Concluding our exclusive two part interview with West End producer and performer Paul Spicer, colleague Ava Eldred talks to Paul about his more recent successes and what lies ahead in the future. If you haven’t already read part one you can do so here (Part 1). John Roberts – Executive Editor
So after the Notes from New York season in the West End, you started taking steps in to concert promotion. How does that differ from producing new musical theatre?
I think a lot of people have a lot of passion for new musical theatre, but it’s a huge financial risk. I remember being on a panel once with a hugely successful producer who said that when a new musical lands on his desk, he just can’t commercially touch it, and I don’t think that’s really changed much. I think, though, that now people are starting to realise it’s cool and acceptable to do things on a smaller scale, especially musicals, and that actually small scale is your best bet of seeing something new and exciting, because it will very rarely go straight in to the West End with a new producer now.
I think a lot of people don’t realise that not everything needs to be a West End musical…
Yes, and that things can have a life outside the West End, and that’s totally fine. The trouble is, when it’s actually your business and you’re trying to pay your rent, everything has to be a commercial entity. On a small scale, it’s really difficult to not want to spend money on it. It’s so close up, everything is so intimate, that you can’t get away with cutting corners. It has to be just as legit, which must be really tough. That’s why I like concert promotion, because you can give someone a really cool evening, that’s also ‘blink and you’ll miss it’. You run something for a week, or three nights, with someone who hasn’t done that kind of thing before, but you also still have the ability to get in the national press, because someone cares about it. That’s why, with Alan Cumming, I hadn’t seen hisone man show, but I thought he was a wonderful actor, and I knew he’d won the Tony Award for Cabaret, so I knew he must be legit in every single sense of the word, and I’m so glad that we did that, because it was the first thing we’d done at the Vaudeville, which is my favourite West End theatre now. There’s just something about it. The Vaudeville makes so much sense as a producer if you want to do the sort of stuff that I like to do. Something like Alan Cumming and Megan Mullally works at the Vaudeville.
What was it about those two specifically that meant they worked so well?
I think they’re just commercial enough that it works. People wanted to see them on stage in that instance, and we were really lucky that those two artists wanted to work with us to be honest, because we were pretty much nobodies. We were just lucky they gave us a chance. But while I was doing Megan Mullally, I was also in Avenue Q. With acting, I only go up for things I like the look of and that I’m right for, and where I know the production company and trust them. I don’t go up for much these days anyway because I’m so busy with production, but if something does come along, like Avenue Q did, I thought of course I’ll go for it.
How did you manage to juggle the two? I remember feeling really lazy watching how much you were doing!
Well I did it all secretly. I auditioned secretly, because at the time we’d just put Megan Mullally on sale, and it all happened really quickly. Also, Avenue Q is not just your average musical. I had to learn how to be a puppeteer in the space of 4 weeks. You just go in to rehearsal and do what they called Puppet School.During that time, Megan Mullally landed, and was playing the Vaudeville, so I would go to the Vaudeville during the day, but I didn’t actually see the show until the Sunday, the final show. The other shows I was actually at work. I had my own West End show happening down the road, and I was on stage leading the Avenue Q cast. People were, I think, a little bit perplexed by me because of that. But that was an incredible experience and I loved every second of it. Then at the end of my time in Avenue Q, we had a season of shows happening at the Garrick, and two of those were Jason Robert Brown’s first West End concerts….
And that was an amazing moment too. I remember sitting with you thinking “what are we doing?! What’s happening here?!” It just really worked. It was event theatre. That’s exactly why I like concert promotion, because they’re here one second, then they’re gone. It was stressful, in terms of we must break even, but it was more about having a decent product, and putting something out there that was cool and important. But after that, and after Avenue Q, I was so exhausted by it all, and I often feel that if I haven’t got anything to give, I’ll just stop doing it, and I didn’t feel at that point like I had anything to give production, really, so I stopped for 2 years. But by then, so many things had happened. We went to New York and I sat in Rodgers &Hammerstein’s office on the corner of 5th Avenue and Broadway, and spoke to the President about projects. That was a really amazing moment. Then at the beginning of 2012, we went to New York to do Lance Horne’s concert. It was really great to go and sing on Broadway with people like Cheyenne Jackson and Daphne Rubin Vega, who was the first person I’d ever seen use an ipad to rehearse with. I thought she was the coolest thing! Julie [Atherton] was there, and it was a really weird, full circle moment to be on Broadway with her. To hear her sing in that place…I was just so proud. So many of my major moments in life as an actor and as a producer have been alongside her, which is an absolute privilege, and why we continue to work together.
