By MORGAN STEWARD
At only 29-years-old, Paul Taylor-Mills is living out every theater fan’s dream in London. Just 12 short months ago, Taylor-Mills was a theatrical producer just beginning to receive name recognition for his role in bringing “In the Heights,” “Sideshow” and “Peter and the Starcatcher” to the West End. Now, he serves as the Artistic Director of The Other Palace, a theatre owned by none other than Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. I got the opportunity to talk to Taylor-Mills after a special insider showcase of his latest venture, a work-in-progress production of “Bonnie and Clyde.” Waiting from my front row center seat in a room with a small stage a floor below the man theatre of “The Other Palace” with the rest of my travel writing class, I watched Taylor-Mills make his way around the room after the play ended, greeting friends and colleagues while also trying to gauge their reaction to the performance that just occurred. As the room emptied, he made his way back to us, pulled a chair from a nearby empty row and the conversation began.
MORGAN STEWARD (MS): Before you began your role as Artistic Director of The Other Palace, you spent your days doing campy, off the wall fringe productions around London. The one that really caught everyone’s attention was your version of “In the Heights.” What did you do to the already well-regarded Tony winning musical to make it different for a British audience?
PAUL TAYLOR-MILLS (PTM): We turned it into a party! Our director was brilliant, but I’m sure he’ll say (and I’m sure Lin will say this now) there’s not a lot [of material] there. It’s a bit like a soap opera. The worst thing that happens is the gran dies, but you kind of get the sense she’s going to die because she’s old—she’s hobbling around on stage. But we turned it into a party, an absolute party. We set it in a tent at King’s Cross…we’re on the street, so it’s a bit like a street party. When the carnival starts in “96,000,” you are there. You are this far away from the actors (he motions with his hand the distance between him and I, not more than three feet apart). It’s like you want to stand up and join this party too… it’s impossible not to want to when you’ve got this really young, sexy, vibrant ensemble gyrating all around you! It was really Drew Mconie’s choreography that I think was different from the Broadway production. It turned it into this event. We really didn’t have to play with the text much. We’re lucky that Quiara (the book writer) and Lin (musical and lyrics) adored what we did with it.
MS: Do you think your boss would be as forgiving if someone changed one of his theater classics into a giant street carnival?
PTM: I think that’s the way Andrew feels about his musicals now, yeah. He’s really excited about it—you’ve got the musicals like “Jesus Christ Superstar…” it’s so exciting what Regent’s Park did with it! It took it and gave it this sort of modern vibe. I think it’s what the musicals are there to do now. I’d love to see a new “Phantom of the Opera” one day, who knows what it might look like—there might not even be a chandelier. That’s the wonderful thing about those titles now, to see them anew. And while we’re doing new work here, we’re also looking at doing a new production of Sondheim’s “Passion” here,” trying to see how we connect those titles to what’s going on in the world now. You know, I think “Assassins” has never been more prevalent like, there’s an idea right there. Copyright!
MS: Well, actually someone has just done that! City Center is bringing it back as one of their Encores! shows in July…
PTM: Oh really? It makes complete sense with what’s happening in the world, with what’s happening with “Julius Caesar” in the park. At the moment, you kind of go “Yep, they’re on the pulse.” There was a brilliant production of “Assassins” here at the Chocolate Factory and because it was good, I’m not sure I can add anything to that production. It’s only when I think I can add something to it that I think “Yeah, let’s give it a shot.” Also, I’ve never done a Sondheim. It’s just not my taste. I completely respect it, but I think I’m perhaps not the right producer for that. Give me a problem musical, like give me the biggest flop of all time and I’m like “YES! I know what to do with that!” Give me something like “In the Heights.” We haven’t really done rap and R&B in this country. And even Lin’s rapping in both “In the Heights” and “Hamilton” is not 2017… rap it’s kind of early 90’s rap. But the musical theatre genre is now starting to evolve from what’s happening. What Lin did so cleverly is the mixtape because he penetrated into the popular culture. It is so interesting because suddenly musicals aren’t just for the niche theatre fans like you and me who will go and see anything because we get excited by musicals. It’s political…who was it that went and got booed? Yeah, Mike Pence. Suddenly the musical goes back to the Greeks.It has the power to do something more than just be a musical.I think Lin has got a key to a different door and it is just fascinating.
MS: Let’s talk about your current role. You were hand chosen by Andrew Lloyd Webber himself. How, as a young fringe producer, did you manage to get his attention?
