restaurants were reporting poor takings. I'm not sure the exact reason but I think our ticket schemes helped to entice tourists, as did the fact that people soon learned to ignore the scaremongering about central London transport. It's a great time to be in London because everything is working and there are numerous people around to help tourists.
Could you describe the role of a general manager?
I think the best way to describe general managers is "fire-fighters", so we are the first port of call when there's a problem. If we feel it's necessary to bring in the producer to advise, we would then do that. So day to day business-wise we look after the contractual negotiations of all actors. We, along with advertising and marketing companies, look at net returns as well as advise producers and the creatives on advertising, marketing and strategies. We're there with the PR companies. We work alongside other companies that we employ on behalf of the producer to maintain longevity and an audience coming to the show night after night. We're the first port of call when someone wants to shout. And we hope to dampen the fire, or even put it out before it becomes an inferno.
Ticket prices in the West End seem to be getting very high, especially with the introduction of premium seats
I think most producers completely understand what the general public are saying when it comes to ticket prices. Most producers want to try to keep tickets at a low price, but also we are aware from concierges and hoteliers that when tourists come in from America they want to have the best ticket in the house. So instead of going to ticket touts which a lot of people used to do, they're now able to go to the theatre and buy a ticket, still a top price ticket, but at a lower rate that people paid years ago by going to ticket touts.
It's tricky because people want a cheap ticket but they also want to see the best show and the best show doesn't come cheaply. These days expectations are high and in order to meet those expectations ticket prices are inevitably going to go up. We never forget how much money people have in their pockets because Julian Stoneman Associates are a small general management and producing company and everyone here goes to the theatre. We've all worked in theatre ourselves - I started out as an ASM, for example.
Tell us more about how you became a producer
I did five years as an ASM in repertory theatres in Salisbury, Exeter, Birmingham, Cheltenham etc., and then I came into London in 1989 working on the original production of Aspects of Love. That led me into commercial theatre. Then I did UK national tours, working on the company management side of things. Then back in the late ‘90s I was given the opportunity to company manage Mamma Mia! which then took me onto general managing which then took me onto one of the associate producers. And that opened the doors to American producers and other British producers wanting to work with our company, which now has a staff – or family, I prefer – of eight.
Do you think if you were starting out now it would be tougher?
I think if I was starting now I definitely would like to know that I’ve got someone who I could talk to, and would give me the benefit of their knowledge. It isn’t an easy time. But then look back in the ‘80s and it wasn’t an easy time, back in the ‘60s it wasn’t an easy time. I think every generation can say that they are living through a ‘not easy’ time. Now of course we’ve just been told that we’re in a depression as bad as the ‘30s in this country and I do believe that we’re going through a very difficult time in all areas, not just theatre. But the difficult times will hopefully lead to more positive times in the future.