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Paul Taylor-Mills: 'We're going to do everything we can to not follow the rules'

We speak to the newest artistic director in London about new musicals, Lloyd Webber's deep pockets and dinner parties with Lin-Manuel Miranda

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Paul Taylor Mills
© Craig Sugden

"Andrew Lloyd Webber has bought me a fucking theatre! You couldn't write this shit," says Paul Taylor-Mills in his characteristically cheeky manner. We meet in the Other Naughty Piglet, the 'French-tapas' restaurant soon to open in the newly rebranded theatre The Other Palace. And it's this theatre that, thanks to Lord Lloyd Webber, Taylor-Mills is now in charge of. The last 12 months have been off the scale for the new artistic director, seeing him transform from a relatively unknown producer of small-scale off-West End musicals into the Lord's right-hand-man, via Olivier Award success and a dinner party with Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jonathan Ross.

Despite his exclamation, the gravity of the opportunity he's been given has clearly not been lost on him: "People have said that I'm not taking this seriously, but I am, I'm taking it really seriously. On the other hand I'm not taking it seriously at all. I mean, we're not saving lives here, we're making musicals."

It's a dream job for the 29 year-old who graduated from Bath Spa University in 2008. He tells me he originally intended on becoming an actor until his course director put him in charge of a production of West Side Story. Within no time he'd hired a 20-piece orchestra and ditched the university's on-campus theatre in favour of a derelict warehouse in the middle of Bath.

It's that risk-taking which has made Taylor-Mills a name for himself, gambling on obscure stateside musicals including Side Show, Casa Valentina, and In the Heights, the latter transferring to the King's Cross Theatre, winning three Olivier Awards and running for two years.

And taking risks seems to be what The Other Palace is all about. The new venue - which has two spaces, the main theatre and studio, and originally opened as the St James Theatre in 2012 - was born out of Lloyd Webber's desire to have a place in London similar to the Gramercy Theatre in Manhattan. It was there that he workshopped and fine-tuned School of Rock and the aim is to provide a place in London for new musicals to be developed without the financial pressures of the West End, like the Royal Court of musical theatre, if you will.

'We're going to do everything we can to not follow the rules'

"Andrew asked me why we're not finding good, new British musical theatre writers, and I said that perhaps we're looking in the wrong place," he says. So new initiatives include Four by Fifteen, a collaboration with Mercury Musical Development which will present four 15 minute pieces across one evening, providing a platform for new British writing. There will be an open mic night (hosted by yours truly) which will allow writers to share brand new work on a new stage in the bar, 50 per cent of which will be Brit School students, as well as an evening called Other Songs which will see Lloyd Webber's son Alastair use his record industry contacts to bring musicians who might find musicals a 'dirty word' into the theatre and pair them with potential collaborators.

And so it seems the emphasis is on nurturing talent as well as finding the next Hamilton. It's a venture that could only be embarked upon by someone with pockets as deep as Lloyd Webber's who, Taylor-Mills points out to me, is one of the richest musicians in the world – "he's even got more money than Paul McCartney".

And the Lord is not being frugal, he's already spent £1 million on a 'defurbisment' of the theatre. Gone are the fixtures and fittings that perhaps gave the St James a cold and corporate feel, replaced by a more rustic and industrial décor. Looking around it feels like they've picked up Southwark Playhouse and plonked it in the Queen's back yard.

'Cameron, Andrew and Bill are like my holy trinity - Bill is the uncle I never had'

"The rules here are going to be to do everything we can not to follow them," he explains with a mischievous smile, "It's my job now to make educated mistakes. Of course I have to have a sense of business acumen across the entirety of the theatre, but now we're allowed to play. We're allowed to throw spaghetti at the wall and see what sticks."

He credits a lot of his success to his 'exceptional phonebook of people' including 'the holy trinity of Andrew [Lloyd Webber], Cameron [Mackintosh] and Bill [Kenwright]', the latter he describes as the uncle he's never had.

"They all genuinely care, and they've put their money where their mouth is to make sure they give back to the industry that has given them so much."

But how did it come about that he would be the one to lead this venture? "I was on a beach in Dubai on Christmas Eve 2015," Taylor-Mills recalls with a knowing grin, "when I got an email from 'the Lord' which said 'I've bought the St James, shall we do this?' I called him and said 'I'm game'".

Initially brought in as an advisory producer ("no-one really knew what that meant"), the departure of St James' creative director James Albrecht in September left an opportunity for Taylor-Mills to step up to the plate and the rest, as he puts it, is history.

And on that dinner party with Hamilton creator Miranda? "Lin and I were in a taxi on the way to Heights and we sent Andrew a selfie. He suddenly realised we were all here in London together, so we had a fabulous dinner party at Andrew's house. That was the moment I thought to myself 'how did this happen?'"

Something tells me there's going to be more of those moments in the near future for London's new kid on the block.

Paul Taylor-Mills' people to watch:

Choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves: "He comes from the Matthew Bourne School of Choreography, he's really exciting and has his own tastes. I worked with him on Peter and the Starcatcher and I think in two years time we're going to be hearing a lot more about him - he's the new Drew McOnie."

Composer Harry Blake: "I'm really excited about Harry. I first met him when he did the sound design on Casa Valentina for me – he's now Cameron Mackintosh's composer in residence and he's super trendy.

Director Sam Yates: "Sam's really interesting, he's super intelligent and because he was an actor he approaches work from their point of view. And he has an absolute passion and commitment to developing new work."