In looking back through the writings of my late colleague Anthony Field CBE, I came across this profile of one of the finest producers we have – and President of the Society of London Theatre from 2017-2020, Kenny Wax. Through a long acquaintance with Kenny, this affectionate portrait of a tenacious and committed producer who started at the bottom and worked his way up, rings with his genuine love of theatre, and highlights his biggest hit to date, the triple Olivier-winning TOP HAT (although his current production of SIX may well prove just as enduring). Enjoy this canter through Kenny’s career to date, which was written in September 2011.
The World Premiere musical TOP HAT now touring the UK is a highpoint in the career of one of our most successful young producers, Kenny Wax. Having assembled a superb team to realise the stage version of the iconic Astaire Rogers 1935 movie, he has succeeded in creating a Art Deco delight of a scale and quality not seen in recent times. As more people start to recognise his name above a production, it seems that now is a good time to relate the story of his career and how he came to stage this ambitious project.
Kenny Wax has spent the last 23 years working his way up the slippery slope of becoming a commercial theatre producer. When he entered the industry at 21 he had no stage management training and no practical experience. “I had taken a couple of parts in school productions, but never for a moment considered being an actor”.
At 18, he went to Central London Polytechnic to do a degree in Business Studies. “I found it terribly dull and couldn’t apply anything I’d learned to the real world. The only good thing about it was that it gave me time to figure out what I wanted to do. I spent a tedious year at Dixons Head Office as part of my placement. Until then I had considered a career in Personnel for one of the big retail chains. It certainly wasn’t for me. During my time in London I had become rather obsessed with the London theatre scene. Everyone appears to remember one defining show which shaped their decision to become a producer and mine was possibly “Me and My Girl” when Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson charmed the whole Adelphi audience. Perhaps my decision was also influenced by my brother who at that time was a staff director at the National Theatre.
“As soon as I graduated, I started wandering the West End in search of a job. The theatre manager of the Theatre Royal Drury Lane had one remaining place for an usher on a big new show which started previewing the next day. Watching those first few performances of “Miss Saigon” I was smitten.
I had written to every producer for an opening in their office to no avail so I was presumptious enough to thrust a letter into Cameron Mackintosh’s hand one day when he was around the theatre. He invited me to tea at his office during which time we spent 1½ hours talking about our fanatical love of musicals. What struck me as so incredible was that the producer with the biggest show just about to open was the only person who gave me the time of day when so many others had shut the door. Cameron advised me that if I was serious about producing then the most important thing was to learn all aspects of the industry.”
Kenny found a job by day as a foot messenger for Dewynters, the theatre advertising and design agency, and within weeks they offered him a position in the media department.
That year coincided with the first year of Cameron Mackintosh’s Oxford University Professorship. “I went along to some of the lectures and as chance would have it, met George Stiles who enthused about his new musical “Just So” which was shortly to go into rehearsal at the Tricycle Theatre”. Kenny got hold of the demo tapes and badgered Cameron into giving him a job on the show as a runner. It meant leaving Dewynters, having been there for eighteen months, and they wouldn’t hold the job open. He had to decide to leave a full-time salaried position in a leading agency for the gamble of a 6 week job as a runner which would be paying pocket money. “It was a no-brainer and that six weeks was one of the most enjoyable times I have ever spent working in this crazy industry. I look back now and can’t believe how outrageously precocious I was or how they put up with me. The late great Mike Ockrent said to me at one point, the only reason I wasn’t fired was because he hoped that one day I would offer him a directing job!” Sadly, that never got to happen as Mike passed away in 1999. Kenny did however form some wonderful friendships with George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.
“At the first night of ‘JUST SO’ at the Tricycle I met Sue Uings who was enormously helpful, giving me a chance to work at the New London where ‘CATS’ was running. There I worked in the box-office by day and as a follow-spot operator by night presenting the back-stage tours between the matinees and the evening performances. I got a real buzz from working at the New London and the strange, inexplicable magic of ‘CATS’ will remain with me for many years to come.”
Kenny left the New London to gain experience in a totally different environment working for the late Dan Crawford at the King’s Head Theatre Club.
