‘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
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