Broadway is sweet on David Babani
A photographer is trying to figure out how best to shoot David Babani when the 32-year-old British producer of the Broadway revivals of “La Cage Aux Folles” and “A Little Night Music” puckishly offers a suggestion.
“Can’t you strap me into a harness and suspend me between the two theaters?” he says, sitting in the lobby of the Longacre Theatre — where “La Cage” opened Sunday to strong reviews — directly opposite the Walter Kerr, home of “A Little Night Music.” “You could Photoshop it out later. Very Cagelle.”
The Cagelles are the androgynous kickline of gorgeous creatures — “half real and half fluff” — who populate Jerry Herman’s 1983 musical “La Cage.” Babani himself is a different sort of creature: half ambitious creativity, half savvy businessman — and all passion.
That has catapulted him in a short time to astonishing success as the artistic director of the Menier Chocolate Factory, a 160-seat theater-cum-restaurant in an unfashionable London district. Since transforming the former Victorian factory into a hip London gathering place six years ago, Babani has seen eight of his productions transferred to London’s West End, including a revival of “Sunday in the Park With George” and the current “Sweet Charity.”
Three have moved to Broadway: “Sunday in the Park With George” in 2008 and, this season, “Little Night Music” starring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, and “La Cage,” in which Kelsey Grammer plays “straight man” Georges opposite Britain’s Douglas Hodge, reprising his Olivier award-winning performance.
“David has grand dreams and then he actually fulfills them, that’s the most impressive thing about him,” says Neil Patrick Harris, who starred in Jonathan Larson’s " ... tick ... tick ... BOOM!” for Babani and then directed a Chocolate Factory production of “The Expert at the Card Table,” which also played Los Angeles and Las Vegas. “He’s serious, enthusiastic, wildly collaborative and yet he’s a scrapper. He gets it done.”
In fact, Babani has been so successful that he has drawn some of the theater’s biggest names to work at the Chocolate Factory, including Trevor Nunn, who directed “Night Music” and will return for a revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Aspects of Love.” Harold Prince and Susan Stroman are co-directing next month’s premiere of “Paradise Found,” based on the music of Johann Strauss.
Not too shabby for a teenage theater nerd and university dropout. Babani spent vacations and holidays in Los Angeles visiting British relatives — a tradition that which would lead him to a couple of semesters, at age 7, in Scottsdale, Ariz. Those events have informed some of the choices that have brought Babani to an influential position in the theater.
“I learned to assimilate quickly and to absorb everything around me,” he says. “I think that is where my deep love for America and Americana came from and, hopefully, my ability to pitch things to audiences.”
In fact, it was his interpretation of American plays to British audiences that put Babani on the map. Paradoxically that often meant leaching out the “American-ness.” As an example, Babani points to his 1997 revival, at age 19, of Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins” at a small theater in the London suburb of Hampstead.
The musical was set in purgatory in which the characters were ordinary individuals bent on achieving their goal. That it was the murder of a president paled beside the ambition. “That is something universal,” he says.
The production was so successful that Babani was offered the opportunity to develop a production of “Richard III” at the National Theatre. Soon he was playing hooky from classes to work on a national tour of “Assassins.” That included a trip to New York to speak to his idol, Sondheim.
Recalls Babani, “Finally, I fessed up to my professor and he said, ‘'You’re being trained here to do what you’re already doing on a much higher level. Just go!' “
Babani then ran a small theater on Jermyn Street near Piccadilly Circus. Five years later, after opening the Chocolate Factory, he sniffed out off-Broadway shows such as “Fully Committed,” “Little Shop of Horrors,” “The Last Five Years” and “tick ... tick ... BOOM!”
“I thought to myself, ‘Why aren’t these shows being done in London?' " he says. The Chocolate Factory had the advantage of having a stage bigger than some small West End theaters without sacrificing the necessary intimacy.
Babani brought an austerity to the productions in budget as well as aesthetics.
“Sometimes a large budget can kill ingenuity,” he says of his stripped-down revivals. He cites the last Broadway revival of “La Cage Aux Folles,” a quick flop, as having influenced the new revival that comes less than five years after its predecessor closed. “Our ‘La Cage’ doesn’t have 30 Cagelles, we have six. It’s all about telling the story of a dysfunctional family where love, morals and values are key to everything.”
Although the Chocolate Factory is unsubsidized and gets its revenue from its restaurant receipts, box office and production royalties, Babani says his goal was to create an environment in which artists were free to fail.
“We can’t afford to have a gigantic flop,” he says. “But it’s when you play it safe, when you ask artists to tick all the right boxes, that the work becomes stifled.”
Those principles are what have brought Nunn, Prince and Stroman through the door. But Babani insists that the egos are checked there.
Even Nunn, the director of “Cats” and " Les Miserables,” doesn’t pull rank? Is this man known for productions that run three hours amenable to suggested cuts?
“That is such a mean question — and I want that on record,” Babani says with a laugh. “Trevor is one of the most collaborative of people, completely secure that when he makes a decision, it’s based on the story-telling. Hal [Prince] is the same way. Wily, yes. But these are not men who are set in their ways or demanding. They are always looking to make something fresh, sometimes almost to a fault.”
While the original leads of “Sunday in Park” transferred to New York, key roles in both “A Little Night Music” and “La Cage” were recast. Babani says that simply reflects the need for star clout on Broadway.
“The transfer of ‘Sunday’ to the West End was 400,000 pounds [about $600,000]. The same transfer to Broadway cost $5 million,” he says. “It’s staggering. That said, I love the fact that Catherine Zeta-Jones has been onstage four times before the audience gives her ‘entrance’ applause. It’s an ensemble.”
He also looks forward to the Factory taking on a more global presence. There has not been more action on that front since the 2008-2009 touring production of “The Expert at the Card Table.”
“We’re slackers,” says the restless young producer with a sardonic shoulder shrug.