‘It was the per­fect storm for Sheri­dan’

David Ba­bani was blessed with the Mi­das touch, un­til Sheri­dan Smith’s Funny Girl melt­down. The im­pre­sario talks can­didly to Do­minic Cavendish about the af­ter­math

The Daily Telegraph - - Arts -

In lit­tle more than a decade, the Me­nier Chocolate Fac­tory in South­wark has gone from be­ing a barely known 180-seat fringe the­atre to an of­fWest End pow­er­house, ranked along­side the likes of the Almeida and the Don­mar; a venue that con­sis­tently punches above its weight, daz­ing the com­pe­ti­tion.

Where once crit­ics hes­i­tated to visit, now at­ten­dance is com­pul­sory. The facts speak for them­selves: 18 trans­fers to the West End, mul­ti­ple Olivier awards, and suc­cess on Broad­way, too. In 2010, Me­nier productions won four Tony awards: three for La Cage Aux Folles and one for A Lit­tle Night Mu­sic. The past fort­night has seen a dou­ble Tony win for The Color Pur­ple, a mu­si­cal re­vival first seen in South­wark in 2013, now an out-and-out smash on the Great White Way, star­ring Cyn­thia Erivo, once a lit­tle-known ac­tress from south Lon­don.

The man be­hind the Me­nier’s suc­cess is David Ba­bani, 38, as big as a bear and abound­ing with en­thu­si­asm. Is he the next Cameron Mack­in­tosh? Watch this space. As some­one who has ob­served his ir­re­sistible rise, and noted his fas­tid­i­ous at­ten­tion to de­tail, hands-on creative ap­proach, metic­u­lous eye for tal­ent and af­fa­ble chutz­pah, I’d say as much. And so, ac­cord­ing to Ba­bani, did the com­poser Stephen Sond­heim, right at the start of Ba­bani’s ca­reer in 1997.

With­out any pro­fes­sional pro­duc­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, the young turk – still in his late teens and at univer­sity in Bris­tol, study­ing drama – set up a re­vival of the com­poser’s lesser­known As­sas­sins at the New End The­atre in Hamp­stead. Hav­ing lis­tened to Ba­bani’s pitch, Amer­ica’s great­est liv­ing ge­nius of mu­si­cal the­atre told him: “I want to say that 20 years ago I had a sim­i­lar meet­ing with a young man on this couch, and that was Cameron Mack­in­tosh, and you scare me as much as he did!” As­sas­sins was a sell-out suc­cess. Ba­bani quit univer­sity and has never looked back. He is, when we meet, busy over­see­ing the West End trans­fer of The Truth, a com­edy about lies and in­fi­delity from the Parisian play­wright du jour Flo­rian Zeller. But the drama in which he is in­volved that is cur­rently dom­i­nat­ing the head­lines is hap­pen­ing not on stage, but off it. Few projects have in­volved more of an adrenalin rush, more highs and lows, than Funny Girl, the high­est­pro­file Me­nier pro­duc­tion to date, in which Sheri­dan Smith was cast as the star. Hav­ing gar­nered rave re­views for her per­for­mance as Fanny Brice in the Six­ties mu­si­cal at the Me­nier in De­cem­ber, Smith dra­mat­i­cally pulled out of the show af­ter its trans­fer to the Savoy in May on med­i­cal grounds. Ba­bani has a strong work­ing re­la­tion­ship with Smith – he helped to fos­ter her gifts for mu­si­cal the­atre by cast­ing her in Lit­tle Shop of Hor­rors in 2006 – and he is un­der­stand­ably wary of breach­ing con­fi­den­tial­ity, but for the first time he tries to set the record straight, in de­tail, hav­ing watched the saga un­fold from the in­side.

The good news is that he’s con­fi­dent of a re­turn any week now. “I would hope within the month we will have her back on stage. She is dy­ing to come back. I doff my cap to her sheer de­ter­mi­na­tion. If it were me, I’d want to go and hide in a cave. We are deal­ing with an in­cred­i­bly tal­ented and well-loved ac­tress who has been ill with stress and ex­haus­tion. From a health and safety point of view, we’re not go­ing to en­dan­ger any­one in our em­ploy. Only once the doc­tors say she’s fit to work will we be able to bring her back to the show.”

