For Bill Deamer, Olivier Award-Winning Choreographer of FOLLIES, Everything’s Looking Up

In-flight entertainment. Bill Deamer, photo courtesy billdeamer.com

Bill Deamer is simply in a class of his own. He has choreographed the greatest stage shows – the National’s current and definitive FOLLIES, TOP HAT (for which he won the 2013 Olivier Award), EVITA, CATS, THE SOUND OF MUSIC, and many more. On TV, you’ll know his choreography for STRICTLY, ALL STAR MUSICALS and SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE. In showbusiness, the name Bill Deamer is synonymous with creativity, elegance and the hard work that makes sheer perfection. I caught up with him for lunch before he dashed off to the National Theatre for a two-show FOLLIES day.

Thank you very much for talking with me, Bill. How did it feel to win the Olivier Award for Best Theatre Choreographer in 2013 for TOP HAT?

It was an amazing moment in my life. People forget that TOP HAT was a year of my life choreographing it, creating it before it ever went near a stage so yes, the Olivier was just a wonderful icing on the cake for a show that I absolutely adored to do – and actually to do my version of Fred Astaire’s choreography, and my tribute to him and Hollywood.

Because you had done a Tribute to Fred Astaire show previously, so you could say that that is one of your areas in which you specialised.

Yes, it is and because of that everyone then decided that I was a Fred Astaire expert. Of course, I love Fred and Gene Kelly and all of those wonderful stars -and styles- but I wanted to do my own version of that. And then TOP HAT came out of the blue, Kenny Wax phoned me and said we’re doing it, I laughed – I couldn’t believe it! The number of times that I have been asked about doing shows that Fred Astaire made famous, and of course Ginger Rogers too, so it was a wonderful journey. Now the Olivier sits on my mantelpiece and I look at it every day. I’m grateful.

Bill winning the 2013 Olivier Award for Best Theatre Choreographer for TOP HAT. How we cheered!

You trained as an actor at Guildford. Did that training inform your work as a choreographer?

Oh hugely! I was already a trained dancer before I went to Guildford. From the age of 8  I was training at a local dance school, and then, going to Guildford, in those days Guildford had an acting course, a musical theatre course and they did a dance course so you got the best of all worlds; so I was allowed to actually train as an actor and work on my acting and singing skills and also then every morning do my ballet class and all my other dance classes so it was the best of all worlds. It really allowed you to be informed as a choreographer, as a dancer, to bring the acting into your dance, and indeed that’s where it all started. I remember in my first year I decided to direct and choreograph a version of CABARET with all the first year students and we did it, and I knew then that eventually I would be on the creative side, although, of course I performed a lot before getting to that point.

FOLLIES at the National Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson

“…the dance music arrangements tell me what to do, they just conjure up pictures to me….”

Coming on to your current big National Theatre success, FOLLIES; had you choreographed the show before?

I did a concert version at the London Palladium in 2007, and Imelda Staunton did Broadway Baby, she played Hattie, Maria Friedman was Sally, and Liz Robertson was Phyllis and Philip Quast was Ben. I directed and choreographed, but this was a concert version so the scenes were much shorter, but the numbers were all there. I realised then what an incredible score it was, because the songs are such one-offs, they’re done in cabaret constantly, but in the show they’re so totally different, they’re masterfully written acting pieces before you even get to the music, just genius.

On FOLLIES, how was it choreographing actors of a more mature age than those you might normally work with in a musical?

It was an absolute joy. When I agreed to do the show I said I would only do it if every one in the show could move and all those ladies, everyone in the show went through a rigorous dance audition and indeed those ladies who were lucky enough to get the job went through  a week long tap ‘boot camp’ before we started rehearsal, and they worked and worked – and worked!

To great acclaim, as we saw. So FOLLIES won everyone over at the first night, won the Olivier for Best Musical revival, you got nominated yet again for Best Theatre Choreographer; how did it feel then to find out that you would have another season of the show in 2019?