PTM: I actually started off as an actor and then I was always the annoying person in the room that had too much to say for himself. I think if you ever feel like you’re that person, you should probably not be an actor. Then I became a director and I started doing weird and wonderful things. As a young director, to kind of get your own work what you end up doing is self-producing. So you do everything yourself—you make the sets, make the costumes. And then I got to a point where I realized I actually much prefer putting the right people around the project—making sure it had the right design or the right choreographers. I did lots of amateur theater, did lots of kinda being in various producing offices and just photocopying or doing anything I could and I listened to everything that was going on. At the same time, self producing on the fringe really. I came across this show called “In the Heights” after doing various bits and pieces. Everyone told me not to do it. Everyone said you won’t cast it, you’d never find an audience for it, and I was like oh, but I think there’s something here, I really believe it. I was just dogged and very passionate about this incredible show and did it, and the rest was history. We went to Suffolk Playhouse, Andrew Lloyd Webber came to see it, Bill Kenwright came to see it, and all of these very very influential brilliant people came to see it and from that moment my life changed. You couldn’t get a ticket! We sat on it for a year and a half while we were trying to figure out if it should go to the West End or what should happen and we moved it to a tent in King’s Cross because we just thought by putting it [on the West End] was not the right thing for that kind of show. It was a party! The music is so infectious and that vibe just takes over. We did it in a tent at King’s Cross and it was absolutely bonkers. We went to the Olivier Awards and it won three Oliviers and from that moment my life changed.
MS: So how did your meeting at “In the Heights” turn into him essentially buying you your own theatre to run?
PTM: Well, Andrew and I would just kinda have lunch every now and then really. And I would just give him my advice for whatever it was worth. He talked to me about “School of Rock” and what he was doing. He shared what he was up to and I would go “Oh, don’t do that” or “Oh, that’s a good idea.” And for some reason, it just kind of worked. He just listened to what I said and we had this lovely report with each other where he could take it or leave it. He would say, oh I agree or don’t agree. He was trying to find a space where he could do what he did with “School of Rock.” With “School of Rock,” they essentially workshopped it Off-Broadway, did it in a horrible dive really, in a club, and they asked the audience what they thought. And Andrew is convinced that it saved him millions of pounds by doing it in the workshop state. Andrew approached me about a year ago and he said, I’ve just bought the St. James (as it was then called) and I think I’d like you to run it. And I was like, oh god no! I quite like my little life at the moment, I don’t think I quite want that pressure. But then I said okay well I’m gonna get it wrong sometimes, because we’re making new musicals, which means 80 percent I’m probably gonna get it wrong. I’ve got broad enough shoulders to get it wrong, but are you ready for me to get it wrong. And he said yes, absolutely. And we opened in mid-February and the rest is history. I get this lovely job and I get to shepherd these musicals some of which have already had lives somewhere, some of which are brand new, and I guess that’s the thing that keeps me excited. We did “Heathers,” we did a show called “Dr. Feel Good,” which is a jazz musical about JFK’s relationship with his doctor, then we’ve got “Bonnie and Clyde” which have all had various degrees of success or unsuccess. It’s great because I have to try and kind of manage the minefield of how we present them in the UK for the first time which is what I really did with “In the Heights” and “Carrie” and these kind of slightly quirky, left of center musicals that you kind of wonder what is the best way for those to happen.
MS: Now that you have your own theatre, how do you choose what to produce here?
