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If you like Trevor Nunn's story, you might also like:
Julie Andrews,
Francis Coppola,
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Athol Fugard,
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Kiri Te Kanawa

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Trevor Nunn in the Achievement Curriculum section:
From Dance to Drama

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National Theatre
NT Histories
Broadway Database
Royal Shakespeare Company

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Sir Trevor Nunn
Sir Trevor Nunn
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Sir Trevor Nunn Interview (page: 5 / 6)

Theatrical Director

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  Sir Trevor Nunn

How did the transition from Shakespeare to the most modern of productions occur?

Sir Trevor Nunn: It wasn't really a leap.

The first theater that I went to was a vaudeville house, and the great experience was hearing the band striking up. I've never had any feeling of disconnection between the classical theater, or the contemporary theater, or musical theater, or the thing that we call opera. I've never wanted to categorize them, or to feel that they should be done by different people, different specialists. I've never believed in that. So, when I was at university, I suppose this was expressed through the fact that there were two famous societies at Cambridge. One of them was called the Marlowe Society that did all the classical plays. And the other was called the Footlights, and they did the musicals and the revues. And in my last term at Cambridge I did both productions. I did the Marlowe Society and the Footlights. I directed both of them.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

I didn't have any problem about it. It seemed perfectly straightforward. It was just two versions of the same thing. So, through all that early professional career I would occasionally do a musical, a pantomime or a play with songs. The next stop would be a Shakespeare, or an Ibsen, or a play by a brand new writer who had never done anything in the theater before.

When I was at Stratford, the very first thing that I was commissioned to work on was trying to make a musical out of the documentary material about the General Strike, which was the next big historical event in England, after the First World War. Since Joan Littlewood had made this sensational musical called, Oh, What a Lovely War about the First World War, somebody had the idea that all the social pressures that became almost a revolution in England during the General Strike could be a stage musical. That was the first thing that I worked at under the RSC banner. Don't castigate yourself that you haven't heard of it, because it never saw the light of day.

I had the feeling that a classical theater company ought to be able to embrace popular things as well. I did a children's play by Robert Bolt with 17 songs in it, the lyrics for which I wrote. I did a production of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors and I transformed it into a musical. Not the Broadway musical, Boys from Syracuse, but keeping all of Shakespeare's text, turning a lot of the text into lyrics, and then providing some lyrics of my own.

We had a big cult success with that in Stratford, and London, and it was televised. David Merrick wanted to put it on Broadway. It was all part and parcel of the same thing. I did King Lear in the same season, and I did Macbeth in the same season, which was also televised. John Napier designed all of those productions in that year. He's my dearest, closest, longest-serving colleague, to whom I often feel I'm married.

When we did this huge derring-do stage production of Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby, which was -- I mean, that was an absolute last throw of the dice for the RSC. We were in such terrible financial circumstance that I was employing a company of 50 actors, and I only had money for one production, and no play has been written that provides for 50 roles. And I had a whole company desperate for work, and I didn't want to get rid of anybody. And I suddenly had the idea that I could go to Dickens. And it suddenly occurred to me that Dickens was the greatest dramatist who never wrote a play. And I could take all of that material and make a stage work with this wonderful company of actors, and we did. And a colleague of mine, John Caird, co-directed the show with me. And we had this eight-and-a-half-hour show that become a kind of legend in London, and then we took it to Broadway and we won all the Tony Awards. And then we televised it and won the Emmy Award for it. So, it was evidence that things can be born of the most extreme desperation.

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

It was that production that saved us and kept the company going. Then our grant situation was amended, and we lived to fight another day.

Sir Trevor Nunn Interview Photo

John Napier and I had worked on Nicholas Nickleby together and it was seen by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Andrew sought a meeting and said, "I've set to music some poems by T.S. Eliot." Well, I'd studied Eliot at Cambridge and I was thinking, "This is some ambitious thing. Andrew's set to music The Waste Land, or the Four Quartets, or something. Eventually I discovered that it was Eliot's off-duty children's verse that had been set to music, his little book called Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Andrew had set 10 of them to music and he said to me, "Do you think this could become a stage musical?" I listened to the material and I called him and I said, "I think if we found four very clever entertainers and two pianos..." "No, no, no, no," he said, "You don't understand at all. I mean a big stage musical. I mean a big, epic - a big event."

Sir Trevor Nunn Interview Photo
I thought, "Well I'd better cut this conversation short, because we're at terrible cross-purposes here."

I went away and I thought, "He's written the story of the Passion, Jesus Christ Superstar, and he's written a story about a popular dictator who changed 20th century history in Evita.

First of all, why hasn't he offered me his musical version of The War of the Worlds? And secondly, why is he fascinated with these little children's poems?

There's got to be something in this, because he hasn't notably made mistakes about his material.

I should consider it much more carefully."

I then started thinking in terms of dance, and mime, and then of an experience that could be communicated from the point of view of cats. That is to say, from the scale of cats, that everything should be cat scale. And that human behavior would be visible through the responses of the cat -- a lot of criticism of human behavior would be -- and then it occurred to me, "What's wonderful about the material is that it's for children, but it's for adults." And then I thought, "Well, of course, that's why the poems were written." I mean, they were written for these kids, but they were also written for their parents to read. You know, to have a different kind of laugh, while reading the poem over the kid's shoulder. I thought, "This is multi-generational." It also occurred to me that because of the dance ingredient and because of the simplicity and in many ways, there was no narrative. I could make a narrative you could extrapolate, though not an imposed narrative. Then, there wasn't really a language barrier. It could be entertaining for French people, and Japanese people. It wasn't something that was limited to any one social grouping. Therefore, Andrew's perception about it was as reliable as ever. So I went to my old friend John Napier and said, "I've been asked to do this crazy project and I want you to help me." And he came up with this completely spectacular design. I said to John, "I think any design for this show should make a joke about The Waste Land. There should be some element of wasteland about it. We talked about it for a while and he said, "The nearest I can get to a wasteland is a rubbish tin." And I thought, "That's completely wonderful. This annual celebration by these cats should take place in their own auditorium, which is just a junk heap." I thought that was great, because it was street. It was the complete opposite to the idea of cats as pampered creatures. They were a surviving bunch of street cats. That design, of course, is a huge ingredient in the success of the show.

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