Just wonderful. We knew that some of the casting was going to change, and that’s another challenge because you can’t just do a replica of what you did before, you have to build on what you’ve done and go down other avenues with the actors and actresses who were taking over, so we looked at it in a different way; we kept all the concepts, but we went down other avenues with it and developed it.

“…for FOLLIES we had nine weeks rehearsal and I literally did not sit down for nine weeks…..”

Having seen it in both seasons it definitely feels like a different show but equally rewarding, almost more so now; it’s a show that people will want to return to.

The main thing about the choreography is that I took it all back to the original Broadway dance arrangements – they ain’t broke so don’t fix them! They are absolutely brilliant. John Berkman who did the dance music arrangements and Jonathan Tunick, they are just incredible arrangements and they tell me what to do, they just conjure up pictures to me; I was talking to Stephen Sondheim about it and I said the pictures are there, what I do with it after that is up to me, and I’m really grateful that he liked it so much, but they are the original arrangements.

FOLLIES at the National Theatre. Photo by Johan Persson

“…a Follies girl must never look down!”

Can we talk about this massive stage at the Olivier, and the beautiful set design, and especially the fact that there is such a lot of use of the revolve during the show. That obviously has a huge impact in terms of what you do, in terms of every single piece of movement and choreography. Literally everything is moving most of the time. So in terms of what you are doing, how are you working with that movement?

All the choreography was created without using the revolve and then I put it on the revolve, that’s the only way you can do it, because at the National Theatre you have a revolve exactly the same size in the rehearsal room. When we did the show originally, we had nine weeks rehearsal and I literally did not sit down for nine weeks, because you’re up and you’re working on, say, two characters a day, and working them through, and working and working, and through previews. Everywhere you sit in the Olivier auditorium there’s a different view, and everyone is telling a story throughout, and it’s a divine way of spending your time working out all these stories- I just love every second of it! And every time I see the show, I think, oh yes, I remember that; oh yes, then that comes around there, and all the time, it’s building and building. The cast, they simply love being there, and everyone’s telling their story.

And what’s so impressive is that its so beautifully woven together like fabric, the music, lyrics, movement and the visuals, everything is fully and completely integrated. To me, its the definitive FOLLIES production.

It’s a great honour, but the team were just so, so wonderful, there was never a cross word; the creative team lead by director Dominic Cooke, a dream to work with, who allowed everyone opportunities to discuss and develop. I loved going there, I can’t wait to get over there now- because everyone wants to be there. The show has had a standing ovation at every performance, both versions.

Bill Deamer at lunch, a very happy occasion – such an inspiring and lovely man.

Set design defines the space that you have to work in as a choreographer, Bill, so I wonder whether you have had direct input with the set designer?

Absolutely. Vicky Mortimer, the brilliant FOLLIES designer, would come in with a design and say “how do you feel about this?”; she’s always in rehearsals watching what were doing and it all just comes together. When the ladies, the young ghosts, come through all the rubble, all of that is actually marked out and built for their feet; that was a day in the studio with the rubble, and Vicky and I walked it and Vicky taped my feet and then we marked out all the different ways you could walk through it. Because you don’t want it to look easy, but they are literally walking through all the rubble; there’s an old theatre seat but it’s actually solid so they can stand on it, it doesn’t move at all, and just every little detail is attended to like that, because “a Follies girl must never look down!” If I had a pound for every time I’d said that!…”Look up, look up”,…. and nobody ever looks down.

And then it’s the same for the ladies on the fire escape, that’s high, that’s really high, and when you go out and up, then come in through the darkness into the light, it’s very frightening; that was another day of getting the ladies used to that, “Don’t look down!”

As FOLLIES’ second successful season draws to a close, what’s next on your schedule? Can you tell us yet?

No, I am waiting for the final ‘go’ on a couple of projects which are very exciting , but after FOLLIES it’s hard to find ones that really excite you equally…..but of course any musical is exciting to me, I love them all! There are a few that I am really keen on doing – we are in negotiations – so watch this space. We can talk again after they’re agreed!

We’ll look forward to that! Thank You so much for talking with me, Bill.


