Adam Penford on Sweet Charity

Friday 3rd August 2018

I’m really looking forward to Sweet Charity arriving in September. When musicals are done well they can be a joyous night in the theatre. For many years, musicals were seen as a less serious form, but if you take a well-written musical and realise it through a sophisticated, imaginative production then it can hold its own against any drama. The combination of singing, dancing and acting – combined with the design elements – all working together to tell a story is magical because it’s true collaboration, and the reason theatre can be so powerful, (and so difficult to get right), is that it’s a collaborative art form.

Nottingham Playhouse hasn’t produced a musical for more than 10 years and it was important for me to include one in my first season. It’s an incredibly popular form of theatre. Plus, I want to ensure there is something in our programme to suit every audience member’s taste. We’re well-known for putting on an absolutely marvellous, high-quality pantomime every year and there are many parallels between pantos and musicals, so there’s absolutely no reason why we can’t gain a reputation for mounting on an exemplary musical each year to rival those being produced by Sheffield Crucible and Chichester Festival Theatre. We’re making a fantastic start this year with Sweet Charity by attracting such a high calibre West End creative team and cast.

Over the next few years, I’m keen to develop an audience for musical theatre at the Playhouse. It’s a great opportunity to showcase the talent we have in our production departments. We build and make everything in-house at Nottingham Playhouse – we’re one of the few remaining UK regional theatres that do so – and musicals give us an opportunity to go to town and demonstrate the quality of our sets, props, costumes, sound, and lighting departments. Musicals are expensive and complex to create, but the pay-off when, through song, text and dance, you transport the audience to Oklahoma in the 1900s, the Dickensian slums or, as with Sweet Charity, 1960s New York, is what theatre is all about.

Musicals are incredibly popular with the general public and I think it’s because they’re celebratory. Traditionally in musicals, you move from spoken word into song or dance at moments of heightened emotion, when the characters can’t express their emotions through mere speech any longer, and audiences respond to that. Music is universal, it speaks to everybody, it transcends societal boundaries. Because of this, audiences associate musical theatre with having a good night out, they leave the theatre on an emotional high. This doesn’t mean the subject matter has to be frivolous – from the earliest musicals such as Porgy and Bess and Show Boat which explored racial tensions, to Little Shop of Horrors which included domestic violence, and on to Rent which portrayed the AIDS epidemic – musicals have always explored serious social issues.

One of the reasons I chose Sweet Charity is because it has a strong female working-class leading role. Charity’s an underdog, but ever optimistic, she is determined to maintain her moral compass in the corrupt world of 1960s New York. Her character, and what she stands for, still strikes a chord with a contemporary audience and that’s why the show remains so popular. It has an amazing score which includes The Rhythm of Life, I’m a Brass Band and Hey Big Spender, and is known for Bob Fosse’s outstandingly unique choreography. We’re lucky to have one of the UK’s leading musical theatre choreographers, Alistair David, who will be producing original choreography for this production.

Most people will know Sweet Charity through Bob Fosse’s film starring Shirley MacLaine which is tremendous, but we have our own Shirley MacLaine in our leading lady, Rebecca Trehearn. She recently won an Olivier award for Best Actress for Show Boat in the West End and she will bring her own take on the character. Bill Buckhurst, whose production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd is running in New York, has put together a really top-notch West End cast and a fantastic creative team. The set design is beautiful. It’s huge and challenging to deliver and I think it will really wow audiences. Sweet Charity was written for the stage originally – the movie came later – and whether you’re a fan of the film or a newcomer you can’t beat watching theatre live, particularly live song and dance.

I’m already thinking about which other musicals we might produce over the next few years. I wanted a classic mid-twentieth century title for my first year as Artistic Director, but there are older musicals by Gershwin or Cole Porter which have beautiful scores. There are also some imaginative, tightly-written musicals which have emerged from both UK and USA writers over the last 25 years that are due a revival. My ultimate ambition would be to commission and produce a brand new musical, not an adaptation of a book or film as is the current trend, written specifically for Nottingham Playhouse. Musicals are notoriously difficult to get right. They can take many years to hone through endless workshops and in America they play weeks of try-outs in other cities being tweaked before arriving on Broadway, it’s very expensive. But who knows, if all the stars are aligned, perhaps we could develop a musical that goes on to have a commercial life beyond the Playhouse and is revived by theatres all over the world and enters the musical theatre canon. That would be cool.

Photo: Adam Penford with Sweet Charity Director Bill Buckhurst

Sweet Charity runs from Friday 31 August – Saturday 22 September