You must have had so many ‘moments…
Michael Bruce, Portrait of a Princess, was definitely an absolute corker of a moment. That’s had nearly 800,000 views on Youtube, and his album went to number 1 in the iTunes vocal chart the day after it was released.
I remember being so excited that night because Julie Atherton was trending on Twitter…
Yeah, she was! I don’t know how we managed to do that….to debut at Number 1 on the iTunes Vocal Chart with a musical theatre album.I think we knocked Michael Bublé off…
I think it was just such a surprise. Nobody knew the video existed!
Yeah, absolutely.The song charted too, as did a couple of the other songs, which was beyond ridiculous. And that was nothing to do with celebrity…it was purely just the video. Filming that too was hilarious. It was a complete labour of love, and a lot of that came straight from Julie’s head, because she just has that. Russell Tovey, Sheridan Smith, everyone just got behind it because they thought the song was genius, and that’s had such a huge life, and I’m really proud that we could go from finding Michael through Notes for the Stage, and were able to follow that through, and were able to spend the time and effort and money on making his debut album. I think if you’re going to do anything in life, you have to get behind it 100%, so whatever you do, you’ve got to make sure you can follow through, or everything is pointless and futile. Michael is now the first ever composer in residence at the Donmar Warehouse, and has workedfor the RSC and the Old Vic. He deserves everything he gets, which is why it’s really important to continue to bastion new musical theatre. The proof is in the pudding with him, as a case study. You have to participate. He had to participate in that competition. He probably would have got there anyway, regardless, but it probably would have taken him a little bit longer, and he’ll have a Broadway musical one day…definitely. I want to always continue to work with Michael on whatever level I can, and I like to expose Michael to new people. He is probably one of our best hopes in terms of being someone who can change musical theatre, and take it forward and evolve it. My whole life, when people have asked about my ‘dream rôle’, I’ve never really had one. I always just wanted to make a change, in a good way, to musical theatre. I want people to think of me in that way more than anything else. In a little way, I’ve had a little part of that I think, through doing that with Michael, and I’m really proud of it, because I know that he’ll continue to do great things.
And you’ve managed to combine the bigger scale producing with contemporary musical theatre, with people like Lance Horne…
Yes, Lance Horne at the Garrick was wonderful, because Graham Norton came to sing! He was like “Why have you asked me to sing?! I can’t!” but he did a really good job of it! And we got to record that album in Abbey Road studios which was a joke…those studios are just one of a kind. That was incredible, and that all came from Lance, which came from Alan Cumming because obviously Lance was his MD. And through him we also met Meow Meow, and got to work with her on the show here and on Broadway, which was wonderful
I can’t end this without us talking about You’ll Never Walk Alone, and West End Unites.
That was special because that project found us. We didn’t go looking for it. To be able to work with the support of Sir Cameron Mackintosh and Delfont Mackintosh…that was a once in a lifetime opportunity really. It was such a huge learning curve, and everyone was on board for the right reasons, and they were amazing. The point is, nobody was making any money out of that apart from the DEC, so everybody there was there with heart and soul, giving whatever they could, whenever they could. In terms of production, that was the first West End concert that I’d produced in a really long time, and was probably the biggest one-nighter. It felt similar, though, to A Spoonful of Stiles and Drewe, which was the first thing we did like that.
In what way?
Well everyone there was there for the love of George and Anthony, so we just had a lot of good will. It was celebrating their 25th anniversary, so it was a big celebration. The second half of that was the first time Soho Cinders had ever been performed in the West End, and it was the first time Gareth Gates had really done musical theatre. He was great! I love the fact that we got to premiere that stuff, and that we had a recording, and that still lasts.
