Interview – Jonathan Butterell on why See What I Wanna See has made him want to act again

Cassie Compton and Jonathan Butterell in See What I Wanna See at Jermyn Street Theatre. © Photography by Jamie Scott-Smith

Jonathan Butterell with co-star Cassie Compton in See What I Wanna See at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London. Pictures: Jamie Scott-Smith

JONATHAN BUTTERELL, who choreographed the original production of Michael John LaChiusa’s Off-Broadway hit See What I Wanna See at New York’s Public Theater, has joined the cast of its London premiere at the Jermyn Street Theatre after a 22-year break from acting (in recent times he has been mainly concentrating on directing).

Jonathan also directed the premieres of Michael John LaChiusa’s other works Giant and Tres Nińas. In 2012 Jonathan directed Stiles and Drewe’s Soho Cinders at the Soho Theatre and more recently staged the concert version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at the Royal Festival Hall (with Jonathan Groff in the lead role).

Choreography credits include CompanyInto the Woods (also co-director) and Nine at the Donmar Warehouse and AssassinsFiddler On the RoofLight in the Piazza and Nine (with Antonio Banderas and Chita Rivera) on Broadway. He has also choreographed several films including Finding Neverland.

See What I Wanna See, based on three short stories by acclaimed Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, is a provocative new musical that explores the nature of truth, and how it is altered by perspective. From medieval Japan where two lovers seek to escape a doomed relationship, to modern day New York where a priest is wrestling with his faith, See What I Wanna See weaves together three stories of lust, greed, murder, faith and redemption, where truth and lies have become entangled. Michael John LaChiusa’s music blends a plethora of influences from jazz and salsa to classical and pop into a fluid, cinematic score. 

Musical Theatre Review editor Lisa Martland fired a few questions at Jonathan during previews for See What I Wanna See.

Your performance in See What I Wanna See marks the first time you have acted in 22 years (your focus has been in directing and choreography). What has that experience been like?

See What I Wanna See - artworkIt’s going well, but I cannot deny it has been a rather complicated and unusual process for me. It’s not something I’ve done for a long, long time.

When Adam [Lenson], the director, suggested he would send me the script, I wasn’t sure about it, I knew that saying yes would mean opening up a whole can of worms! But crazy decisions can bring about good things and, having worked on the show before, I knew the script and I was particularly drawn towards the the two characters I ended up playing. Something pulled me towards those particular men – The Janitor and The Priest – and wanted to embody those two particular stories.

Do you think you will go back to acting again after this project or is it a one-off?

I genuinely haven’t thought of being an actor for 22 years, it hasn’t crossed my mind in the slightest, and I’m not looking to be an actor again. It’s just for this project, to step into the shoes of these characters. It’s hard to describe in more detail than that because I am going with something in my tummy really. If I was to get my head involved I wouldn’t be here!

My journey at the moment is to stay present to these two roles and how I tell their stories. I spend my life preparing stories to share with people as a director, but it does feel different this time around.

Why do you find this piece particularly compelling?

It’s a complicated piece, a triptych of tales, essentially three stories based on short stories by Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa. I suppose the fascination comes from how the musical explores the light and dark of humanity. It might sound pretentious, but See What I Wanna See really embraces the darkness of what the human soul is capable of in relationship to what it searches for, which is the light.

I play two different men. The Janitor has been interrogated in the dark and is desperate to get outside, but at the same time he can probably never walk home through Central Park ever again – it was there that he witnessed a murder and a rape.

And I have a Priest who is so disillusioned with God because of many events in his life, including 9/11, that he wants to take a journey into darkness, into the abyss. He wants to prove that God is no more. However, at the end of his journey, Christ appears to him and him alone, and he is left trying to understand what that means.

The cast of See What I Wanna See at Jermyn Street Theatre. © Photography by Jamie Scott-Smith

The cast of See What I Wanna See at Jermyn Street Theatre

Different characters give their versions of events, so I suppose the audience has to decide whether to believe The Janitor, for example, is telling the truth?

For a start, The Janitor has seen a man die in the park and he didn’t do anything to stop it, so there’s a question of moral responsibility which he has to face up to. And who knows whether he could be the murderer?

It’s very complex for all the actors involved, because no one knows if their character is telling is the truth and, ultimately, you have to say everybody’s story is the truth and everybody’s story is a lie. I think we are doing something that the audience knows they do themselves: tell lies and truths and expand both to be something else. We all do it.

How does it feel not to be part of the creative team and purely focusing on performing?

It’s been a very collaborative experience, but it’s a very unique process being an actor because the concentration is fully in one direction, on the character/s. Exploring that has been fascinating and terrifying at the same time. I have always appreciated actors – I consider myself an actors’ director – but I do so even more now. It’s not just actors’ incredible skillset, but the emotional places that they’re willing to to go, the specificity of what they do.

