Year of the Producer: Kenny Wax’s Eureka Moment for Top Hat

Kenny Wax is the producer of Irving Berlin screen-to-stage musical Top Hat, which receives its West End premiere at the Aldwych Theatre tonight (9 May 2012), following an extensive regional tour. Based on the 1935 RKO film of the same name, Top Hat stars Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen in the roles originated on screen by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
The show centres on American dancer Jerry Travers (Chambers), who is working for bumbling producer Horace Hardwick (Martin Ball) in London. Practising his new dance routine late one night in Horace’s hotel, Travers wakes Dale Tremont (Strallen), who is sleeping in the room below. When she goes upstairs to complain, the two are immediately attracted to each other, but complications arise when Dale mistakes Jerry for Horace, who is married to her friend.

Top Hat is directed by Matthew White and choreographed by Bill Deamer.The musical numbers include “Cheek to Cheek” and “Top Hat” and a host of other Irving Berlin classics selected by the creative team.

Here, as part of our ongoing Year of the Producer series, Kenny Wax tells us the story behind the production.

Back to the classics

It all started with my landlord. About four years ago, I was talking to him about the difficult times we were having in the theatre industry and he replied that, in times of recession one should go back to the classics. A year later I was having a Sunday brunch with friends and – as friends often do when they’re with a producer – they were pitching crazy ideas for shows. One asked if I’d ever thought about doing a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical on stage and another suggested Top Hat.

I confess I didn’t know much about the film. So I watched the movie and it seemed theatrical enough that it could work really well on the stage – it had so many fabulous set pieces. But when I applied for the rights, I was rejected. Ted Chapin at the Irving Berlin Music Company in New York discussed it with Irving Berlin’s three daughters and they weren’t interested. Their perspective was, “We’ve had so many approaches over decades and never said yes, why should we now?” Plus it can take five years to develop a new musical. Was this something they really wanted to spend the next five years supervising? (Mary Ellin Barrett is now 86, Linda 80 and Elizabeth 76.)

I knew this wasn’t something that could be resolved by email so I was a bit sneaky. I waited a few weeks and arranged a meeting with Ted Chapin without telling him what it was about. I just said I was going to be in New York anyway and it would be nice to see him.

Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen in Top Hat. Photo credit: Alaistair Muir/W@S_IMGI turned up on his doorstep and admitted that I’d come under false pretences and was there to talk about Top Hat. I argued that a stage musical of it could literally add 20 years to the life of the rights of &

On top of all this, we have a 15-piece orchestra, 200 wonderful costumes by Jon Morrell, loads of sets, constantly changing environments and fabulous designs by Hildegard Bechtler. This is a big show and we haven’t stinted.

Our advance for the West End has been even stronger than we expected, which has been fantastic. As a producer, there is nothing more rewarding and encouraging than seeing the full houses we’ve had on tour and during previews in London – and all the smiling faces. People can’t stop themselves from humming along to all those great Berlin numbers. How could they?

– Kenny Wax was talking to Terri Paddock