Jerry Mitchell, April 2014

Director Jerry Mitchell On Dirty Rotten Scoundrels: The Musical

Interview by Glenn Rice

Jerry Mitchell’s new production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels The Musical starring Robert Lindsay and Rufus Hound opened this week to positive reviews at the West End’s Savoy Theatre. The Michigan-born director / choreographer is one of modern musical theatre’s major players, with a resume of big Broadway and West End hits stretching back over more than a decade, including Love Never Dies, Hairspray, Legally Blonde and Kinky Boots.  

He began his career as a dancer in A Chorus Line while still at school and honed his craft under legendary director / choreographers Michael Bennett, Jerome Robbins and Tommy Tune. Having choreographed the original 2005 production of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in New York, he’s also directing it in London.

He's brought a re-imagined version of Jeffrey Lane and David Yazbek’s lavish, funny musical to the Savoy, featuring significant changes from its Broadway incarnation. Adapted from the hit screen comedy starring Steve Martin and Michael Caine, this tale of two competing conmen fleecing wealthy women in the south of France is a passion project for the graciously mannered, soft-spoken director. He dropped in to the TheatrePeople offices this week to talk about it.

This production caps an extraordinary decade for you. Eight hits, some of them, like Legally Blonde and Kinky Boots, absolutely huge. What’s your secret? Do you have a particular agenda when you begin a new show, or stylistic trademarks you know people will respond to?

I tend to fall in love with shows that are immediate, and I try to put them in the audience’s lap. I did it with Hairspray, I did it with Legally Blonde, I did it with Kinky Boots and I hope I’m doing it with this. I’m always looking for a love story, and the love story in this show falls on the second banana characters, not the first banana characters, and that’s surprising. But the thing that attracted me to the show was the comedy and the music. The question, with a musical, is always: do I respond to the music? I think David Yazbek, with whom I also did The Full Monty, is a brilliant writer, and Jeffrey Lane’s book is very, very funny.

Seeing your two leading men together, they're obviously having an absolute blast in each other’s company, and not just for the cameras. How is it to be working with Robert and Rufus, and am I correct in judging that espirit de corps is at a high?

I think you are correct in judging it, and I think that they’re going to become crazy friends in the next year as they do this eight times a week, finding little things with each other each show and building on it. I always love to go back to a show I’ve worked on three months into the run, because the performances have started to peak. They’ve got it all in synch by then and the wheels are greased and everybody’s working well together.

They both have been sensational and have been working very hard. Robert hasn't been in a show for sixteen years; it’s a big show for him, he’s a got a lot to do. I was watching him the other night and thinking, ohmygod he must be so tired, he didn’t leave the stage. Three scenes from the end of the first act is the first time he goes off stage for any length of time. It's hard. It's a big show.

You've got great female leads too, in Samantha Bond and Katharine Kingsley.  I’ve seen Samantha on stage several times and she's a brilliant comedian – a side of her we don't see enough of in her screen work.

She's a brilliant, brilliant comedian and a brilliant actress and, most surprisingly, she's a gorgeous dancer and a great singer. Who knew? This is her musical debut and she’s sensational, and John Marquez opposite her is sensational, and together they’re fantastic.

I fell in love with Katharine when I saw her in Singin' In The Rain, then when I saw her in Grandage’s Midsummer Night’s Dream I thought: Wow. I invited her to come in and audition knowing very well that she would probably land the role if she could sing the way I thought she could sing; I knew she had the comedy chops and the acting chops. The difference for Katharine in the show is, as I keep telling her, 'you’re the leading lady’. That’s a big step for her.

People who liked the movie of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are likely to enjoy the show as well, but the musical’s not a slavish imitation of the film, is it?

Right. In my opinion, no musical should be a slavish imitation. What’s the point of taking a movie and just putting the movie on stage when somebody can buy the DVD and have it forever and see real stars performing in it?

The theatre offers us other gifts, and those gifts, particularly if you’re taking a movie and turning it into a musical, are first and foremost the score; secondly, characters that translate to the stage that didn’t translate in a film or vice versa. But also, the tools of a musical. In a film you do a close-up when you want to feel something emotional from an actor. In a musical you have them sing. You have them tell you in song, and that’s the difference. It’s a very basic difference, but it’s one of the great differences that creates a musical.

The show was originally directed in New York by your collaborator Jack O’Brien, and you choreographed it. What led to you to taking over as director this time around?

After Legally Blonde was successful in this country, I started a company with the Ambassador Theatre Group to help them promote and start musicals. We discussed shows to start with. I have a love for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and my instinct was that its humour would play better in this country than it ever played in America, simply, I think, because you’re a lot closer to France (laughs). Because it had never been done in this country, we wanted to play around with some structural things.

One thing I don’t think we ever really got right in America was a chance for the audience to like Lawrence Jameson right off the top. I knew I had Robert Lindsay, so I built this opening sequence to show off his talents, and he sings and dances and charms us. Now, I think the audience falls for Lawrence in a big way in the first fifteen minutes of the show.

Which ties in to another question I was going to ask you. Here we are in the middle of an economic recession – why should we like these two unscrupulous guys who are trying to chisel innocent people out of their hard-earned money?

Because it's the Robin Hood story, isn't it. You always like somebody who takes from the poor and gives to the rich— I mean, takes from the rich and gives to the poor! You always like that person, and you don’t feel like they’re doing any real harm or disservice to the people they’re swindling, so I think that’s part of the reason you like them.

You've made some changes for London, but do you stay close in essence to Jack O'Brien's directorial concepts?

No, it's pretty different. Muriel Eubanks is from Surrey – she's an English character. In America she was an American character. The design is completely different. The design team in New York were sensational but this was a home-grown project and I wanted to have a British team because having a British sensibility about it gives the show its own identity.

I'd seen [designer] Peter McKintosh's Crazy For You, and The Sound of Music in Regent’s Park, and The Winslow Boy that he did a beautiful design for in New York, and I really wanted to work with him. And I’ve known Howard Harrison, who did the lighting, for so many years I can’t tell you.

It doesn’t automatically follow that a choreographer will cut it as a director. Was it your aim from the start to assume that dual role, or did you drift towards it?

It was probably always on the cards. I actually directed when I was very young. In my home town I directed and choreographed, and in college. But when you get to the big league, there are a lot of great director / choreographers who started out as dancers. There have been many in whose footsteps I’m following – the Michael Bennetts of the world, the Jerome Robbinses, the Tommy Tunes, Susan Stroman.  

And you know, I've been in the business for 37 years and I’ve learned the craft of everything. Not just how to direct and choreograph a show, but how to design a show with a design team; how to light a show with a lighting team; how to make a show move; how to do it at a price that won’t cause the show to collapse if you don’t get rave reviews from the start. Like you said, there’s a lot that goes into making a hit show, and I think, for myself, the gift for me has been the experience.