You can learn more about Bill Deamer’s choreography and movement direction work by visiting his website billdeamer.com


FOLLIES plays its final performances from May 6-11. If you haven’t seen it, GO! – any lover of intelligent musicals should make sure they don’t miss this last chance to see this definitive production. More information and tickets here

The UK’s Miller Mania!

Miller?

Do I mean Ann?

NO!

Glenn?

NO!

Arthur?

YES!

Arthur Miller is undeniably one of the greatest dramatists of the 20th century, his works played, read and analysed endlessly.

However, even the UK’s fascination with Miller seems to have peaked in 2019, with a number of productions already completed and many more on the way. Here’s a quick rundown of what to catch and where.

ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, a version by Miller of the Ibsen play, ran at the Union Theatre off-West End in London from 4 January to 2 February to mixed reviews

THE LAST YANKEE ran at Bolton Library Theatre (Lancashire) from 28 January to 16 March to good reviews

THE AMERICAN CLOCK ran at London’s Old Vic from early February until 30 March to very mixed reviews

THE PRICE, starring David Suchet is a transfer from Bath’s production of late last year, playing at Wyndham’s Theatre in London until 27 April, earning two Olivier Award nominations along the way.

THE CRUCIBLE, their first ever production of a play by a non-living playwright, with a woman playing the part of John Proctor, at East London’s The Yard theatre, is running until 11 May and has earned excellent reviews.

ALL MY SONS, with Bill Pullman and Sally Field, plays the Old Vic to 8 June and is in previews as this is written. It is also NT Live broadcast on May 14th.

DEATH OF A SALESMAN, the ever-potent dissection of “the American Dream”, plays the Young Vic from 1 May to 29 June, with a standout cast including Sharon D Clarke and Arinzé Kene, and co-directed by Marianne Elliott

Just a few words about the last two mentioned. I must admit to having first seen ALL MY SONS on film, and it is that set of performances that will forever act as my benchmark. The privilege of seeing seasoned Edward G Robinson and a just- emerging Burt Lancaster battling as father and son was one of my enduring memories and I doubt that it will be eclipsed….but I will go along and see this new production with interest, it’s a good play whoever does it.

It’s SALESMAN that I am most looking forward to. Marianne Elliott’s previous work has already elevated expectations (a gender swapped COMPANY, visionary WAR HORSE, firecely intelligent CURIOUS INCIDENT to name just a few theatrical highpoints). And it is intriguing to remember that Miller’s A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE was given a five-star stripped-down revival (by Ivo van Hove and a dream cast including Mark Strong and Nicola Walker) which blew audiences and critics away in 2015 – at the very same venue where SALESMAN is now opening; that naturally adds to the anticipation.

I was professionally introduced to DEATH OF A SALESMAN at the National Theatre in 1980, starring Warren Mitchell who – in tragic, impotent Willy Loman – found the dramatic role of his lifetime and won the Best Actor Olivier Award – and two other Best Actor gongs, and rightly so, as compassionately directed by Michael Rudman. Doreen Mantle was Linda Loman, bringing grace and humanity to the difficult supporting role of wife Linda, and the sons were also award-nominated as I remember. This is the greatest cast that I have seen to date, Mitchell’s Loman perfectly pitched and utterly relateable. And so I look forward to the new production with a little ambivalence, but also fascination to see what Marianne Elliott’s take on this classic will be.

Great writers’ work stands the test of time. Miller’s popularity certainly seems to support that theory. So what are people responding to in the work?

Miller has often taken the family as his central core from which to work. In our ever-fracturing modern family units, perhaps people have a nostalgia for the established family group and its possibilities. Also, Miller points up aspiration versus the reality of human failings. Inside this, he examines the most basic drivers in humane ways- success, integrity, respect, weakness, love, conscience, family, loss, failure, hope, potential, right and wrong. Also, the intergenerational dynamics run strong through a lot of his work- the expectation, even idolization of elders through youthful eyes, doomed to be disappointed. All these themes, it seems, are timeless, and still speak to us as clearly as the day they were first performed – perhaps even more clearly now. Perhaps in our muddled times there is an instinctive need to reassess our own values and a safety in externalising a “playing through” of this cathartic process.

