Five minutes with Daniel Evans: Flowers for Mrs Harris
Festival 2018 has already produced one splendid musical, and before the run of Me and My Girl is over, director Daniel Evans will be heading straight into rehearsals for the season’s next musical production. Flowers for Mrs Harris opens in the Festival Theatre on 8 September so we grabbed five minutes with our Artistic Director to ask him a few questions about the differences between the two pieces.
Me and My Girl is a 1930s classic, Flowers for Mrs Harris is new piece. What are the new challenges that come with staging a new musical?
There’s a famous Stephen Sondheim quote: “musicals aren’t written, they’re rewritten”. While that’s true of any musical, it’s truer when you’re birthing a musical. With Flowers for Mrs Harris we have undergone many stages of development, from me first hearing Richard Taylor playing a song or two on the piano and thinking ‘oh hang on there’s definitely something worth pursuing here’, and at that point there was really only an act written. Actually, what the show has become is very, very different.
We’ve undergone a series of workshops and an initial short run of the production, which played for 10 performances in Sheffield in my final season as Artistic Director there before I moved to Chichester. And since then the writers have gone back to rewrite and amend sections in order to include the things that they had learnt from those performances in Sheffield. They’re not insignificant changes; while the bare bones remain the same, I’m hoping that the Chichester version will be tighter, cutting to the chase more quickly.
The other scary thing is that you don’t know how the audience is going to react. With Me and My Girl, everyone knows the Lambeth Walk even if they’ve never seen the show before. With Flowers for Mrs Harris some audience members might know the Paul Gallico novella, but they really don’t know what they’re coming to see. I’m thinking particularly of the ‘sound world’ of the composer, and so that’s something we have to look after. It’s a really delicate thing because you want the audience to immerse themselves in the music as quickly as possible, which I think they will because Richard Taylor’s music is so exquisite.
Flowers for Mrs Harris doesn’t have a big chorus or ensemble, is it almost like a chamber musical?
In Flowers for Mrs Harris, there are just 10 actors and it’s incredibly intimate. Part of its narrative is also that it’s about this ordinary cleaning lady – at least, she thinks she’s ordinary – whose life is transformed by this one major event. So it’s much more like a play, it just so happens that some of it is sung. However, it certainly has its epic moments, particularly in Act 2 where we get to see nine Dior dresses on display.
There’s a bit of a neat parallel between your two lead characters though isn’t there? Bill from Me and My Girl and Ada in Flower for Mrs Harris…
They’re both from lowly backgrounds, and find themselves in more sophisticated surroundings. They both unwittingly turn their own worlds and the worlds of those people they encounter on the journey, upside down.
What can audiences expect from Flowers for Mrs Harris that’s different to Me and My Girl?
They both contain immense amounts of joy. In Me and My Girl the joy is readily expressed through amazing tap dancing and upbeat numbers. Flowers for Mrs Harris is a different kind of joy because it’s the joy of seeing someone who’s intrinsically kind and good, achieving her heart’s desire. The ultimate fairy tale. It’s quite rare because while she has to overcome many obstacles – in many ways it’s a quest story – what she does to the people around her is moving because she has no idea that she’s doing it. When we did our performances in Sheffield you could hear people weeping for joy at the end. She’s done something with her life and she’s followed her dream. It’s such a universal theme that everyone can probably connect with, wherever you’re from.
Flowers for Mrs Harris opens 8 September and runs until 29 September.