and had dinner with producer John Frost and Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization chief executive Ted Chapin, who is in town for South Pacific. I watch as he folds his gangly, basketballer’s frame into a waiting car, heading off for a radio interview. Robbins once told him never to waste a second. Mitchell, it seems, has taken the advice to heart.
Mitchell is in Sydney for a week to oversee rehearsals for the Australian debut of Legally Blonde, the musical theatre adaptation of the blockbuster 2001 comedy starring Reese Witherspoon. Mitchell, who has under his belt The Rocky Horror Show, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Full Monty among other shows, is still in perpetual-motion mode when I catch up with him a few days later at the ABC’s Ultimo headquarters. He knows Legally Blonde intimately, having directed and choreographed its 2007 Broadway debut and its Olivier awardwinning West End incarnation.
With rainbow baseball cap pulled low on his forehead, he takes the lead cast through an intensive read-through of the script, reassuring a nervous Lucy Durack, the show’s star, when she flubs a line and grinning at Helen Dallimore’s rollicking New Jersey accent. He jumps up as the hour ticks over and leads the entire ensemble through a joyfully noisy cheerleading scene complete with star jumps, shiny trombones and whirling flags. The pace is fast and furious.
During lunch break in a rehearsal room decorated with, among other things, a monogrammed golf bag, pink pom-poms, blonde wigs, dog cages for the show’s chihuahua stars and designer handbags, he stretches out those long legs and tucks into a sandwich. There’s an earnest, almost sweetly old-fashioned boy scout air about him, but it’s offset by a certain remoteness: Legally Blonde songwriter Nell Benjamin once described him as a ‘‘ kinder, gentler autocrat’’.
Under that smiling face and cheeky campness is a perfectionist’s frustration with flaws. Though it’s not something he’d ever do, he understands why Robbins used to ‘‘ go crazy’’ and explode at hapless performers.
Mitchell’s formidable work ethic stems from lessons learned early in life. As a child he would bottle spaghetti sauce and pick grapes, tomatoes and asparagus on his grandparents’ farm because ‘‘ if you wanted something you had to earn it’’. There’s a strong tribal loyalty, be it to family or old schoolfriends, and also some raw, sad depths. At one point he talks with devastating candour about losing a college boyfriend and as many as eight close friends to AIDS before he was 30. ‘‘ Can you imagine?’’ he asks quietly.
One of a small, exclusive breed of so-called ‘‘ hyphenates’’ — director-choregraphers typified by musical theatre legends Robbins, Bennett and Bob Fosse in the past and Susan Stroman today — Mitchell has forged an impressive Broadway track record during the past two decades. In 2005 he was one of the first choreographers to have no fewer than three hit Broadway shows running simultaneously and he won the Tony the same year for his choreography for the revival of La Cage aux Folles.
His fans and backers range from producing heavyweight Hal Luftig and regular collaborator Jack O’Brien to Howard Panter, head of the Ambassador Theatre Group, who last year announced a partnership with Mitchell to form Jerry Mitchell Productions. This will see Mitchell directing, creating and producing work for the powerful British group.
With his relaxed confidence, it’s easy to forget it has been only five years since Mitchell first got his shot as a director on Broadway. Starting on the scene as a dancer in 1980, he made his way slowly up the ranks, taking on small roles, making coffee for directors, giving up his weekends to work on shows, always keeping an eye out for opportunities. A keen student, he hasn’t forgotten a single lesson. From Hairspray’s John Waters he learned the importance of authenticity in choreography. Waters told him to go back and study the old