Miller’s prose gives humanity to his characters in a way which allows us to connect to them. His work is never easy, but most often rewarding. I am sure many other writers will have their own take on Miller’s resurgence, and I will look forward to reading their takes on this subject. But while we have the chance to see some fine revivals as these, I would urge you to get out and see one or more for yourself. So do yourself a favour, if you haven’t seen one, go! You might be surprised how much you can get from an “old play”…


One last point. Although a legendary playwright, Miller only ever produced one novel, a book I came across in my teenage years. Written in 1945, and entitled FOCUS, it tells of an ordinary man whose face appears altered because of the style of a new pair of glasses he buys. Suddenly he “looks” Jewish. And everything changes…

An explosive, hard-hitting and brilliantly-crafted work on the theme of antisemitism in post-WWII America, this is a major work in Miller’s CV. If you haven’t read it, I can highly recommend it. Sadly, it still feels highly relevant in our backward-looking times.

Catching up with…THE PHLEBOTOMIST’s Olivier-nominated writer Ella Road

Ella Road during rehearsal, photography by Marc Brenner and Manuel Harlan from show programme

Actor/writer Ella Road’s first play is the ultra-smart and gripping THE PHLEBOTOMIST. When I saw it staged last year at Hampstead Theatre’s Downstairs studio, I felt this was something special. It sold out rapidly and demand was so great and response so good that it has now re-emerged as a fully-fledged production, again tautly directed by Sam Yates, in the Main House at Hampstead. I caught up with Ella to chat about her success and the play’s Olivier Award nomination.

Thanks for making the time to chat with me, Ella. My first question has to be what sparked the idea behind the play?

I started thinking about it years ago, in my final year at university. My partner at the time, who was researching bioengineering internships, found a video about pre-diagnostic genetic testing for pancreatic cancer and excitedly made me watch it. We were both fascinated by the idea that a blood test could tell you so much about your future – but for me it was less about the biotechnology, and more the ethical implications of being able to know so much about ourselves. I started pondering what knowing these things might do to our psyche and it threw up loads of interesting questions about knowledge and identity and power. I did some more research into other diseases people could test for, and realised that it was an area of science advancing at incredible speed.



The character of Bea is a plum role. As a working actor, did you ever consider playing the role yourself?


It felt important to me to be on the outside of the script so I could edit it and support the production objectively, so I never at any point intended to play any role in the play. In truth I’d also imagined the character to look and sound and feel quite different to me. When an actor takes on a part, they add a whole new dimension to it, and I wanted to see who these characters were to other people. When Jade took on the role Bea became Bea², which was joyous to watch. I have nothing wrong with writers playing their own parts (loads of people do it, and I definitely will at some point – in fact I did it last week at the Bush while testing out a play I’m developing there), but for my first play, I wanted to make sure I was giving the whole thing the best chance I could. There was a brief moment during auditions after reading in with one of the actors when the casting director turned to me and said ‘you know, you could just play her…?’, and I had a moment of ‘Could I…?’, but I very quickly remembered why I’d chosen to keep them separate. 



The dialogue has a really natural flow to it. How do you think that your experience as an actor has informed your writing for other actors?


I love improvisation, and for me writing isn’t that different to improv. It’s just like improvising in your head and playing a few parts at once. I also found some of the acting work I did really frustrating, partly because of the dirty of meaty roles available to women, and it’s my intention to create characters that are complex and varied.I also think that my background in acting has helped me to listen to actors carefully during R&D and rehearsal, and to trust them. Actors are incredibly instinctive creatures; if the actor has understood a line, but it sticks several times, chances are it doesn’t scan right, or the intention isn’t clear enough. This particular play is pretty naturalistic – but some of the other stuff I’m working on is more stylised. I’d still argue though that as long as it’s really clear what the actor is doing with a particular bit of speech, the speech itself doesn’t have to be that ‘natural’, and we’ll go along with it.