He wants to scotch the sug­ges­tion that she was ine­bri­ated at one per­for­mance, as widely re­ported be­fore she with­drew. “I can’t go into the de­tails, but she was ab­so­lutely not drunk on stage.”

What about the ru­mours that she fell out with the the­atre in March for fail­ing to sup­port her af­ter she learnt that her father had been di­ag­nosed with can­cer? “There was no break­down at all in com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween us,” he says. “So much was re­ported out of con­text.”

Does he re­gret any­thing about the way the sit­u­a­tion has been han­dled? “I re­gret noth­ing,” he says, em­phat­i­cally. “Right now, the out­come is the best we could have hoped for,” he adds, re­fer­ring to the plau­dits that have greeted Natasha J Barnes, her un­der­study as Fanny Brice. The num­ber of peo­ple ask­ing for re­funds, he in­sists, is “be­yond min­i­mal”.

“We are en­ter­tain­ing a thou­sand peo­ple a night. I only re­gret all the pain she has gone through.” Should he have spot­ted the warn­ing signs? “There were so many fac­tors. The show was a lot of pres­sure, but she was deal­ing with it – but there were all these other ex­ter­nal un­ex­pected fac­tors, to do with her fam­ily, other work is­sues and the fact that she’s a big star and a tar­get for the me­dia.

“It sud­denly turned into this per­fect storm. I gen­uinely think it was im­pos­si­ble to pre­dict. I be­lieve we have tried to keep ev­ery­body’s best in­ter­ests at heart.”

The son of a chil­dren’s book pub­lisher and pro­fes­sional card­player (his mother), Ba­bani grew up in north Lon­don and fell in love with the­atre at an early age. He got to know the ropes, back­stage, while at school in High­gate, soak­ing up all the tech­ni­cal re­quire­ments. He shares with So­nia Fried­man, reign­ing queen of West End pro­duc­ing, and Sir Cameron, a grafter’s knowl­edge of how it works. “We all un­der­stand the other jobs. Cameron was an as­sis­tant stage­m­an­ager on Oliver! and So­nia’s early jobs in­cluded stage-man­ag­ing at the Na­tional. It makes you more ef­fec­tive. You can look af­ter the in­vestors’ money bet­ter.”

Ba­bani is good with money, but his in­stincts aren’t purely com­mer­cial, and that’s what marks him out as such a be­nign force. He has had his share of duds – the un­sub­sidised Me­nier is, he says, “al­ways two flops away from dis­as­ter” – but he has learnt to trust his gut in­stinct over the years. “You have much bet­ter odds spin­ning a roulette wheel but it’s ad­dic­tive and there is no high like it. When I’m stand­ing at the back of a full the­atre watch­ing an au­di­ence re­act­ing to­gether, whether it’s a gasp, a laugh, a cheer or a sob, for me there is no greater thrill. I’m a junkie for it.”

As ever, Ba­bani has plenty of plates spin­ning right now. Winging its way over from re­hearsals in New York is a new re­vival of Sond­heim’s Into

the Woods, the Me­nier’s sum­mer of­fer­ing – “We’re out to do it in a way I don’t think any­body here would,” he says. In the au­tumn, David Bad­diel’s con­fes­sional mono­logue

My Fam­ily – Not the Sit­com heads into the West End, while back at base Tom Hol­lan­der stars in a re­vival of Tom Stop­pard’s high­brow com­edy

Trav­es­ties (1974). There’s a chance, too, that The Color Pur­ple might get the West End run he wanted, had not the Lon­don crit­ics been so sniffy.

His has been an in­spir­ing jour­ney. Still un­der 40, Ba­bani can min­gle with the great and the good, counts Sond­heim as a friend, and has cracked jokes with Burt Bacharach, who per­formed at the open­ing night of the com­pi­la­tion trib­ute show Close to You last sum­mer. He beams like a kid.

“I keep hav­ing to pinch my­self,” he says. “I get to meet my he­roes and some­times I get to work with them. I’ve got the best job in the world.”

‘Sheri­dan was ab­so­lutely not drunk on stage’

Stars of South­wark: Sheri­dan Smith as Fanny Brice in

Funny Girl, above. The Color Pur­ple with Cyn­thia Erivo, be­low

‘It’s ad­dic­tive and I’m a junkie for it,’ says David Ba­bani of the­atre

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