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PROFILE : Life on an Artistic Carousel : Nicholas Hytner, director of ‘Miss Saigon’ and ‘Carousel,’ and ‘Madness of King George’ on film, is the hottest British import. Is he ready for America’s Pop Icon Machine?

<i> David Gritten, a frequent contributor to Calendar, lives in London</i>

Director Nicholas Hytner is a name on the lips of lots of people in both the movie and legitimate theater worlds of Los Angeles at the mo ment--and with good reason.

First, his debut film, “The Madness of King George,” has received glowing reviews since its release by the Samuel Goldwyn Co. late last month and has become a critical and art-house hit.

Second, the touring company of the blockbuster musical “Miss Saigon,” also directed by Hytner, finally reaches Los Angeles, opening Jan. 17 at the Ahmanson Theatre, six years after its original London opening.

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When talk turns to Hytner, his versatility is usually the first quality cited--and that’s hardly surprising.

After all, here’s a guy who has directed two of the most notable musical productions of the last decade. Apart from “Miss Saigon,” there was the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” which played to ecstatic critics and audiences here and in New York. But he also directed a widely acclaimed production of “King Lear” at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1990, not to mention two of the National Theatre’s biggest recent popular hits: a staging of Kenneth Grahame’s children’s classic “The Wind in the Willows” and Alan Bennett’s thoughtful play about power and kingship, “The Madness of George III,” from which the film was adapted.

It doesn’t stop there. Hytner is an accomplished opera director, and his production of Handel’s “Xerxes” in 1985 was deemed a revelation by British reviewers.

Yet his reputation (he is beloved by London theater critics, who almost unanimously rate him as the stage director of his generation) rests on more than mere versatility. He is also a showman with a taste for spectacle--witness the extraordinary and much-talked-about helicopter scene in “Miss Saigon” and the bravura opening scene of “Carousel,” which used a fairground carousel that descended onto the stage and opened like an umbrella.

Hytner’s other strength is his ability to reach the psychological and intellectual heart of a text. In “The Madness of King George,” he looked beyond the king’s bumbling, capricious behavior (caused not by insanity but by porphyria, a defect of the blood pigment metabolism) and found a flawed man worthy of being treated with compassion.

His rethinking of the 1945 musical “Carousel” was even more ambitious. The hero, Billy Bigelow, is usually portrayed as a handsome, swaggering braggart--who beats his wife. This makes him a problematic figure for modern audiences, and Hytner could easily have downplayed the violent aspects of Billy’s character. Instead, he chose to present him as younger, less confident and more vulnerable and made clear that Billy’s rage was born of frustration and poverty. Clearly this was a risk, yet critics and audiences alike vindicated him.

With this remarkable versatility in evidence on his resume, it’s tempting to assume that Hytner must know an extraordinary amount and have an encyclopedic memory about a wide variety of works. Not so, he insists: “I’ve never been a theater, movie or opera buff. I’ve never been that obsessed. In fact, when I see movies that refer to other movies, I’m vaguely in trouble. Apart from anything else, I have a terrible memory, so I don’t understand references or homages, even when I’ve seen the work being referred to. So I could never be a buff.”

What Hytner does have is a dazzling intellect--something that is apparent within minutes of meeting him. I first encountered him in 1992, observing him for a week during rehearsals of “Carousel” at the National Theatre. Two things struck me about his rehearsal methods: his willingness to listen to ideas from the most junior chorus members and act upon them if he felt they were valid, and his insistence on arriving at and explaining an intellectual rationale for staging each scene in a particular way.

This time we met at his home, a handsome, tall-roomed Georgian house on a crescent overlooking Regents Park canal, bought with the proceeds of “Miss Saigon.” A grand piano stands in one room, the walls of which are lined with books.

Until he speaks, Hytner, 38, is not a figure who commands attention. He is slim and diminutive, with rimless glasses that give him a solemn air; although his close-cropped hair is thinning, he is extremely youthful looking.

With “The Madness of King George” now in release, he is happy to have his first movie under his belt: “I’m dying to make another film but not at any cost. And I’m certainly not going to stop directing in the theater.”