PTM: So, it’s completely different I guess, the kind of tree of how a project ends up at The Other Palace. Some are directly from Andrew and he goes “We should do this.” And naturally I, well I listen but also we have this lovely relationship where if I don’t think it’s the right thing then I’m more so able to say to him “oh, maybe don’t do that here” or “or maybe we should do that in the studio and not the main house” and that’s kind of my job, to protect him too. Then there’s this thing online called “submittable.” As soon as it was announced I was doing this role, every man and his dog had a bloody musical. We were just sent musicals and I was like, I don’t know how to deal with it. But, you know, I’ve been in your position where you know, you’re all about 20/21 right and I’m like, oh my god I want to work in this industry and I love this industry. No one replies to my emails, no one takes me seriously. As I got into this wonderful position I kind of made this pact to myself that I wanted to be that person that tried to support people. I’m from a very modest single parent family in Birmingham and if it wasn’t for people taking a punt on me, I would never have this very lovely job that I have now. So, I was like I’m always going to reply to everyone, I’m always going to give people feedback on musicals. In practice, that’s very difficult when you are sent that quantity of material. So, I was like well, what can I do in this new role. I can give people space, I can give people time, I can give people a little bit of money and If I was like 21 and I had this brand-new show that I was just passionate about that would have been priceless to me. So, what we’ve done is online essentially to get through the quantity of material that we get, I just ask people for two songs. There’s no point in sending me a two-and-a-half-hour musical because we just don’t have the time. We receive about 50 musicals a week. So, we ask for two songs and it’s up to the writers—whatever they want to submit. A paragraph synopsis about what it is that happens and then a paragraph about those writers—where they’ve come from and the journey of that show. I can normally tell within the first 16 bars of the song and whilst I’m reading the paragraph of what it is about whether there is anything we can do to support it. If there is, we either bring it into either a workshop, sort of a work in progress, or it will go into a musical bites, where we pay for them to do 15 minutes worth of it in front of an audience.
MS: That all happens online, right? Do you ever bring people to The Other Palace in person to show you their material?
PTM: We’ll do pitch days, so that’s where I sit in the theater all day long and they get a microphone, a piano and 20 minutes. They’ve got 20 minutes just to pitch. It’s up to them how they use it, but they will have my undivided attention for 20 minutes. And I guess it’s all about me trying to make the way in which someone gets their work seen as easy as possible, as unstressful as possible some people have got demos that have been in a studio and they have been produced, some of them the idea of doing a demo they don’t know where to start they just want to stand there and sing me their song. So, we’ve tried to make the kind of submission process as user friendly as possible. And anyone can apply. You don’t have to be under 30, you don’t have to be a black one-legged lesbian, you can like, anyone can come into The Other Palace. I think we are in this really unique world where we are a commercial building in the sense that it’s part of Andrew’s portfolio of venues, but the outlook or the vision is quite subsidized, it’s a development home. So, it’s a very unique building we run.
MS: How much control do you have as Artistic Director? Do you decide everything?
PTM: Everything, apart from directing. All of the casting, all of the creative…I mean on this kind of scale it’s very limited, but essentially everything. Nothing gets past me unless I say “Yes, I like that person.” Look, I’m a control freak, there’s no easy way of saying it. The only thing I have, and you know I say this to Andrew all of the time, I’m so blessed that I get to work with people like Andrew and Lin, all of these incredible people. I’m never going to have the kind of genius that they have. The only currency that I have to work with these people is taste and instinct. I’ve got it wrong sometimes. I did “Bat Boy” and loved it, but I could not sell a ticket. It was terrible! The reviews were actually very good. I used to sit there (mimics sitting at a desk with his head in his hands) and think oh my god I’m the producer of this. But you’re the captain of the ship you know, you have to go with it. I say this to Andrew all of the time, I’m very respectful of who he is, but I have to be honest. You know, when he starts talking sometimes I’m like, I think we’re all right dear actually, I’m not sure we need to do that. And that’s the only currency I can talk to him with. Because if I start doing what everyone else does, say “Yes, that’s a brilliant idea,” then some poor bugger is going to lose more millions. It’s a very unique role. I don’t have much of a life, I’ll be honest with you. But I also feel like in the same breath I can’t grumble because how lucky am I? To be given this very rare and unique opportunity to try to do something, particularly in the U.K, to make new musicals a thing again.
MS: How would you compare the theatre scene in New York to the U.K? Do you think that one reigns superior over the other when it comes to musical theatre?
PTM: In the 80s I think we had the baton. You guys then stole it from us. I think at the moment our plays are wonderful, but Broadway definitely has the baton for musicals. This season with “Dear Evan Hanson,” The Great Comet,” and well “Groundhog Day” was kind of a weird one because it came from us, and “Come From Away.” Our best new musical at the Oliviers were “School of Rock,” “Dreamgirls,” The Girls” and “Groundhog Day.” So boring! “Dreamgirls” really isn’t a new musical, “The Girls” had already been a play, Andrew was quite openly depressed that “School of Rock” had to be based on a movie for it to be considered and do well and then “Groundhog” was really the only unique one, but yet that was based on something. You look at the four best new musicals in New York and only one of them was based on a film and I think Yes, isn’t that brilliant. So we’re doing our bit to come up to your level.