A LOT has happened in the life of Howard Panter, joint chief executive and creative director of the Ambassador Theatre Group (ATG), since we last met.
For one thing, he’s bought his first American theatre, adding The Foxwoods Theatre, Broadway home of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, to his portfolio, which includes the Playhouse.
For another, he’s no longer Howard, but Sir Howard, having been ennobled in last month’s honours list.
“I am absolutely delighted to have been recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List and humbled to receive this prestigious award,” he said at the time, adding, “I also believe the honour is in part a recognition of a great British success story, ATG.”
That success has never been more evident than at ATG’s flagship venue in Scotland. When we last met, two years ago, Sir Howard had a dream. He wanted to turn the Playhouse into Scotland’s very own Broadway, a place where people could see blockbuster musicals without a trip to the West End. He believes he has delivered.
“Basically people go to Broadway and the West End because the shows are there - but there is also a consistent package available. Cities are great for that too, and you can package shows for Edinburgh in the same way. We want to make it so that at almost anytime, you can come to the Playhouse and find a world-beating brand on the stage, as well as being able to enjoy a package that includes great restaurants, great shopping and fantastic architecture.”
It’s about attracting audiences to the city, he stresses.
“All of which should boost the local economy by bringing tourists from across Europe and beyond, in the same way they currently visit Broadway or the West End.”
The latest blockbuster to help achieve Sir Howard’s dream is Disney’s The Lion King, which roars into the Greenside Place venue for a 14-week run this October.
“The Lion King coming to Edinburgh is massive. The first-day ticket sales for the Lion King at the Playhouse was the biggest ever that we know of at any British theatre - £1.5 million worth of tickets sold. We don’t know of anything else that has done that in a day.”
That figure is testament to ATG’s strategy of bringing high profile productions to the Capital while they are still running on the West End and Broadway, or as Sir Howard calls it, “creating multiple markets.”
“By persuading all the big shows, both our own and other peoples’, that there are more markets than just London - where you wait until a show dies before touring it - we have been able to bring the South Pacifics and Ghosts to Edinburgh.”
For theatre-goers, the multiple market approach has meant the chance of seeing big titles earlier than they would have in the past and without having to travel too far.
The fact that these ‘blockbuster’ musicals tend to play longer seasons has also had the knock on affect of ensuring there are more touring shows available to play the city’s other theatres, as evidenced by the revitalised programme at the King’s which, under new chief executive Duncan Hendry, sees the Old Lady of Leven Street programmed for 42 weeks of the year.
“It hasn’t been an intentional part of our strategy but that is right,” agrees Sir Howard, who is one half of the most powerful couple in British theatre - he shares the reins at ATG with wife and business partner Rosemary Squire, OBE, now Lady Panter.
“I’m sure shows are going to the King’s and Festival Theatres more because they can’t get into the Playhouse, although there will always be a place at the Playhouse for single weeks, the 9 To 5s, the Rocky Horrors, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and such like.
“But while there will still be a circuit for one or two-week shows, we want the Playhouse set apart by ensuring that it gets the blockbusters and world brands like The Lion King, making it Scotland’s Broadway.”
A rough calculation of the seats in the city’s big four theatres reveals that when Lion King hits town, the Capital will have a combined total of in excess of 48,000 seats a week to shift, begging the question, are there enough bums to fill those seats?
“It’s one of those eternal issues in Edinburgh. Come Festival time there aren’t enough seats for the bottoms, and out of Festival time there aren’t enough bottoms for the seats,” muses Sir Howard. “One reason we have to keep trading our theatre as vigorously as we can by drawing from a much wider area that just Edinburgh.”
One show he hopes will do just that is West Side Story, which tours to town next March. There’s no hiding the 64-year-old’s enthusiasm for the production.
“West Side Story is the best musical of the lot. If you have to pick one, that is it. They had this amazing idea to use a Shakespeare play to tell a contemporary story of the gang and racial wars of the time - things haven’t changed that much, which is why the show still resonates so much.”
The ‘they’ he refers to are “five geniuses at the top of their game” he says. “Shakespeare with Romeo And Juliet; Bernstein, who never wrote anything as comprehensive as that score; Jerome Robbins, whose choreography has got to be the most timeless, classic and moving ever; Stephen Sondheim, a boy at the time, it was his first piece of lyric work, hardly ever bettered; and the best book that Arthur Lawrence ever wrote.
“Five people creating something in an extraordinary way, and this is just a gorgeous production that still makes me cry by the end. The pity of it. All these young people dead for no reason.”
To reinforce that message, ATG chose to cast their production ‘young’, unlike the famous Natalie Wood movie version, which featured a cast of 30-somethings.
“Maria should be 15 or 16 really, and Tony is just 20. The gangs are very young,” says Sir Howard. “Casting it with actors who are not 14 or 15 but look like they could be, makes them more vulnerable and the story suddenly more terrifying.
“Every reference in the text and the script is about the terror of being young and in a gang and of racial conflict, and, of course, the tragedy of Romeo And Juliet which underpins the whole thing.”
Scotland’s Broadway or not, it seems you can’t beat a classic.