He has left his dance card relatively clear, though he has one longstanding commitment--to direct a production of Leos Janacek’s opera “The Cunning Little Vixen” in Paris in May. But Hytner has been taken on by Creative Artists Agency, and he is eager to have the chance to develop his own film projects--one of them a script about Oscar Wilde, written by David Hare (“Plenty,” “Racing Demon”).

Given the widespread praise for “The Madness of King George,” it seems Hytner shifted smoothly from theater to film. Asked about this, he considered for a moment. “Well, 15 years in the theater are not bad training for directing a film,” he said finally. “The specifically cinematic talents--editing, production design, cinematography--are dealt with by other people, so much more expert in their craft than I could ever be. You quickly learn you’re dependent on the talents of others.

“As for acting, I’ve never directed actors according to a theory, but according to instinct and experience. Good acting in front of a camera isn’t so different from good acting on a stage. There’s a difference of scale, but I found that a quick adjustment to make.”

To prepare for his directing debut, he sought help. Kenneth Branagh allowed him free access to the set of “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein"--David Parfitt produced both films--enabling him to visit all departments of a film set and work out how they all fit together. James Ivory, he said, was also helpful: “A lot of people were free with advice.”

Hytner got to direct “The Madness of King George” because Goldwyn was the only company that approached playwright Bennett and was content for Hytner and Nigel Hawthorne (who plays the king) to resume their partnership from the National Theatre production. He found the experience a happy one, with a minimum of interference from Goldwyn or Britain’s Channel 4 television, which also financed the move.

However, there is a delicious story circulating here--an example of a “those-dumb-Yanks” story that some British people love to tell. It seems the film’s title was changed from “The Madness of George III” because American audiences would think it was a sequel and not go to see it, assuming they had missed “I” and “II.”

“That’s not totally untrue,” said Hytner, laughing. “But there was also the factor that it was felt necessary to get the word King into the title.”

The film deals with a series of events in which George, the British king whose stubborn determination to hold on to Britain’s American colonies led to the Revolutionary War, temporarily loses his reason--and starts a flurry of political intrigue over his succession.

Much has been made about the parallels in the plot of “The Madness of King George” and the plight of the current British Royal Family. Yet Hytner largely discounts them.

“It has to be said the play was written four years ago--before all the problems which now affect the Royal Family happened. In fact, this poor benighted Royal Family has actually acted as public relations for us. It’s as if they’ve done us a series of marketing favors.”

So how are the play and film contemporary? “It’s about power,” Hytner said simply. “It’s about an individual in a position of power who loses the power to present himself as he would wish. It’s about that gap between who everyone knows himself to be and how they would wish to be seen.

“It’s also about the game of power that surrounds a man of authority. When he starts going AWOL through eccentric and unpredictable behavior, the whole structure of authority is turned upside down. So it’s not only about the person who has the power but those around him. In this case, he’s a king, but it could apply to anyone--a chief executive, a movie studio head, a school principal.”

Hytner was far more eager to talk about “The Madness of King George” than about “Miss Saigon,” from which he seemed to distance himself slightly.

“I was a part of getting the touring company going when it started in Chicago two years ago,” he said. “It’s a good show. I directed Kevin Gray (who stars at the Ahmanson) when he did it in Toronto.

“But it’s getting to be a very long time ago. I find it hard to talk about my past work. It’s fatal to go on thinking what you did last year was any good. Remember, ‘Miss Saigon’ opened in London back in 1989.”

Indeed. The show has just broken a house record at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, the premier home of musicals in London’s West End. Dec. 19 was the date of its 2,282nd performance, which beat the longstanding record of “My Fair Lady” and left other shows formerly at the theater, such as “42nd Street,” “Oklahoma!” and “A Chorus Line” trailing in its wake.

But given this kind of astonishing success, doesn’t Hytner have any theories about why “Miss Saigon” captured the popular imagination? He pauses for a long time. “What’s audacious about it is that two guys (Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg) have sat down and written a piece of popular musical theater about the evacuation of U.S. troops from Saigon. In fact, it’s a story of doomed love. It’s quasi-opera, you know--looking back on it, it’s nearer to opera than to musical comedy.

“But it’s a fine piece of theatrical writing. I have huge admiration for those two guys. You can tell the sort of people they are from how they write. They’re big, emotional Frenchmen--it’s all out front. They love good food, they love women, they’re passionate and easily moved. Their writing is entirely untouched by cynicism.

