Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Chocolate For Musical Buffs

I've found the following article by Patrick Healy in last weekend's New York Times. It is clearly too long for a blog entry, but nevertheless… A small private theater playing musicals is an amazing endeavor anyway. Mr. Babani's Menier Chocolate Factory of London is an admirable achievement. Whoever's interested in musical theater should read this:

TREVOR NUNN had a money problem. The director of such lavish musicals as “Cats” and “Les Misérables,” he wanted a particular dress — somber but frisky — for the leading lady in his latest show here, this summer’s revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Aspects of Love.” But Mr. Nunn was now working at the Menier Chocolate Factory, a 160-seat theater known for its scaled-down productions — including, in the case of “Aspects,” not a single dressmaker. So Mr. Nunn found himself asking David Babani, the Chocolate Factory’s 32-year-old artistic director, for extra money for shopping. Mr. Babani agreed, and soon the perfect dress, in an elegant grape-purple, was snapped up. On sale, for £85 ($130).
“I wasn’t told how much the dress cost, and David was probably having conniptions somewhere over it,” Mr. Nunn said later. “I’ve never had to swallow hard before to ask for a dress, but budget cutoffs are well worth working at the Chocolate Factory.”
If Mr. Babani runs his shop down to the pence, he is certainly doing more with less at the Chocolate Factory, in a former confectionary in the Southwark section of London, a few blocks from Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Unlike anything now in New York, the Chocolate Factory is the rare commercial theater operation that pumps out critically acclaimed hit shows on shoestring budgets, including this year’s Tony Award winner for best musical revival, “La Cage Aux Folles.” Its recent successes on Broadway has inspired Mr. Babani to envision a branch of the Chocolate Factory in New York someday.
Founded in 2004, the theater has quickly become a creative force in the West End here and increasingly on Broadway, where it has garnered 24 Tony nominations for just three of its revivals: “Sunday in the Park With George” (2008), “A Little Night Music,” which opened in 2009, and “La Cage.” As for London, of the 30 shows that the Chocolate Factory has produced, 10 have moved to much larger theaters, including the current hit revival of “Sweet Charity.”
Such transfers have been essential moneymakers for the Chocolate Factory, which has an annual operating budget of about £2 million ($3 million) and does not receive a government subsidy like two other major London producing companies, the National Theater and the Donmar Warehouse. To create those shows for such little money, the Chocolate Factory has minted a minimalist aesthetic — simple sets, basic costumes and lighting, actors often playing two or more roles — on budgets that are on par with major not-for-profit Off Broadway theaters. Plays cost about £80,000 ($120,000), and musicals between £300,000 and £500,000 (about $450,000 to $765,000). A typical Broadway musical costs $8 million to mount. All cast members, even stars, are paid the same company wage of £300 a week, or about $460. And the theater’s permanent staff includes only Mr. Babani and two other employees, a radically smaller operation than American theater companies.
Some of these economies have not only helped keep the theater solvent, but have also become a template for producers and directors in London and New York.
Stripped-down musicals are in vogue, from actors playing instruments onstage (making a large orchestra unnecessary) in the recent Broadway revivals of “Sweeney Todd” and “Company” to the relatively spare staging of musicals like “Hair” and “Next to Normal.” For Mr. Babani the goal of the Chocolate Factory, where theatergoers sit as close as three feet from the actors, is to remove the distractions of epic-size production numbers, which can consume money and rehearsal time, so the creators and cast can focus on realizing a show’s essence.
“We start by focusing on the story and making it actor-led, rather than scenery-led or orchestra-led,” said Mr. Babani, half-swallowed by the plush worn sofa in a nook just a few yards from the stage. “And then we survive by getting our work out of this building and into larger theaters where we can start making money.”
Some of the shows that do not go on to larger theaters have lacked a commercial patina, or positive reviews. The Chocolate Factory’s previous show, “Paradise Found,” directed by the Tony winners Harold Prince and Susan Stroman and starring Mandy Patinkin, was a box office success but took a drubbing from critics, and it closed in June without a transfer.
Mr. Babani pointed to “Paradise Found” as a production that, while promising in development and invested with huge talent, did not mesh with the Menier aesthetic. A transcontinental adventure story set in 1873, it was more epic than most Chocolate Factory shows, with ornate dresses as well as automated sets — the first ever used at the theater, he said. “If anything, the show was overdesigned for the space, with perhaps more scenery and furniture and costumes than the building could handle,” Mr. Babani said.
