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When you speak to award-winning creative team director Paul Warwick Griffin and musical director Charl-Johan Lingenfelder (Joseph, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, Chess, Evita), you realise how masterfully they work in tandem.
Their musical reinventions, referred to as bonsai musicals because of the more intimate and stripped stagings, or as they so cleverly phrase it, “turning musicals into Chekov”, have been proof of that. But even when chatting – and doubling up in interviews is not always the easiest thing to do – the working partners perfectly complement each other as their sentences flow from one to the other.
It’s almost like one mind in two places and the results of this double whammy are evident in their shows.
“With each one, we look at one another and wonder if we can pull it off again,” says Lingenfelder, the musical genius who finds ways to invigorate the music.
As we speak (previews starting tomorrow) they’re in rehearsal with Sunset Boulevard starring Angela Kilian (Evita) as Norma Desmond, Jonathan Roxmouth (Phantom) as Joe Gilli, with James Borthwick (Evita, Phantom) as Max, Bethany Dickson (Grease) as Betty, Mike Huff (Phantom) as Cecil B DeMille, Kyle Grant (Chess) as Artie and Anton Luitingh (Beauty and the Beast, Superstar) as Sheldrake, and they’re biting their nails.
But that’s good energy. You don’t want these two creative atoms to become dormant. They need constant challenges to get those ideas bouncing off the walls.
Warwick Griffin targets the story, which revolves around a small cast of characters.
“We have to keep that in mind all the time,” he says. And he’s chuffed about Sunset because it’s not that familiar. People will recognise some of the songs and Lingenfelder chimes in that he’s constantly amazed by Lloyd Webber’s musical layering. “When he gets it right, it’s astonishing,” he says.
“We certainly don’t always know the answer – especially to start with,” notes Warwick Griffin, but one thing they both emphasise is that from the beginning they are determined not to compromise even as they embrace the reality.
“It forces us to develop a theatrical reality,” says Warwick Griffin.
Because money is always a problem in the arts, many artists have become brainwashed into believing they can’t do something the way they want to.
“We are determined to find a way,” says Lingenfelder – and to date they always have. So successful have they been that their mini-version (only in size) of JC Superstar, was transferred from the Pieter Toerien Theatre to the much larger Teatro with huge fanfare and accolades. That was another fascinating exercise because some people liked the intimate production while others preferred the more extravagant exercise. They enjoyed the challenge to see if they could pull it off.
Warwick Griffin keeps going back to an exceptional story. He knows that’s what he has to listen to, the heartbeat of the production.
They also enjoy the ensemble element of these productions. Because the work is so intimate, it almost happens automatically – both on stage and on the production side. “We’ve been working with the same team for some time now,” says Lingenfelder, which means everyone understands the ethos and the ethics involved. It’s about capturing the essence of the moment.
With Warwick Griffin concentrating on the story, Lingenfelder’s attention lingers on the lyrics when working with the music. “I want to understand why a specific word or note is used,” he says. It’s about the truth of the work and not tampering with that.
Dealing more specifically with Sunset,Warwick Griffin views it as a a story about flawed people.
“Her madness is driven,” he says of the ageing star who needs to reinvent her career. “She is defined by her work and public persona.”
It’s a role for Kilian to get stuck into and, as with Evita, it’s her time to shine. Add to that Lingenfelder’s observation that this is one of Lloyd Webber’s best scores.
“It’s our job not to get in the way,” says the savvy director.
What they love about these smaller productions is the focus on the story and the characters and their particular challenge is to give audiences the full experience. They shouldn’t feel they’re getting less.
And with today’s technology constantly getting better and better, this is often the route they follow. But it can also be something extremely simple that fixes a complex problem.
“We need to create something that explores the magic of theatre,” adds Lingenfelder.
What they admire and work at is the emotional landscape that the composer has created. “We need not to mess with that.”
Their personal preferences are left at the door as they push for the material to lead the way.
They make the same demands of their cast. There’s no pussyfooting around, better profiles, or not letting their hair down.
“I’m not interested in working with people who aren’t here to learn and grow,” says the director. “We want them to be brave and put themselves at risk.”
That’s why their casting has always been part of the enchantment. Often the choices aren’t the expected ones, which all adds to the fun of the final product.
The thing about these bonsai productions is that they are up close and personal. That’s the thrill. And with these two dynamos in charge, it guarantees fireworks. “We have to make stuff that we enjoy watching,” concludes Lingenfelder.
• Sunset Boulevard plays at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre from tomorrow until October 20 and moves to Cape Town’s Theatre on the Bay from October 28 to December 7.