“The show has been surrounded by hype, razzmatazz and controversy, but what one can forget is that at its center is a very touching love story.

“In a way I’m not surprised in retrospect that it’s been so successful everywhere, because (its impresario) Cameron Mackintosh’s genius is precisely that. But at the time we did it, I thought we were going out on a limb in some ways.”

When he sees “Miss Saigon” now, Hytner acknowledges, “there are aspects of my work which I don’t like. But then there’s nothing else I did five or six years ago that’s still running.”

Perhaps not--though one could retort that Hytner’s career has to date not been clouded by failure, either. His success story began in the northern city of Manchester; Hytner’s father is an eminent barrister. Nicholas was a bright, cultured boy, exceptionally well-read, and at Manchester Grammar School he gravitated to drama, acting in several school productions. As a teen-ager Hytner was drawn to classical music, with a special fondness for Wagner.

At Cambridge University he read English, came to realize his limitations as an actor and started directing student productions. On graduating he worked in English regional theater but first became noticed as an operatic producer.

While he retains his early interest in opera, he is disenchanted with 20th-Century composers, who, he says, have veered away from what the public can understand. Hytner, a populist by inclination, thinks the best musicals of the last 50 years have filled a vacuum created by modern opera’s abstractions.

When he was directing “Carousel” in 1992, he told me: “The achievement of musicals is that they get people to go to the theater who otherwise wouldn’t go. And the wider theater audience has done a slow burn in the last few years, dropped their snobbery and realized the value (of musicals).

“In terms of a great classical repertory company like the National, if you’re doing Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, you’ve got to do Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe and the greater works of Sondheim and Rodgers and Hart. These are all expressions of something profoundly true about America. And the music’s so bloody good.

“This could be seen in the context of 20th-Century opera,” he said of “Carousel.” “This is more expressive and has more to say than the vast majority of 20th-Century operas, which have turned their backs on the public.”

Clearly Hytner approaches any production with strong views--and the results can be bracing. “Carousel” received some of the most unanimous acclaim in London’s theater history.

“I don’t think there is anyone working in the English theater today who is better at filling a stage with a seething sense of life and dramatic excitement,” Charles Spencer, drama critic of the London Daily Telegraph, said of Hytner. “His best work combines intellectual clarity with a moving emotional truth and generosity.”

Actors tend to like Hytner too. The “Carousel” cast was in awe of his grasp of the material and admired the way he rallied the company when the show’s legendary choreographer, Sir Kenneth MacMillan, died suddenly in the midst of rehearsals.

“He’s a totally likable, deeply shy man,” said Nigel Hawthorne, star of “The Madness of King George.” (See accompanying story, Page 44.) “He’s very generous and doesn’t ever feel threatened. The smallest member of a cast can make a suggestion, and he’ll use it. That’s a largess I find liberating.”

Hawthorne acknowledges that he enjoys working with “very few” directors: “But Nick’s one. If people crowd me too much, I can’t work. I need to be given space, and Nick does that. In rehearsals he has a very democratic attitude.”

From this point on, it seems Hytner can write his own ticket. He has already followed in the footsteps of other successful directors who can work in a variety of media--like Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn, both of whom also started out at Cambridge. At this stage, though, Hytner looks to have a career in film that will outstrip them both.

At the moment, he is, as they say, considering offers. One change in his life in the last few months is that he has become transatlantic--he bought an apartment in New York, and since a triumphant yearlong run of “Carousel” at Lincoln Center (it closes later this month) he has become an associate director there, as well as retaining an associate directorship at London’s National Theatre.

“They’re decorations of friendship, really,” he said modestly. “But I’m dying to work at Lincoln Center again. Next time I hope it’ll be a contemporary piece, maybe a new American play. There are aspects of American culture and society about which I feel just as much at home as in England. So that wouldn’t present any problems for me.”

Given what we know of Nicholas Hytner, that comes as no surprise.

* “Miss Saigon” begins previews Jan. 17 at the Ahmanson Theatre and officially opens Jan. 25, continuing through Oct. 14. Tickets are available through TicketMaster (213) 365-3500 or (714) 740-2000, or at the Ahmanson box office. For group sales information, call (213) 972-8099. “The Madness of King George” is playing in selected theaters.


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