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Producers who are one of a kind, versus many in a crowd

My guest last night as part of the These Are A Few of My Favourite Songs season that I’m hosting at Jermyn Street Theatre this week was Bill Kenwright — probably the most prolific theatre producer in the world — and tonight it’s the turn of arguably the most venerable, Michael Codron.

Both are producers of the old school; though Bill has lately partnered on occasion with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Howard Panter, and Codron has sometimes been joined by Lee Dean, they have, through most of their careers, gone it alone, quietly working behind-the-scenes to make their shows happen.

Bill puts it all on the line, too — he doesn’t even take outside investment — but also doesn’t entirely do it on his own: given the scale of his operation, it’s not too surprising that there’s a large back-up staff of associate producers, assistants and marketing people in his offices off the Edgware Road, conveniently near his own home in Little Venice.

Codron, perched in offices above the Aldwych Theatre which he still controls, has always kept a lower staffing overhead — and a much lower profile altogether; though his billing is always on the poster, his bio is never in the programme. But last year he came out blinking into the spotlight, publishing an official autobiography (co-written with Alan Strachan) to mark his 80th birthday. “Putting It On”, that as well as providing a portrait of the man is also a vivid snapshot of half a century of West End history that he dominated.

But producers like Bill and Codron (as he’s always referred to) are a disappearing breed. Though of course there’s still Cameron Mackintosh — and a handful of other independent producers like Nica Burns, Kim Poster, Mark Rubenstein, Edward Snape and Matthew Byam Shaw — still putting their own taste, and sometimes money, on the line, theatre producing is now increasingly corporate and/or by committee.

No wonder that when Dirty Rotten Scoundrels opened on Broadway, the above-the-title billing listed the names involved (some 29 of them) and added, “and the entire Prussian army”. Of course, most of those producers named are actually investors rather than producers, who get their name on the poster in return for their cash; they’re just angels by another name. But the trouble is that they also sometimes want something more than that: they want a say in the show, not just a mention on the poster.

It takes a lot of money, of course, to get your name above the title; but for many years angels were more like Codron himself is — seen on the first night, perhaps, but seldom heard. They could participate in the fun and glamour of the theatre - and feel they were contributing to it — without becoming too public about it. Nowadays, of course, the sums required are usually too big to raise, let alone manage, with small units of investment, so producers have sought bigger and bigger players, but they come at a price, in every sense.

But last week a new Broadway production of Godspell was announced that will open at the Circle in the Square in October, and “The People of Godspell” are referred to as a co-producer. The theatregoing public have been invited to sign up and are able to buy units of $100 each — less than the cost of a Broadway ticket — though they’re being sold in blocks of ten units at a time minimum. Lead producer Ken Davenport — who writes a regular blog, The Producer’s Perspective, about his work and the workings of the theatre that I’ve quoted on this blog before — has called it “the first-ever Crowd-Funded, or as I like to call it, ‘Community-Funded,’ Broadway musical.”  

He’s soliciting investors the modern way, too, of course — you sign up online on a new website that has been set up, PeopleofGodspell.com, which will also act as a community hub for those that do: that’s where every person who invests will get billing — “as well as his or her photo, hometown, a quote and links to their Facebook and Twitter profiles.”

It’s a return to the model of raising funds the old-fashioned way. And I’ve also just heard of it spreading here, too, with a forthcoming film being made of a theatrical performance: Bette Bourne’s stage autobiography A Life in Three Acts, which he created with playwright Mark Ravenhill, is being brought to the cinema — and for just £30, you can get your name on the credits!

Part documentary, part filmed performance, the producers are crowd sourcing funding to cover the anticipated £30,000 cost of editing and post-production for Bette Bourne: The Movie, before they hope to offer its world premiere at October’s London Film Festival. Like Godspell, it’s all happening online: visit indiegogo.com, where you can sign up to contribute from £30 to £150 (or for just £10, pre-order a pre-release DVD of the finished version). In return, depending on the level of funding you contribute, you’ll get benefits that include tea and cupcakes with Bourne himself.

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