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Brief Encounter with ... Daddy Long Legs director John Caird

John Caird is a director and writer whose latest production, two-hander musical Daddy Long Legs, opens at the new St James Theatre this week (7 November 2012, previews from 31 October).

Caird's myriad theatre credits include co-directing Les Miserables and Nicholas Nickleby with Trevor Nunn for the RSC, Humble Boy and Hamlet (starring Simon Russell Beale) at the National Theatre, and operas including Don Carlos and La Bohème.

Daddy Long Legs, which features a book by Caird and music and lyrics by Paul Gordon (Jane Eyre), continues at the St James until 8 December, starring Megan McGinnis and Rob Hancock.

Don't miss our Whatsonstage.com Outing on 21 November, including a post-show Q&A with the cast and John Caird - click here for details

Could you give us an overview of Daddy Long Legs?
It’s a brand new musical based on Jean Webster’s novel of 1908. It’s a very well known novel in some parts of the world but not others. Amazingly, it’s not well known in America, although they ought to be very proud of her as a great American author; she was such an original talent.

Where’s the action set?
It’s set in a college in New England, based on Vassar College. Webster came from quite an eminent East Coast literary family – her great uncle was Mark Twain – and it’s really based on her own experience of going to that college at the beginning of the 20th century. It very much reflects her passions as a social reformer; she was a proto-feminist and a passionate advocate of women’s rights.

Story-wise, it seems to sit somewhere between Great Expectations and 84 Charing Cross Road
The novel is entirely Jerusha’s letters to the man she calls Daddy Long Legs. He’s a man she’s supposed to never meet, but once he starts reading her letters he becomes more and more fascinated by her and he can’t resist going to see her. And having gone to see her, in disguise, he begins to fall in love with her, and she with him. The crisis of the story is that he can’t admit to her that he’s paid for her education, whereas she can’t admit to him that she comes from an orphanage. The big change that I’ve made in the musical is that I’ve given him a character; he’s a very shadowy figure in the books because he never says anything, so I’ve told the other side of the story.

In terms of scale it’s a lot more intimate than many of your previous projects
I call it my ‘recession musical’, but the motive wasn’t purely financial – I love working on chamber pieces with small casts. At the National I did Humble Boy and Stanley, very intimate stories involving very small groups of people. Working this way you get to really delve into the attitudes and background of the characters and create a commensurate intimacy of experience for the audience.

Do you think it could work on a larger stage?
Well we played 1,000-seater venues in the States, but I certainly wouldn’t want to see it expanded with more characters. Jean Webster did a large-scale dramatic version of it herself but I’ve read it and it’s very poor, largely because the other characters aren’t fundamentally interesting; they don’t have a good reason to be there.

Megan McGinnis & Robert Adelman Hancock in Daddy Long Legs

What was the genesis of the project?
It was actually my wife’s idea – she handed me the novel one day many years ago and said she thought it would make an interesting musical. So I read it and immediately fell in love with it, and wondered how I hadn’t come across it before. My wife’s Japanese and the novel is huge in Japan, especially with young women. I then sent it to Paul and he responded within a month by sending me 16 songs – he’s amazingly fast when he gets fired up!

What made you cast Megan McGinnis and Rob Hancock?
Megan is a wonderful actress and singer. I first got to know her in the revival of Les Miserables on Broadway, where she played Eponine. She’s a beautiful, glowing presence on the stage, a real star. Plus she effortlessly manages to persuade an audience she’s only 17 years old. Rob does the difficult task of playing a role that requires a very tall actor who can also sing and be funny. Rob has all that in spades, plus he’s very good looking, so he’s dream casting for Jervis.

How did you get involved with the St James?
My ex-wife Frances Ruffelle suggested it to David Gilmore (artistic director of the St James). He came to see it in Massachusetts and said he loved it and wanted to have it in his new theatre. It was originally meant to open the venue but I wasn’t available because I was opening it in Tokyo.

I think it’s a wonderful space. London is very short of intimate, well appointed theatres that aren’t rooms above pubs. Not that there’s anything wrong with rooms above pubs, of course. 

There isn’t much in theatre you haven’t done – where does this sit for you as a project?
I put a lot of my heart and soul into this – it contains many of my passions; the themes of orphans and charity and the education of children. And I have a long working relationship with Paul Gordon, who I think is such a talented musical theatre writer and should be known more in this country. We worked together on Jane Eyre (in 2000) and we’re actually working on a new project called Little Miss Scrooge. It’s an amalgamation of A Christmas Carol and Great Expectations - Ebenezer Scrooge becomes Estella Scrooge, who’s a hard-nosed Wall Street banker who specialises in foreclosing on people’s bad mortgages.

You’ve focused heavily on opera in recent years – is it nice to come back to musical theatre?
I try to do both – most of the musicals I do I also write. I don’t really have a passion to direct the next revival of Oklahoma!; I’m interested in telling stories through musical theatre and therefore creating new ones. I’ve also started writing operas, which is great fun. But then fundamentally they’re pretty much the same genre, in all sorts of ways.

What do you make of the prevalence of jukebox shows in the West End?
Well there’s nothing wrong with them - these shows have always been around in different guises - but it’s not something I’d particularly like to get involved with.

Are you surprised by the ongoing success of Les Miserables?
I’m not surprised, though I’m certainly proud and very gratified it’s still going. I do a stint on it every year – I put in the new cast in the summer – and I love keeping abreast of it and checking on it occasionally. Of course by now there’s an extraordinarily able crew who know it inside out that I have to be careful not to get in the way.

We haven’t seen much of your work in the UK recently
No, it’s a shame – I’ve been working mostly abroad. I’ve got heavily involved in Japanese theatre and most of my opera work is in America. I’m also the principal guest director of the Royal Dramatic theatre in Stockholm so I work there quite regularly.

Would you like to do more work in London?
I’d love to – I could be home more often and see more of my family! I have been offered things at the National and other places but in the last two or three years I’ve always been unavailable. That’s one of the issues of working in opera, that you have to plan very far ahead. I’ve already got something in my diary for 2016, which I told them I’d do if I’m still alive.

Would you ever run one of the major venues?
I did think about it at one stage in my career but I don’t think I’d do it now. I’m not really interested in the kinds of things you need to be interested in to run a theatre, such as fundraising. I spend far too much of my time dreaming and imagining and writing stories.

Any plays still on your wish list?
Well once one has started on the Shakespeare canon it’s rather difficult to get off. I’m sure I’ll do Lear someday, likewise I’ve never directed Much Ado or Love’s Labours Lost. But what I tend to do is direct them when I find the right people – such as when I did Hamlet with Simon Russell Beale. I just thought it was nuts that he hadn’t done it, and I’m very glad he did.

Are there plans to take Daddy Long Legs elsewhere?
We have plans to take it on to Broadway. It’s already been all over America – that was always the plan, to do what we call a ‘rolling world premiere’. But I’d like it to be seen by the New York theatre community. 

- John Caird was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

Come on our hosted Whatsonstage.com Outing to Daddy Long Legs on 21 November 2012 and get your top-price ticket, and access to our EXCLUSIVE post-show Q&A with John Caird and the show's stars Megan McGinnis and Robert Adelman Hancock - plus 20 programmes for early bookers - all just £30.00!


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