Jade Anouka does an amazing job in the title role. Is this the first time you have worked with her?


She’s incredible and we’re so lucky to have her. I’d seen Jade on stage doing the Shakespeare Trilogy at the Donmar and thought to myself ‘I have to work with that woman’. I actually availability checked her for the original reading of the play, but she wasn’t free, and was so pleased that she was then able to come in for an audition for the production last year. Completely coincidentally Jade and I were cast together in a reading at the Bunker for an event about Women’s Suffrage with Dippermouth the week of her audition. I think we’d actually offered her the role that day, because I remember avoiding her awkwardly so I wouldn’t just shout ‘please accept the role, you’re amazing!’.



The play has really opened out into the larger space well, having previously sold out its run in the small downstairs studio for developing work. How did it feel to know that the show would be coming back into the Main House?


It was pretty scary, but very exciting. Sam (Yates, the director) and I were really keen to have a chance to open up the scope of the production and get the story out to more people. It was so liberating having a bit more time, and space – and budget – to achieve some of the stuff we couldn’t have done Downstairs. The studio at the HT is such an important space, and we had a wonderful time working there. The Main House is a different beast, and what we’ve made this time around feels like a very different play. I wouldn’t say I prefer either space – it’s quality not quantity! – but it has been great to have the space to breathe a bit.



How did it feel to hear that your play had been Olivier Award – nominated?


I genuinely couldn’t believe it. At every stage of this process, I’ve just been happy to be included, and to work alongside the amazing people I’ve teamed up with. I was happy to have the play on Downstairs, then super happy to have the transfer… But then having a nomination of that profile was, and is, a bit overwhelming. I couldn’t have imagined that would happen with my first play. It’s entirely down to the joint efforts of our whole team who worked incredibly hard to pull it together in a very short space of time. I feel so proud of what our little crew made last year.



At last years’ performances I said that this had TV series potential, and its great to know that the play has now been optioned for TV. How is the adaptation going, and do you have any idea when we might see it on screen?


The adaptation is going really well thanks, but it’s slow! TV is a different world, and there are many more hoops to jump through and decisions to be made in the early stages than in theatre. We’re having fun though, and it’s such an exciting though experiment expanding the world laterally, and tugging at some of the story threads. It’s become a very very big story… We’re getting there, but at this stage I’m afraid it’s too early to know when it might hit the screens!


Many of our readers will be thinking about coming to see the play. How would you describe it to them?


Hmmm, gosh, I hate the elevator pitch! But… I’d say it’s a love story set in a world increasingly obsessed with genetic perfection. As genetic testing becomes more and more pervasive, the population begins to rate itself from 1-10 as a means of understanding genetic ‘quality’. We follow several characters as they try to lead normal, meaningful lives in the present, amidst in a culture evermore focused on investment and return.


Read my four star review of THE PHLEBOTOMIST here


THE PHLEBOTOMIST plays at Hampstead Theatre until 20 April. Get a ticket while you can. Information and tickets here. Watch the trailer for the show below


Stephen Sondheim Speaks!

Friday March 29th was a special day for the National Theatre, and for the 1100-plus audience who had managed to get tickets for a Conversation with Stephen Sondheim.

Dominic Cooke (director of the National’s current Sondheim hit FOLLIES) chatted onstage with the musical theatre legend (looking well and sprightly for his 89 years) for 40 minutes about his career, collaborations and the mechanics of show construction. It made for a fascinating mini-masterclass.

A few choice quotes for you:

“British audiences appreciate language…..language is a passion of mine.”

On the value of music – “The characters should be different at the end of the song than at the beginning,…. music can speed up those points of change. What might take a whole scene can be done in four quatrains……that’s because of the magic of music.”

“It’s remarkable to me that so many playwrights want to write musicals.”

On collaboration – “You are feeding each other and feeding off of each other at the same time. That’s what makes a good collaboration. Its like a good marriage. You supply something and you receive something that you wouldn’t receive doing it alone.”

