A former stage manager, actor, musician and singer, Ian Marshall Fisher is now best known within theatrical circles for founding the annual Lost Musicals season, which is devoted to unearthing stage musical gems from Broadway's rich past.
Since founding the Lost Musicals in 1989, Marshall Fisher has worked with the estates and families of some of Broadway's finest writers to rediscover and reconstruct their works. To date, he has staged nearly 50 musicals, performed by over 600 actors and singers including leading West End stars such as Henry Goodman, Joanna Riding, Denis Quilley, Janie Dee and Tim Flavin.
The latest addition to the Lost Musicals catalogue is Cole Porter's Dubarry Was a Lady. Porter achieved international fame with hits such as Anything Goes, Gay Divorce and Kiss Me Kate, currently being revived at the Victoria Palace. First seen on Broadway in 1939, Dubarry Was a Lady ran for over 400 performances, with an all-star cast featuring Betty Grable, Ethel Merman and Bert Lahr.
Date & place of birth
Born on 9 November 1955 in London.
Lives now in...
Highgate, in the flat I've lived in all my life. It's been in the family for 80 years - three generations of us have lived here.
Guildhall School of Music, as a musician - I was a lieder baritone. After that, I did a degree in sociology at University College, London.
First big break
It's the minority who know exactly what they're going to do all of their lives, and the majority who fumble towards what they want to do. Not knowing what I wanted, I trained in something that interested me, namely music. But having left it behind and realising it wouldn't be a career, I wrote to Nicholas Barter, who now runs RADA, but had then taken over from Caryl Jenner at the Arts Theatre, where the first serious children's theatre company, the Unicorn, had been set up. That brought about an interview, and even though I had no formal drama training, three days later I was offered an eight-month contract. It was to work as deputy stage manager and understudy, working on five different plays, and it also got me an Equity card, as well, which in 1979 was very important if you wanted to work in this business. I was literally thrown into the deep end, but in a fantasy way. I remember at the time thinking, "This is like going on a vacation". I couldn't believe it was a real job!
After the Unicorn, I went to work as deputy stage manager for Peter Gill at Riverside Studios, which was another huge eye-opener for me. After about two years, I hit a lull workwise, and I thought, "I'm a good singer", but I'd ignored it, because I didn't want to be a classical singer, but I didn't want to be in musicals either because I couldn't dance to save my life. So I contacted this 1930s British dance band, the Pasedena Roof Orchestra, and joined them. It was like going to the ball - in fact we did, we'd go to all these hunt balls, and also perform all over Europe.
I've always been an organiser: I like organising, and having the buck stop with me so, to put me in control of my own work, I founded my own 1930s dance band, The Social Rhythms, who were based at the Ritz Hotel for a year; that was another highlight. And then, of course, there was the idea to launch the Discover the Lost Musicals seasons, which I first had in the late 1980s.
What inspired you to found the Lost Musicals season?
I realised that musicals were very popular everywhere, but very little of interest was being written in a contemporary situation. There were only a few awful new ones that were opening and closing in a second, with everyone knowing their fate before they opened. I was aware that the National and the Young Vic were the only companies who would look at the lesser works of major playwrights, but it occurred to me that there was no one to do the same things with musicals. Because they're designed to make money and they're so expensive to put on, no one would do them unless they had a track record.
So I launched this idea to take the musical to its bare bones, with the object of the exercise to present the material again but from the writer's point of view, possibly for the first time ever, and for the only time perhaps for many years to come. I knew I was not catering to everyone who likes musicals; I knew I had a limited audience who had a specific interest and curiosity in this type of show. So it's not designed to pack theatres, but to give those people who are interested an opportunity to see these shows and make them live.
How do musicals become "lost"?
Each musical has its own story. There are some musicals - like One Touch of Venus, Let's Face It or Something for the Boys, for example - that ironically were so successful that Hollywood bought the rights to them, but then rewrote and changed them. They were filmed so badly that people now assume the show mirrors the film, and as a result the show gets locked away, too. Another reason sometimes is that the shows weren't particularly well received at the time and were never performed again. It's hard to imagine now how much competition there was then.
What drives your choices of what to put on?
I would never, ever put on anything that didn't fire me for some reason. I've done nothing that I didn't fully believe in regarding some aspect of it. It's often the script, though, that appeals to me most: I look for something to amuse me, so I'm quite script-driven. I've loved, enjoyed and appreciated practically everything I've put on as a result. Only three or four haven't played as well as I hoped they would. That didn't make itself clear until the audience were there. You don't always know quite how the material plays: only when the audience is there do you see how the mechanism works.
