Wonderful Town is veteran director Braham Murray's swansong with the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre. He tells Roz Laws about where his career will lead him next.
Braham Murray can happily add his latest production to his long list of successes.
Wonderful Town opened to rave reviews in Manchester and is now on a national tour which takes in Birmingham.
He says he always believed his revival of the seldom-staged Leonard Bernstein musical would work. But then he also thought that about another show which he can barely bring himself to name.
The veteran director, bowing out after 35 years running Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, winces as he remembers the one major blot on his copybook.
“I had one massive flop,” admits Murray.
“I can hardly say its title, but it was Fire Angel. It was a rock version of Merchant of Venice, which may sound unlikely, but I’d already done a rock Othello called Catch My Soul and that worked.
“Fire Angel ran for six weeks in the West End and lost a fortune – £250,000, which was a lot in 1977.
“Why did one work and not the other? If I knew that, I’d be a millionaire. I’ve done more than 100 productions in my time, and I’ve realised it’s just a lottery. You simply can’t tell.
“We all thought that Fire Angel was going to be a massive hit. The producer tried to buy me out of my percentage because he thought it was going to do so well. But the moment the first performance started, we went ‘No, it’s awful’.”
Murray turns 70 next year but is still full of enthusiasm for his industry, which he clearly has no intention of leaving just yet, despite Wonderful Town being his swansong with the Royal Exchange.
The Bernstein musical, which comes to Birmingham Hippodrome later this month, is a collaboration between his theatre, the Halle Orchestra and The Lowry in Salford.
Featuring a 24-strong cast, an orchestra of 17, more than 100 costume changes and colourful scenery transported in eight articulated lorries, it’s a major undertaking. And Murray admits that caused him to pause when he was approached to direct.
“It’s been 20 years since I’ve done a musical and I remembered how hard they are, and how much money you lose if it flops,” he smiles.
“It’s like childbirth – if you remembered how awful it was, you’d never do it again!”
First staged on Broadway in 1953, Wonderful Town won five Tony awards, beating Brigadoon and The Pyjama Game to Best Musical.
It was revived for the West End stage with Maureen Lipman in 1987, and last performed on Broadway in 2003.
The latest show stars Connie Fisher, former star of The Sound of Music, as writer Ruth who arrives in New York in the 1930s with her prettier sister Eileen, looking for love and success.
“It’s a sensational, wonderful score by Bernstein,” declares Murray. “It’s him at his happiest and funniest. It’s quite whacky, he must have been on drugs when he was writing it!
“There are some very eccentric and colourful scenes, including a jazz sequence in a nightclub and one involving Portuguese sea cadets doing the conga. It’s a really fun, bright show and makes me feel life is worth living. Which it is, though sometimes it’s difficult to remember!”
Murray first worked in Birmingham almost 50 years ago, when he directed a play at the Rep at the tender age of just 23.
That sounds young but he had already had success on Broadway after dropping out of Oxford University.
He left without taking his finals after one of his student plays which he co-wrote and directed, Hang Down Your Head and Die, was snapped up and transferred to the West End, starring Michael Palin and Terry Jones. It was then staged in New York.
He returned to Britain in 1965 to direct Prunella Scales in The Winter’s Tale at Birmingham Rep.
“I cut my teeth in Birmingham,” reveals Murray.
“I remember it with great fondness. John Harrison at the old Rep really launched me as a serious director and saved my life.
“It was a crazy start to my career to be on Broadway at 21. I knew no fear, because I didn’t know just how much I still had to learn. Having been launched so quickly with no-one to advise me, everything I did was wrong. The talent was there but with it went a terrible arrogance, I thought I knew it all.
“John told me to come to Birmingham and was a mentor, in a way.”
So what next for Murray?
“I’m looking at directing an opera in Boston and I hope to return to the Royal Exchange next year for King Lear. It’s the one big Shakespeare play I’ve never done.
“I’m certainly not going to stop directing. After all, George Abbott carried on until he was 102!”
* Wonderful Town plays Birmingham Hippodrome from May 22-26. For tickets ring 0844 338500 or go to www.birminghamhippodrome.com