On “fixing” a show – “You fix the first scene first, then you look at the rest of the show, then you fix the second scene, then you look at the rest of the show, and so on. Every time you fix something, it will affect everything else, maybe for the better, it may show up what’s wrong (elsewhere).”

On Follies – “I wrote the whole (individual) Follies sequence while we were in rehearsal. I didn’t know how we were going to get out of it”…….. ““I’m Still Here” was written on the road for Yvonne de Carlo”……. “Originally “Losing My Mind” was for both women”…… “Alexis Smith said to me “I wish I had a number where I could show off my legs.””

“Most of the shows I’ve written deal with the theme of friendship”

“(A lot of) actors enjoy signing my songs because they’re acting songs, they’re not just presenting a song.”

At the end, as the standing-room house roared its approval, everyone knew that the last 40 minutes had been very well-spent.

Thanks to everyone at the NT for a rare opportunity to hear from this musical theatre giant in person.


For those wanting more, the Stephen Sondheim Society is a great source of Sondheim-related events in the UK. Take a look at their website here

Theatre FootNotes for March 2019 – a brief summary of other theatre events in my diary

TARTUFFE at the National Theatre.Yes, yes, we all know of it as a classic theatrical work. But how many of us have actually read or seen it? I have to say the main reason this edged up my list was that the director was Blanche McIntyre, a hugely talented director who I have followed since 2011, having worked her way up diligently and successfully through such memorable shows as the (five-starred by the New York Times) ACCOLADE in 2011, THE WINTER’S TALE at Shakespeare’s Globe, TITUS ANDRONICUS at the RSC, WELCOME HOME CAPTAIN FOX at the Donmar Warehouse, THE WRITER at the Almeida, and now she has arrived at the National. I was really looking forward to this.

Written by Moliere 350 years ago, TARTUFFE’s original target was religious piety. With the changing drives in the world the target today is usually the guilt of wealth and inequality, which is true of this new adaptation by John Donnelly.

The best of it is that the production is sumptuously designed, set on a fabulously gaudy perspective-defying room design by Robert Jones (which might best be described in style as National Trust meets Studio 54) , it gushes unfocussed excess, going as far as to have a 20-foot high gold statue of Michelangelo’s Adam in the corner on a black circular (revolving!) plinth – making it look delightfully like a really buff Academy Award on steroids.

McIntyre does what she can with the script, but it’s impossible to care for or about any of these self-serving characters, which does of course mean that it’s a spot-on critique of our current society. The cast work hard and the supporting cast are particularly effective in delivering what laughs there are. I’m disappointed to say that Dennis O Hare’s highly resistable Tartuffe left me cold. His accent is an ever-shifting global melange of stereotypes which while obviously sincerely meant to be amusing (and plainly entailed much hard work in “vocal choreography”), all this hard work was scuppered by a lack of projection (together with a low sound balance) which rendered half of his dialogue completely unintelligible even from K row in the stalls (NB I have near perfect hearing). By sheer coincidence this was a Captioned Performance, and I was very grateful for the caption boards to figure what he was attempting to say. I am sorry to say that this effectively pulled the plug on my engagement in the show, and I was glad to get to the end after a long two and three quarter hours.


Seminar/ Discussion of the work of group GAY SWEATSHOP – at Studio Voltaire’s Oscar Wilde Temple in Clapham. Conceived and led by artist Conal McStravick, this event considered the work and legacies of pioneering group The Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company, and in particular, their seminal 1976 play As Time Goes By. Utilising well-chosen readings from two of the original group members (Bruce Bayley and Philip Osment), and some early video footage. An Illuminating and timely reminder of those pioneers who opened the door for many other actors, groups and dramatists who followed.


CIRCA by Tom Ratcliffe – at the Old Red Lion. A loosely connected collection of dialogues which aims to explore the gay identity over the last few decades. Despite the best efforts of a hard-working cast, what little message did get through was unfocussed and ultimately rather soulless and pessimistic. I am sure an earnest intention, however it failed to translate after two long hours.