As most football fans will doubtless be aware, Everton chairman and theatre producer Bill Kenwright has been battling with ill health for several months. So we’re all the more grateful to him for sharing some thoughts via his West End office, whilst recuperating, as his company prepares to open the Broadway Theatre again for yet another spectacular season.
The Broadway season opens in less than a week, how are you feeling about it? Are you nervous or do you get a buzz of anticipation? Is everything on schedule?
The last seven or eight months has proved to me more than anything ever could that I have the very best team working for me. Of course I have supervised the decisions on which shows come to Peterborough, but my team have put them together and I know that there is always a buzz at BKL about opening a show. The fact that we are reopening the theatre at Peterborough where we were so warmly welcomed two years ago is another exciting opportunity for us. At the end of the day all any theatre producer wants is to create pleasure for the audience who goes to see his shows. Pleasure comes in all different shapes and sizes, as does, I hope, the programme that we have scheduled.
People will remember you from the season two years ago, but you have a connection with Peterborough going back to the 80s and 90s with the likes of Tony Clayton and Derek Killeen at The Key Theatre don’t you? How did that come about and what memories do you have of that time?
Friendships are the most important things we have in life and Tony and Derek in particular were my friends. The Key Theatre was so small we could never make any money out of the shows we staged there, but we always got a welcome, and we always enjoyed our time there. I saw a couple of Derek’s youth Rock ‘n’ Roll musicals, and always marvelled at the young talent that you have. It’s a good city!
How does this run of shows compare with two years ago when we had Evita and Cabaret?
The reaction to our first season two years ago was pretty terrific, and I am hoping the reaction will be so this current season. Can you really compare Evita and Cabaret to Jesus Christ Superstar and The Glenn Miller Story? Probably not. But if you do them well, and audiences are thrilled by them, then you can certainly compare the reaction. Which I hope will be favourable.
What do you see as the stand-out shows?
I am really pleased that we are presenting And Then There Were None this year. Our Agatha Christie Theatre Company has been a phenomenal success over the last 10 years, and this year’s Christie And Then There Were None has been a real blockbuster. Already box office indications look like it’s going to be very successful in Peterborough so it’s good for me to know that we can programme the odd drama amongst the musicals.
What sort of reaction are you expecting? I recall on the opening night of Evita, where I sat next to you, you had endless people coming up to thank you for bringing the shows to the city.
To be honest with you, you can never expect a reaction. You have to work for it. All I know is that the shows I am producing are of the highest standard and I would never want to give Peterborough audiences anything less than that.
You open with JSC - is Glenn Carter the best actor you have ever cast in that lead role?
Glenn Carter is not only a wonderful actor, and possibly the most celebrated of all of those who has played Jesus before and after him - as you know he’s played it in London, on Broadway, in the Really Useful Group movie - but he is also a wonderful man. And I think that is hugely important to the actor who plays Christ. I have always seen Jesus Christ Superstar as - and similar to Blood Brothers - a musical about the relationship between two men. Two Blood Brothers. And my Judas is one of my very favourite people. Tim Rogers played the lead role in Whistle Down the Wind for me, both in London and on tour for over a year. Both he and Glenn are two of our greatest musical leading men, and it’s my privilege to have produced and directed them both – alongside, of course, my other Blood Brother and director Bob Tomson.
You have extended the season since the first announcement, do you have any plans to extend it further, as I do believe there is a lot of interest for other producers?
We would love to produce more shows at Peterborough and even present them on behalf of others. At the moment talks are ongoing with the owner and your very supportive council. We’ll see.
What show if any would you like to stage in the city if you had the chance?
Anything and everything that is good. Again my team have some fantastic projects for next year so watch this space.
And will you be back next year, or will we see you staying for good, perhaps working in a similar way to Windsor?
Windsor is of course very, very different from the Broadway as it is essentially a small playhouse. And one that I made my “Southern” acting debut in all of those decades ago when I came down from Liverpool. It’s a theatre I love, so when it was on the verge of bankruptcy several years ago, I took over the reins and it’s never less than a privilege to visit it when I do. Not so much lately as my health hasn’t allowed me, but it’s a beautiful little theatre.
The Broadway really could be one of the best touring venues out there. I have already talked about your welcoming audience – they are a big plus. But it does need some work stage wise, as it’s not yet properly equipped for major musicals. We have to make compromises when we bring our shows there as the theatre does not have any flying bars, but hopefully they don’t get in the way of audience involvement or enjoyment. But with a few bob spent on its stage and backstage it really is a great place to produce and perform in shows.
Finally, can I say I have had many, many letters from Peterborough theatregoers welcoming me and the company back, and in many instances wishing me progress with my health issues. Can I, through your newspaper, thank them and indeed thank you and the Peterborough Telegraph for all of the help that you have given us over the last two years. I hope it’s a great season and you all have a great Christmas.
You have some first timers in Lucy O’Byrne, Joe McElderry and Gray O’Brien - what qualities do you think they will bring?
Well they will definitely bring star quality to their roles!
Lucy blew me away with her audition and to be honest with you I was amazed that she didn’t win The Voice.
I watched the final and thought she was an absolute certainty to win. But she came second – and we were lucky enough to find her available to play Maria for us and have her first ever opening night in that role in Peterborough.
Gray has been a friend for many years. He starred in London for me opposite Peter Bowles in Sleuth, and is an actor that I have always admired. He has a real quiet strength and intensity - and searing good looks! I am a huge Casualty fan (honestly!) and always enjoyed him in that.
One man who is certainly not a first timer is Tommy Steele and you are on record as a big fan of his, aren’t you? Why did you sign him up for this show? And is there another hero of yours you would have liked to work with?
As everyone knows Tommy is my British rock ‘n’ roll idol. He was when I was a 10-year-old kid in Liverpool, and while perhaps not being as much ‘rock ‘n’ roll’ now as he was then he remains a massive, massive idol of mine.
We have been doing Scrooge together for the last 12 years including two stints at the London Palladium, where there is a plaque for Tom as he is the most
lauded star in that wonderful theatre’s history, having appeared there in more shows - and more sell out shows at that - than any other artist.
I have constantly talked to him and searched for a project that I could work with him on, that didn’t, like Scrooge, only have a Christmas shop window.
When I heard that Tom was a massive fan of Glenn Miller and his orchestra, we spent time together and came up with a way that Tommy Steele could celebrate his love for Glenn Miller – whilst acknowledging Tommy Steele is 78 and Glenn Miller died a long time before he was that age!
The Glenn Miller Story has been my biggest box office hit of the year, and audiences have obviously celebrated Tommy’s brilliance and longevity at the same time as worshipping the Glenn Miller sounds. It’s always a great joy to work with Tommy, but to work with Tommy and play to full houses night after night is a great, great thrill.
Another hero? That’s obvious. And the biggest dream of them all. Elvis.