Which shows have played particularly well?
Let's Face It, by Cole Porter, Herbert and Dorothy Fields, which I've just done again in New York; Something for the Boys by the same team; Out of this World, again by Cole Porter; One Touch of Venus, by Kurt Weill, Ogden Nash and SJ Perelman; Do I Hear a Waltz? by Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim; and Allegro, by Rodgers and Hammerstein. All of them are musical comedies, and that isn't a coincidence. Musicals lend themselves better to satire and comedy than to straight subjects. It's difficult to present serious subjects in a musical way.
What do you think distinguishes Broadway musicals from West End or other musicals? And what distinguishes the greatest musicals of yesteryear from today's new musicals?
Musicals came from the United States. They were born at the turn of the century there, and everyone's tried to copy the format. But it's always best to go to the source - that's the most imaginative, daring and bold place to be. It's as simple as that. Here, we were ten years behind them, looked at what was happening there, and tried to recreate what they were doing. It would have been better if we'd tried to do something new. What distinguishes musicals of yesteryear from today's musicals is content. The writer is the most important thing in the theatre; everything else is secondary. And it's finding new writers that are the biggest problem at the moment.
What advice would you give to the government to secure the future of British theatre?
If any money is forthcoming, it should specifically be to champion, strengthen and feed new talent in the theatre. I'm not aware of anyone in their mid to late twenties who is about to bud and flourish in a full way. I don't know anyone that is coming up through the ranks of performers or writers. Where are all the new people? They need to be found and encouraged.
I'm not a lover of dance; my love is the written word. They really do conflict in a big way. One is physical, the other is about speech and the use of language. But Jerome Robbins had the greatest sweep: he also cared about the words. He changed things. His style has worn so well, it still looks very fresh.
Richard Rodgers. I'd have liked also to say Cole Porter, Kurt Weill or Leonard Bernstein, but the thing about Rodgers that amazes me over everybody else was his output. We're talking about a factory. For over 40 years, his output was huge. I don't think there's been a writer of the last century who has produced such a huge volume of work.
Cole Porter. Comedy lyricists are hard to find; he was one of the very few. Today there's only Stephen Sondheim. Even in the great days, there was only Porter, Yip Harburg, Frank Loesser and to some degree Lorenz Hart and Ira Gershwin. A Porter lyric in 2001 can still make an audience laugh. He could be a grand, flowery poet, and then earthily funny.
Favourite book writer
Oscar Hammerstein. He was the first book writer who took it seriously and signalled that it could cover more serious subjects. The book is the hardest thing to do in many ways. It's much easier to produce interesting, fun melodies, but binding it all together is far more difficult.
How has your background as an actor influenced you as a director?
I know that you never, ever make an actor do anything they instinctively don't want to do. There's nothing worse for a performer than being asked to do things that don't come naturally to them as individuals. They may attempt it, but they won't do it well, because it's not coming from them.
What's the best thing currently on stage (not including your own productions)?
The Little Foxes is very good. I love George S Kaufman, so I liked The Royal Family. And I kind of liked Kiss Me Kate - it's quite good. But my list greatly bothers me because they're all revivals, and it's the new stuff I yearn for.
Moss Hart's Act One. It's highly entertaining, but there's something life-enhancing about it, too. It does what I so much believe: it reminds people that anything is possible, and it doesn't matter what your situation is, you must look to the positive. When you finish it, you feel good about life.
Favourite holiday destination
I don't go on holiday. I'm so wrapped up in what I do that holidays don't come into my being. But I love visiting the US: Seattle, Chicago, California, New York, Connecticut. I love everything about the place, the way of life, the attitude, how it's set out. I'm happiest when I'm there.
How do you persuade so many top West End performers to take part in the Lost Musicals?
They love the material. It's like honey to them - performers can be very generous as long as they enjoy what they're doing.
What is the most interesting thing about Dubarry Was a Lady?
What we're doing with it is like going into a time machine. It's a wonderful example of how it used to be. You can see the writers' approach to entertaining an audience. It's one of the finest musical comedies from just before the war: It's like a vaudeville, with everyone able to do a turn.
What plans do you have for the future of Lost Musicals?
I want to do more stuff in the United States. There's no question that it's fun to do this material with Americans performing it: they understand the speech rhythms so well. It's wonderful to merge the two together.