And now, for the first time in a while, you’re going back to contemporary musical theatre…
For the first time since 2009 really, I feel like I’ve got something to give in terms of new and contemporary musical theatre. I feel like I’ve got my mojo back for it a little bit, and I’d really like to look at producing something new and contemporary. Not necessarily American, or British, but something new and exciting, in a quirky venue in London, on a small scale. Definitely that’s bubbling away within me, so that’s something I’d like to do it the future.
Which brings us to Onstage Acts…
Definitely. That’s the reason why we’re doing Onstage Acts. It’s to dip our toes back in to that world, and bring together a lot of the people that were so inspirational and a massive part of the Notes from New York years. I think Notes from New York had it’s time, and I think it’s done. I don’t think it will return, but the ethos was just so strong and I think now, people in the West End are kind of ready for something like that again. They’re ready for another change, and some evolution.
I think that’s already starting, in terms of the smaller fringe musicals that are doing so brilliantly.
Yeah. I feel like people don’t know what to do with musical theatre now in terms of the West End. Not to do anyone down, but even if you are Cameron Mackintosh, it’s not a done deal. Huge producers are coming in with new pieces and they’re not working. For a huge show going in to the West End as a new musical, there’s always a risk. It almost needs a life before that, so that people and support can come with it. The support is what would buoy you through your first few weeks in a theatre. In terms of a new musical, I think it has to have a pre-life so that people can buy in to it before it’s big. There’s something about that. People want to be a part of it.
I think the beauty of good theatre is that audiences do feel like they’re a part of it.
That’s the great thing about musical theatre, and why I always come back to it; people genuinely love it. You go back to certain recordings and certain shows because they’re so much part of your emotional upbringing and learning. There are definitely shows I can attribute to massive parts of my life, and the weird thing is that The Last 5 Years is probably the biggest in that sense. And then when I saw Miss Saigon, it took me back to the 90s, when I was still at school, singing ‘Why God, Why?’ with curtains and a tie dyed t-shirt. That was the first time I’d ever really listened to a recording of something so epic. It was a really big turning point in my wanting to be an actor. It really inspired me. I wanted to be in those sorts of shows.
I did it completely the other way. The Last 5 Years and small shows first, then the epic ones later…
When I was younger though, there really wasn’t that kind of writing. It was just big, epic musicals like Les Mis and Miss Saigon, or it was old school revivals. That was a massive part of Notes from New York…discovering that it wasn’t just that.
Really, in a lot of ways, it all comes back to new and contemporary musical theatre, if I look at what I’ve done in the last 13 years. It still really excites me. I was really excited to go and see In The Heights, I’m really excited to go and see Dogfight.
I feel like a really good time for contemporary musical theatre is coming back around…
Yeah. And I’d still like to see a revival of something like Songs for a New World. That’s never going away. That’s something I’ll always want to have a look at. And now Cameron Mackintosh has bought the Ambassadors Theatre, which will be the Sondheim, it might well be the opportunity to make something like that work on that scale. And we’ve got the St. James’ Theatre now, which we never had before, that can also handle those sorts of quirky shows with a following. I’m excited about it all now, and Onstage Acts, bringing together Michael, and Julie, and Tori Allen-Martin and Interval Productions is really exciting for me, because they’re all very much out there doing their thing in terms of new writing, and plugging away. The course is a chance to bring all of that together, and hopefully inspire a new set of performers, who will be the ones doing it next.
Talking of next, what does the future hold for Paul Spicer?
I’ll never say never to acting again. I actually quite miss being on stage. I miss singing. I feel like I’m a completely different performer now than last time I was on stage, which was Avenue Q. I want to see what it’s like to be 33 and on stage again. I was planning to do an album a few years back, which was put on the shelf, but I’d like to do it. I’ll call it ‘Songs I stole from other people’s albums’ because I love loads of peoples albums! So many of my peers have released solo records that are just brilliant. But on the flip side, because I can’t ever just do one thing, I want to find some more concert work to promote in the West End, and I’m really interested in finding a new little piece of musical theatre that we can grow and give life to. And then Onstage Acts, which is going to be amazing, because I like to give people opportunities. I like to find new talent, and shine spotlights on people. Onstage Acts will culminate in a showcase, and that’s the important bit: giving people a voice, and their own little moment.