Michael Strassen’s production of the musical Billy is currently running at London’s Union Theatre, a space at which he has staged a long line of productions – Call Me Madam, The Fix, Assassins, The Baker’s Wife, Godspell and Company . These have earned him a reputation for being an inspired director of great integrity and originality. Previously to his career as a director, Strassen spent 20 successful years working as an actor in the West End and top repertory theatres.
Following another stream of positive reviews for Billy (The Independent praised Michael Strassen for his “feisty, intelligent, sensationally well-lit production”), the director spoke to Musical Theatre Review.
You enjoyed a successful career as a performer working in the West End and beyond. What were the highlights of that period for you?
I think singing Marius to Michael Ball’s Valjean in Hyde Park was a buzz and a half. It was broadcast worldwide by the BBC, we met the Royals after, it was a special night. I did some great work in Leicester and loved Pacific Overtures, but then riding around being leader of the pack on Rock Hard had its equal, tackier pleasures.
A Ruthie Henshall one-woman show and the dark, controversial play The Pitchfork Disney were the two very different projects which got you started. Did these experiences confirm to you that directing was what you wanted to do?
Yes, it also taught me truth is omnipresent in good theatre. The Royal Festival Hall was my first venue, if you can create warmth in there you can do it in an abattoir.
There was a lot of musical theatre in your background – was it in that genre in particular that you wanted to direct? What is the attraction of musical theatre?
My first directing was the play The Pitchfork Disney and, to be honest, I didn’t feel the join, I treat everything with the same attack. Basically, if the writing is good it presents itself to you. I try to approach every musical sphere with the same integrity.
How did your relationship with the Union Theatre come about, and have you had a lot of artistic freedom in deciding what shows you want to stage? The space has been threatened with closure of late, what is so special about the space?
The Union’s location is prime, just down from the Young Vic which helps a lot, but as a space is has a stillness and grace and is quite large as fringe goes. Our new seating and state-of-the-art lighting rig can create near miracles and avoids the need for those nasty little sets. Artistic director Sasha Regan has been my rock there, as well as Paul Callen who keeps me organised.
What was the attraction of Billy? Why do you think it has taken so long for the show to be revived?
I think it has almost been mounted a few times but luckily for the Union we got there first. Don Black was there on our first show and will be back! It could see the light of day again.
When Billy premiered, one critic called it ‘the most successful British musical since Oliver!’ Do you think the show and its score have been under-estimated?
Its themes are very British so it doesn’t date per se, Billy is like an old friend, it has every capacity to be like Oliver! The score is easy on the ear and does the job intended very well.
Tell us a bit about your production in particular.
It avoids farce and relies very much on the impact of Billy’s behaviour. Since it was written, we have been through the public self-analysis stage, so I think as an audience we can look at the darker side of his mind without destroying a great night out.
You have worked on new shows in the past like The Attic and with Jonathan Kent and Michel Legrand during the early stages of Marguerite. Is new writing something you want to promote, as it seems hard for new shows to get off the ground.
The Attic (by Mark Carroll) was staged at The Haymarket with Ruthie Henshall and a stellar cast and staging and directing it was a pleasure. I am into new works but my bench mark is high. I cannot see the point in being seen to do new work for new works’ sake if the material isn’t fantastic. There is a new musical version of Duncton Wood I am keen to do, it’s raw and sexy, well it will be!
You have worked with many high-profile performers and directors throughout your career, who has been an inspiration?
Nick Hytner, I stalked his direction on Miss Saigon during rehearsals, watching how he inspired young actors, dancers and classical actors alike. Gale Edwards was inspirational too and Hal Prince is a genius. I also read a lot and watched endless videoes on past productions and plays and unpicked how they worked, or didn’t. I am a great lover of the visual metaphor.
Could you tell us more about working with Stephen Sondheim and the ‘education module’ you have created with the Sondheim Society?
Sondheim is a wonderful, warm man and his insight is unrivalled, hearing his talk about Into the Woods at Oxford during my time acting there was like being in a temple. The module is so I can get my hands on young actors in college and nail into them how to connect with lyrics and music alike, whether Sondheim or otherwise. Belting out ‘Defying Gravity’ in my auditions doesn’t cut it and I think there isn’t enough ‘centring’ in college work. I want blood sweat and tears.
What’s next for you? Is there one show you would like to direct more than any other?
I am in talks for two shows at the moment and we are hopeful The Fix may resurface in 2014. There are a good few shows and plays I want to do but am keeping that under my hat. One pet project I have is to direct Ruthie (Henshall) in Private Lives in a few years. My ultimate aim is film as well as theatre. I lie awake full of ideas, there is a great deal I have to say.