An Interview with Theatre Director, Paul Laidlaw

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As York Musical Theatre Company prepare to bring Andrew Lloyd Webber’s world-famous musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, to the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, director Paul Laidlaw talks about the challenges of putting on such a well-known show, the ever-changing world of theatre and his standout moments, as well as his ‘other job’, as Musical Director of Scarborough Spa Orchestra…

Could you tell us a bit about your background in theatre?
I started appearing in plays and on television when I was still at school, then after graduating from University I joined The York Theatre Royal Company as both an actor and as the resident musical director for four years. Since then I’ve worked with the National Theatre, appeared in just about every major theatre in the UK, as well as Canada, Vienna and Kenya.

You do lots of other things aside from York Musical Theatre Company, could you tell us a bit more about them?
YMTC is the only amateur company I work with. My other major contracts are as musical director of the legendary Scarborough Spa Orchestra which I’ve done for 12 years and my annual appearance as Dame in panto at the Gordon Craig Theatre [in Stevenage] which I’ve done for thirty-two years! Interspersed with these commitments I usually direct a few new shows each year.

How did you first get into directing?
Almost by accident. I’d been pretty successful as an actor and as a Musical Director and was then offered to direct a tour of Dracula when the guy who was supposed to do it fell ill. I’d directed quite a few things as an undergraduate but nothing prepares you for commercial theatre and the financial responsibility that goes with it. I must have done something right because they asked me to do a few more things for them after that and I haven’t stopped since.

paul laidlaw director interview main John Whitney

Actor John Whitney in rehearsals for Jesus Christ Superstar

Do you have a production you’ve directed that stands out as being your favourite?
With YMTC probably Titanic: The Musical as it was the British premier which the composer Maury Yeston came over from America to see. No pressure! At the other end of the scale I loved doing Kander & Ebb’s The World Goes Round with just a cast of six in an intimate setting. A totally different sort of discipline. Professionally, productions of The Full Monty, Cabaret, Noises Off and West Side Story stand out.

What do you think the main differences are in the world of theatre now compared to 10 or 15 year’s ago?
Probably the competition. Back then we had TV, film and the theatre but now, with so much instant access to entertainment on demand on the internet, potential audiences have so much choice. Also, in the amateur world, there are so many more companies than there used to be. When I first worked with YMTC there were only two or three societies here in York who put on musical theatre and opera. There are at least three times that number now, of varying standards, all trying to reach the same core audience.

You’re directing Jesus Christ Superstar, what’s exciting/challenging about directing a show like this?
Well, of course, the show is incredibly well-known – most people know the story before they even go into the theatre so it’s important to keep the production stimulating and exciting both visually and musically. The challenge is to hold the audiences’ attention even though they know how it’s going to end; a bit like Titanic, they know it’s going to sink but all the way through they hope that it won’t. Varying the pace and the momentum on a through-sung piece is always challenging and making the characters three-dimensional is so important too.

paul laidlaw director interview Marlena Kelli

Actor, Marlena Kelli

The show has lots of new faces for York Musical Theatre Company, what’s it like to be working with people you haven’t worked with before?
Well, in any company there may be some people you’ve worked with before but there are invariably a lot of people you’ve only seen at the audition for five, maybe ten, minutes. It’s important to recognise their strengths and weaknesses as quickly as possible so you can help and encourage them. Developing their performance and integrating it into the production as a whole is such an important part of the process.

What experience do you think audiences will have when they come to see the show?
Hopefully an enjoyable one! Musically, the show is very exciting with some amazing singing and orchestral playing. It’s my job to match that visually and emotionally. There are moments of high drama of course, but also some incredibly moving and beautiful scenes. It’s a bit of an emotional roller-coaster and I think audiences will be deeply affected by it.

And finally, what’s coming next for York Musical Theatre Company? Do you have plans for 2020?
The Company has just finalised its plans for 2020 with two very contrasting shows. In May we will be producing Hello, Dolly which has recently had a tremendous revival on Broadway with Bette Midler and in the Autumn there will be a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company which, again, had a revival earlier this year in the West End. Both shows are a complete contrast to each other and to Jesus Christ Superstar but that’s what this Company is all about – diversity and great entertainment.

‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is at Joseph Rowntree Theatre in York from 27-30 November, 2019

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