He accepted some of the blame. “With such a small staff and a lot on my plate, we probably weren’t clear enough, strict enough, or strong enough with Hal and Susan about what wasn’t working with the show in our theater,” Mr. Babani said.
Ms. Stroman (“The Producers”) said she did not believe the show was overdesigned but agreed that its scale was not pared down. Regardless, the Chocolate Factory proved ideal to try out the new musical, she said, because the confined space made it easier to see the weaknesses and strengths of the show. “I came away understanding that the marrying of the music and the story could be even more buoyant,” said Ms. Stroman, who plans to return to the drawing board with Mr. Prince to rework the show.
“The Chocolate Factory gave us the opportunity to discover what we have to work on without costing us millions of dollars,” she added.
Which is precisely Mr. Babani’s mission. An impish, rumpled character who attends to his clothing and hair far more casually than to his shows, Mr. Babani recalled falling in love with theater when he saw “Sweeney Todd” at the National Theater when he was 13. “It blew my mind that a show about grown-ups killing people could be funny and nasty and scary and thrilling,” said Mr. Babani, who described his family as middle class and saw most theater early on by buying discount tickets.
He began producing his own shows while in secondary school — his production of Ariel Dorfman’s drama “Death and the Maiden” at a local theater earned a £1,000 profit when he was 18 — and went on to work as a commercial producer until finding a handsome building, with exposed wood beams and cast-iron columns, sitting vacant a few blocks south of the Thames. It was built in 1870 to house a factory for Menier Chocolate, a Parisian company that was ultimately sold off during the 1960s and ’70s.
Mr. Babani said he put a premium on personally recruiting actors and directors for his shows, which tilt toward musicals, though not exclusively. He drafted Mr. Nunn for “A Little Night Music” and asked him afterward if there was a musical of his that he would like to revisit on a smaller scale. Mr. Nunn immediately said “Aspects of Love,” which happened to be Mr. Babani’s favorite Lloyd Webber score, and so the revival was added to the calendar with a budget of £400,000 ($612,000).
Mr. Nunn directed the original West End production of “Aspects” in 1989 and the Broadway staging a year later, and he recalled that he and Mr. Lloyd Webber had conceived “Aspects” as a sharp departure from blockbuster spectacles like their previous show, “The Phantom of the Opera.”
Based on a 1955 novella by David Garnett, “Aspects” begins with a love triangle of Europeans that grows in size and complexity over a 17-year period. Early ideas about gently balancing the love story with a small chamber orchestra and a simple design scheme soon gave way, however, to expectations of another Lloyd Webber mega-musical — how will he follow up “Phantom”? — and more music was written, and more cooks entered the producing kitchen.
“I can’t really recall the precise moment when the original ‘Aspects’ went from small scale to big scale,” Mr. Nunn said. “But I felt the story got swallowed up with those 17 or so musicians and the massive design.”
The simplified revival, which has an 8-musician, 12-instrument band, has allowed Mr. Nunn to spend time working with his cast on the show’s emotional arc. The first two weeks of rehearsal involved almost no music work; rather, he said, the cast read the lyrics, by Don Black and Charles Hart, as if they were dialogue and spent time improvising scenes to find nuances in tone, gestures, body language and readings.
Michael Arden, an American actor (“Big River” on Broadway) who plays Alex, the male lead in “Aspects,” said the feel of the Chocolate Factory forces actors “to be completely truthful with the material rather than try to emotionally project, because there’s no balcony to play to.” He added, “The people are the driving forces of the shows here, not a crashing chandelier, not a turntable, not characters flying in the air.”
“Aspects” opened on July 15 to strong reviews from critics, who generally concluded that the unvarnished staging put the poignancy of the relationships in sharp relief. Some reviews suggested that the revival was good enough to move to the West End or even Broadway. Mr. Babani said he would be thrilled if “Aspects” had a life beyond the Chocolate Factory, but he emphasized that few if any of his shows are bejeweled with special bells and whistles that might help grab the attention of London and New York producers.
“What I think is more worthy of attention,” he said, “is the bravery by our directors and team in rethinking shows in a way that cuts against people’s memories and expectations. ‘La Cage’ was a grandly produced show before here. So was ‘Night Music.’ So was ‘Aspects.’ What I like to think we give people, instead of all that grandeur, are great stories.”


  1. The Chocolate Factory is indeed a nice idea, specially in these times of crisis and specially when I've seen major Broadway productions that costed millions and millions of dollars, in the end, worth nothing.
    I hope though,that you're not planning on opening Rebecca there! It would be a shame to scale down not only the gorgeous sets but the orchestra (which means the orchestrations will be weaker.)