I work very closely with actors all the time, I know how complex it is, but to be inside the process, having to do what they do, is enlightening in many ways.

What has it been like working with director Adam Lenson on the show?

I have been able to trust Adam to be the outside eye I can’t be, the person looking after the bigger picture. It’s my responsibility to be present moment by moment in the roles I am playing and I trust him to hold the overall arc for everybody really.

Have you tried to think back to the first productions of See What I Wanna See at Williamstown Theater Festival in 2004 and Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in 2005?

I recall the essence of those, and both casts were extraordinary, but I’m trying quite deliberately not to bring anything from that experience. I want to find out who my Priest and my Janitor are.

You have collaborated with See What I Wanna See writer Michael John LaChiusa on a number of occasions. What do you admire about him?

Michael John LaChiusa is not out there to just be liked, he’s out there to be an artist, to express what it is to be fully human, even if that at times makes people uncomfortable or feel in an odd place. There’s both beauty and deep humanity in his writing, he is unafraid of the dark and the light.

You seem to passionately believe that a piece of theatre can be both entertaining and intelligent…

Of course. There’s Benedict Cumberbatch at the Barbican tackling the full complexity of a 400-year-old play and I’m sure he’s entertaining a few people in the process. He’s deep into that daily struggle of what it is to tell that story. It’s entertaining and fully human, complex and dangerous, all those things.

You hail from Sheffield and trained as an actor at Mountview at the age of 18, but there was no musical theatre or dance training on the curriculum then. After acting for six years, you ended up choreographing Sondheim’s Company at the Donmar. How did that happen?

I had met Matthew Bourne when I was in a production of Peer Gynt at the RSC and he then asked me to assist him on Sam Mendes’ production of Oliver! at the London Palladium. I had never assisted a choreographer before in my life, I think I was so green I didn’t know what I wasn’t supposed to do!

Then Sam Mendes asked me to choreograph Company. I did say no straight away, those were the first words that came out of my mouth, but then Sam told me I had 24 hours to make a decision. He suggested, in a kind of frightening tone, that I should come back and say yes, so I did.

I have to admit I always had had aspirations to direct, but at that young age I didn’t know what that meant. Company felt like a play, so when it came to the musical numbers, I felt I could approach them from an actor/director point of view.

Sarah Ingram and Jonathan Butterell in See What I Wanna See at Jermyn Street Theatre. © Photography by Jamie Scott-Smith

Sarah Ingram and Jonathan Butterell in See What I Wanna See at the Jermyn Street Theatre. Picture: Jamie Scott-Smith

You had had no formal training as a dancer though, wasn’t that difficult?

It might sound perverse, but I always say I was taught to dance by Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly on the television at my Grandad’s council flat, (he had a TV and we didn’t!). So I feel those great storytelling choreographers – Jack Cole, Hermes Pan, Bob Fosse – I grew up watching them. I felt I could tell stories with dance and movement, and then I was able to move on to directing.

You worked pretty solidly for ten years in New York, what was that like and could you pinpoint any highlights?

New York is an astounding place to work. I bought a house there, I settled there, but ultimately I ended up missing Britain and I wanted to return, which I did two and a half years ago.

There are so many highlights, but it was wonderful meeting and working with artists like Chita Rivera. Knowing I was about to choreograph a legend, it was about negotiating the fear, but then you learn to embrace it. I remember meeting her for the first time and thinking ‘she’s going to dance something that I create’. Exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.

It wasn’t in the US, but I also remember my first encounter with Stephen Sondheim when I was working on Company. I literally locked myself in the toilet and said I couldn’t come out! I don’t want to tell silly stories, but that was my honest reaction. Now I would consider him a colleague and friend.

You also became attracted to developing new writing while you were in the US…

I’d done lots of revivals, so it was interesting to get involved in developing new work. It’s something I’m still doing here –  I’m developing a brand new piece called Everyone’s Talking About Jamie for the Sheffield Crucible with Dan Gillespie Sells [British singer/songwriter and lead vocalist for The Feeling] and TV and film writer Tom MacRae. It’s fascinating, not least because both of the writers have not done theatre before. I really want to tell the story for Sheffield.

So next year it’s about focusing on Jamie and maybe a Shakespeare project in South Africa. Before that I will be working on a piece about Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya with the actress Elena Roger. The show is booked into a theatre in Buenos Aires in February 2016.

So are you pleased to be back in the UK?

I love being home, and I still get to go back to the US, I directed two shows at the Public Theater in New York last year. So I have the best of both worlds.

* See What I Wanna See continues at the Jermyn Street Theatre, London until Saturday 3 October.

www.jermynstreettheatre.co.uk

Also in the cast are: Marc Elliott as The Thief/A Reporter, Cassie Compton as Kesa/The Wife/An Actress, Mark Goldthorp as Morito/The Husband/A CPA and Sarah Ingram as The Medium/Aunt Monica.

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