Brief Encounter with... JCS and Miss Saigon director Laurence Connor
Laurence Connor is a busy man, with his WhatsOnStage Award-winning production of ''Jesus Christ Superstar'' recently returning to the UK (it's at the O2 Arena on Sunday) and his reworked ''Miss Saigon'' opening at the Prince Edward Theatre in May 2014
How has Jesus Christ Superstar fared since it was last in London?
Since then it's toured the UK, which was amazing, and then at the beginning of this year we took the show to Australia. It was a massive success there - I saw the performances in Perth, which is Tim Minchin's home town, and they went absolutely crazy for it. We had a small recast for the Australia tour but now we're back with the original line up, including Tim, Ben Forster, Alexander Hanson, Chris Moyles and Melanie C.
Was it a challenge to direct a production on that scale?
It was challenging in the sense that there are a lot of components to build into a show of that size. Particularly the use of cameras, because you have to direct the actors to act on screen as well as choreographing the cameramen. But it wasn't daunting, I had a very clear picture of what I wanted the show to be, and I knew what it could be having done Phantom at the Albert Hall and Les Mis at the O2.
Is the arena approach very different from traditional theatre?
I don't think the arena approach would work with every show, but certain shows lend themselves to it really well. The wonderful thing about Superstar is that its drama rests on its music, so it felt like the right space for it. It allowed me the freedom to reconceive the show and come up with a contemporary edge for it.
How has Ben Forster evolved since joining the show?
When he was doing the TV show [ITV's Superstar] he was like everyone else, trying to get a break, but I've seen him really grow as a natural leading man. Dramatically, he went on a real journey. The work he'd done before hadn't allowed him to dig deep into the acting, but this has taken him to another level. I'm he's going to on and do more stuff after this - he's a very special actor.
How did you get into directing in the first place?'
I started as an actor, and never really thought about directing. I was in a tour of Les Miserables about 15 years ago and my wife, who I met on the show, called me up one day and asked if I'd direct her and a friend in a production of A Slice of Saturday Night. So through that I discovered I really enjoyed directing and then a job came up as the children's director on The King and I. Then out of the blue one day I got a call from Cameron [Mackintosh]'s office asking if I could be a resident director on Phantom, and I never looked back.
Do you miss acting?
Funnily enough I don't. If I had to stand up and perform now I'd run a mile! It's just not what I do anymore. I love watching people do it and helping them develop their characters, but I enjoy that aspect of it more than being up there myself.
Let's talk about Miss Saigon - how did you go about making it your own?
My starting point is always the book. I loved the original production, which felt very big and operatic in its approach. But my first instinct was to pare it down to the core of the story, and the dramatic style became very raw and even brutal. You then look at the design and think about how you can make it simple, so that the focus isn't on a helicopter or a grand set but on the reality of the characters. I never want anything to distract from the narrative. Similarly to when I reworked Les Mis, my focus is always on the story. The design is incredibly important, but if the set is more memorable than the material you've done something wrong.
There's surely a budgetary advantage to this approach as well?
Absolutely. But then, when we took Phantom on the road last year, the set was arguably bigger than the original. It ended up being a very big production, but it still served the narrative first and foremost. With Miss Saigon we've been playing with it for some years and the version that comes to London is going to be very fresh and exciting.
And there's a new song in the London production
That's right. There was always a sense that despite the fact Ellen is a real rock for Chris, every time she sang she sounded rather neurotic. We wanted to address that, so when she has her scene with Kim she has to opportunity to express how she feels about being the innocent party in this very complicated scenario.
There was a rumour that Melanie C might be in line for the role of Ellen?
There are a lot of rumours going round about the casting but none of them are true - we haven't made any decisions on casting yet.
How are you going about finding Kim?
I'm going through a similar process to the one they went through to find [original Kim] Lea Salonga. I went to the Philippines a year ago and saw an amazing array of people there, and everywhere I've travelled recently I've kept a look out for my Kim. I've seen some great girls, and hopefully in the next few months we'll confirm who that person is. But we don't want a Lea Salonga clone, we want Kim. Whoever it is will need to have a special something - the first line Chris says when he sees her is "Jesus, who is she?", so she needs to have that kind of impact.
What else is on your radar currently?
We're opening Les Mis on Broadway in March, which is really exciting, and there are a couple of other projects that I'm working on that I can't really talk about that.
Is one of them Martin Guerre?
I'm pretty sure that show will come back, but whether I'll direct it I don't know. I have a very good relationship with Claude-Michel [Schönberg] and Alain [Boublil], but at the moment we haven't been discussing Martin Guerre. I'll be sure to let you know if we do!
Jesus Christ Superstar is at the Manchester Arena tonight (11 October), the O2 Arena on Sunday and the Liverpool Echo Arena on 15 October