“It’s gorgeous,” says David Babani, throwing his arms wide as if to embrace the building around him. “It’s a second home. I absolutely love it.” We are meeting in the Menier Chocolate Factory, in south London, early in the morning – the only time an interview is possible as Babani spends much of his time on transatlantic flights.
There is a homely warmth to the former chocolate factory, built in 1870 on a busy south London street. On the outside, the building’s five storeys of cream and cocoa-coloured brickwork suggest the sort of extravagant gateau beloved of Viennese coffee houses. Inside, the dark wooden floorboards, exposed beams and eccentric chocolate-making contraptions make for a welcoming, bohemian space. When Babani first stepped inside the building in December 2003, he was instantly smitten.
“I was left on my own for about 40 minutes by the landlord,” he recalls. “And I saw this tremendous potential.”
In the six years since, Babani, first with business partner Danielle Tarento and then as sole artistic director, has created his own production line of bonbons. The tiny, unfunded theatre has generated a string of hits – eight West End transfers, three Broadway transfers – and is nominated for no fewer than 15 Tony Awards in New York. Next up is the world premiere of a musical, Paradise Found (based on a Joseph Roth novel and with music by Johann Strauss), co-directed by veteran American producer and director Harold Prince and Susan Stroman. Hot on Prince’s heels comes Trevor Nunn, with a revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Aspects of Love.
“Two of the greatest exponents of musical theatre back to back in one season,” says Babani. “I should probably retire.” The twinkle in his eye suggests he has no such intention.
So how has all this been achieved? Babani suggests that it is partly the pull of the building itself: “It’s the magic of the found space. That’s why places like the Almeida and Donmar in London or St Ann’s Warehouse in New York work so well. They are all found spaces and they’ve all got that extra element of danger.”
The restaurant also helps, integrated with the theatre both financially and artistically. The menus complement the show on stage (fried calamari for Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine, for instance). But clearly the programming is the central attraction. There have been duds, but not many. Is there a formula then for a successful Chocolate Factory sweetmeat?
“I don’t think so,” says Babani. “And whenever anybody says there is, I ask, ‘How can you say that?’ I’m constantly looking for left-hand forks in the road to keep people on their toes. The unwritten rule is that we should give our audiences a different flavour each time.”
What is constant, however, is the lack of finance. Paradoxically, Babani thinks this spurs creativity. Big names are enticed by the prospect of staging a cherished project that may transfer if it goes well. They rub shoulders with talented newcomers and everyone has to muck in. “We have 140 seats, so we have finite resources. That limits what you can do physically, but expands the horizons of what you can do creatively. And that’s been our secret: having a finite amount that one can do with the space means you have to be creative, which leads to more exciting work.”
Despite Babani’s emphasis on the eclecticism of his programming (he mentions future Caryl Churchill and Philip Ridley projects), he has quietly carved out a couple of niches. He has specialised in quirky American hits such as Becky Mode’s Fully Committed, and bijou stagings of rediscovered musicals. Little Shop of Horrors, La Cage aux Folles, A Little Night Music and Sweet Charity all excelled. Most striking of all, perhaps, was Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. Brilliantly delivered as a chamber piece, it used live projections that enabled actors to interact with Seurat’s paintings. But Babani stresses that the theatre doesn’t hunt down neglected shows to rework them.
“We don’t set out to shed new light on anything. We set out with the text that the writer wrote and try to do that as faithfully as possible. That’s what we did with Sunday in the Park with George. We didn’t rewrite it, we didn’t reconceive it: we just did what we thought was the best way to serve what James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim put on the page.”
The same will be true of Aspects of Love. “If you go back and read the original script, it’s a chamber piece. Over the big boom and bust of the 1980s and 1990s and the British mega-musical, it sort of became that small meant lack of money. But small can be thrilling.”
Babani, a genial, rumpled individual with the demeanour of a family labrador, scarcely fits any stereotype of producer as hard-nosed money-man. Yet he has been producing since he was 19 – he’s now 32 – and had his first West End transfer at the age of 20. Behind the effusive, easy-going exterior, there is clearly tenacity, a sharp mind and an appetite for risk. He plays poker to relax. How does it compare with producing?
“Well, the odds are much better when you play poker,” he says with a wry smile. “All producing is calculated risk. But it’s not always the risk-reward ratio that makes the decision. As with poker, it’s never just about simple maths: there’s gut instinct; there’s what your opponents are doing …It’s a delicate combination. You cannot get it right every time. If anyone thinks they can, I’d like to meet them.
“There’s no way to teach producing,” he adds. “It’s an instinctive thing. You have to be fearless. You have to have a bit of the gift of the gab. And the biggest thing you have to have is the ability to learn from your mistakes. Nobody likes to be turned down or refused. But maybe you don’t accept the first answer as the last answer.”
And it’s certainly not all glamour. “I’ve plunged the theatre toilets more times than I care to remember,” he admits. “By demonstrating to everyone in the building that I’m willing to do everything, it makes everybody else willing to do everything. Nobody has ever said, ‘That’s not my job.’ We’ve had Trevor Nunn sweeping the stage at the end of rehearsal. How cool is that?’ ”
Does Hal Prince realise he might have to roll up his sleeves? “I don’t know,” he says, laughing. “I’m sure Hal Prince will find a way to contribute. Maybe not in the plumbing or the kitchen area, but we’ll see.”
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