“I produced some Sunday night shows at the King’s Head and I shall never forget the feeling at the first performance of ‘KICKING THE CLOUDS AWAY’. The opening of ‘Doors’ from ‘CLOSER THAN EVER’ brought a tumultous reception; the place went wild and at that moment all my years of work learning the business came into focus. I was lucky to have a fantastic cast with Clive Rowe, Hal Fowler, Claire Burt and Nick Holder – and the sheer elation convinced me that I was right in my determination to be a producer. And I have been very lucky because everyone I have worked with in the business has remained a good friend and faithful colleague. Perhaps I lack a ruthless streak. That sort of management is not really my style. I think things generally get done better with straight talking and level-headedness than with shouting and screaming.”
Thus, perhaps like Michael Redington, Kenny remains a gentleman producer, laid back, patient and determined. Whilst at the King’s Head he remained in contact with some of the students from the Sondheim Master Classes, one of whom was Ed Hardy who came to him to ask him to administrate a new writers’ organisation. Kenny politely declined but came up with a plan to produce a collaborative musical to launch the writers’ organisation which would become known as The Mercury Workshop.
They produced ‘THE CHALLENGE’ at the Shaw Theatre, a retelling of the Daedalus/Icarus legend. “Book writer Stephen Clark constructed a storyline and we allocated each writing team a section to suit their own particular style. Contributors included George Stiles, Kit Hesketh-Harvey, Jason Carr, Stephen Keeling, Charles Hart, Howard Goodall, Anthony Drewe; indeed, the cream of British creative talent. Sacha Brooks co-produced the show which was directed by Steven Dexter. It attracted a great deal of attention, with Stephen Sondheim coming from New York to see it with Cameron Mackintosh.
“The success of ‘THE CHALLENGE’ led to Gary Withers offering me a job in the new Entertainments division of Imagination on the basis that anyone crazy enough to produce that show deserved to work for Imagination. I worked there for three years, developing such musicals as ‘TUTANKHAMEN’ and ‘ONCE ON THIS ISLAND’ which was transferred from Birmingham Rep. to the West-End, co-directed by the late, great David Toguri and Gwenda Hughes. The show was nominated for four Olivier awards and won the one for Best Musical.”
In 1995 Kenny Wax formed his own Company and produced ‘MADDIE’ at Salisbury Playhouse which received great reviews in the local and all the National press and a rave from the Daily Telegraph. As so often happens, the production transferred to the Lyric Theatre where it was met with a divided press. Kenny acknowledges that with more experience and a bigger budget he might have nursed the show into success but he chose to close it to ensure he could pay off all his creditors.
As one door closed another opened and Andrew Empson invited him to join Peter Wilson and himself at PW Productions as Tour Booker and then General Manager. Kenny now produces his own shows which have included tours of Gerald Moon’s comedy thriller ‘CORPSE’, the RNT’s Olivier-Award winning musical ‘HONK’, “THE SHELL SEEKERS’ with Stephanie Cole, ‘MY BOY JACK’ with David Haig and Belinda Lang and Neil LaBute’s ‘THE SHAPE OF THINGS’ in the West End. He managed a gala at the Bristol Old Vic for Cameron Mackintosh to honour Julian Slade marking 50 years since the first performance of ‘SALAD DAYS’. Kenny now co-produces with Nick Brooke a number of young people’s successes such as ‘THE TIGER WHO CAME TO TEA’ and ‘THE GRUFFALO’ But the really exciting leap forward for Kenny is his production of the classic musical ‘TOP HAT’ starring Tom Chambers and Summer Strallen, currently touring the regions to great acclaim. It is daring move to stage a large-scale, really lavish musical at a time when many producers are drawing in their budgets, but audience response is enthusiastic and the show has a wide fan base across the generations.
So what does Kenny think are the two most difficult problems to crack at this moment of time? “Well, raising the money and raising the money. There is now some valuable support from Stage One who particularly try to encourage younger producers and I have also had some financial help over the years from Arts Council England for touring work. I still rely heavily on private investors but there are only a finite number of times you can ask the same person if you haven’t been able to return their money.”