The QT

Wednesday 19 June 2024

Off to see the Wizard… at the Theatre Royal

Wallsend-born producer Michael Harrison tells David Whetstone about The Wizard of Oz and other forthcoming attractions
The Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. Credit: Marc Brenner

Hurry and keep your fingers crossed if you want to see The Wizard of Oz at the Theatre Royal because it has been what Andrew Lloyd Webber calls ‘Harrisoned’.

“I don’t know if that’s a compliment but I’ll take it,” says Michael Harrison, the Wallsend-born producer of the show, having shared the great lord of theatreland’s quip.

It’s a compliment, definitely. It means that as The Wizard of Oz prepares to roll into Newcastle from Nottingham, its previous stop on tour, there are very few seats left outside the gallery (what used to be called ‘the gods’).

But Imelda then got offered a little TV series called The Crown which meant Hello Dolly had to be pushed on for another year, so I was left with a gap at the Palladium.

Michael Harrison

Michael, ever the showman, suggests it’s a production that should look brilliant even from there — and you believe him because he’s not one for empty promises.

One of the show’s larger-than-life elements, apparently, is a big video wall at the back of the stage.

“That’s pretty rare on the road because it’s so expensive and complicated to tour,” explains Michael.

“But that’s what we had at the Palladium. There’s an awful lot of projection which gives the show a very electronic feel.”

Something else you’ll be unlikely to miss, even from high at the back, is the Wicked Witch of the West, played by The Vivienne, larger-than-life almost by definition.

The winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK and a Dancing on Ice finalist, approached by Michael after he’d read that she had been an avid fan of The Wizard of Oz when growing up in Liverpool, is enjoying her first outing in a touring family musical.

We’ll come back to her.

But The Wizard of Oz, you might be thinking, hasn’t been on stage for a while. The film, released in 1939, is familiar to many but professional theatre productions haven’t been thick on the ground.

Michael agrees that whereas we have been rather well served with ‘Josephs’ and Annies —“Goodness, I’ve been responsible for some of them” — the same cannot be said of the fantastical tale of Dorothy, from Kansas, and her unlikely friends.

“I remember as a kid seeing a production at the Tyne Theatre with Jessica Martin (as Dorothy) and Michael Sharvell-Martin (the late Dave Allen’s TV sidekick cast as the Cowardly Lion) but it’s not one of those that’s gone round and round.

“There hadn’t been a national tour of this particular production for a long time.”

This is the one featuring the famous songs from the MGM film plus some new ones by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber which premiered at the London Palladium in 2011 with a Dorothy (Danielle Hope) chosen via a BBC TV talent show, Over the Rainbow.

It was revived in its current form at Leicester’s Curve, directed by its artistic director, Nikolai Foster, and designed by Colin Richmond.

Michael, like a chess grandmaster of the musicals, explains how he moved his pieces around to install it in one of London’s most famous theatres.

“I produced Joseph at the Palladium in the summer of 2019 and then it returned in the summer of 2021. It was supposed to have gone back in 2020 but obviously a pandemic got in the way.

“It was a big success and Andrew was thrilled with it.

“I was also, at the time, doing Hello Dolly with Imelda Staunton which, again because of the pandemic, had to be delayed, so I moved Hello Dolly, which was originally supposed to be at the Adelphi, to the Palladium last summer.

“But Imelda then got offered a little TV series called The Crown which meant Hello Dolly had to be pushed on for another year, so I was left with a gap at the Palladium.

“I’d been thinking, following the success of Joseph, of doing another family musical.

“We were doing The Wizard of Oz in Leicester and imagined we’d just do it there and then go out on tour. But with this sudden gap at the Palladium, I said, ‘Why don’t we do it there?’ It seemed an obvious Palladium summer show.

“So I got Jason Manford to play the Lion and Ashley Banjo to play the Tin Man and it was another massive success.

Colourful scene from The Wizard of Oz. Credit: Marc Brenner

“We opened the national tour in Liverpool at Christmas and now it’s off on the road, smashing records everywhere.”

The show is due back in the West End after its final performances on a whirlwind tour — klaxon alert for those in the North East — at Sunderland Empire from August 6 to 11.

Michael says The Wizard of Oz has multi-generational appeal because of its long history and that iconic film starring Judy Garland and those wonderful songs, including the Oscar-winning Over the Rainbow.

The Vivienne doesn’t get to sing that one but there is a voice, I’m told, behind the flamboyant hair and make-up.

Recalls Michael on seeing The Vivienne on screen and reading that article: “I thought, if you can sing, you would be a phenomenal Wicked Witch of the West. And my God, can The Vivienne sing!”

Says The Vivienne: “I’ve acted on TV before but this is my first theatre role. I pinch myself every day. It’s probably been the best experience of my life so far. I feel very blessed.”

As for the look of this production, Michael says it has “a kind of Americana/Route 66 look in terms of Kansas and that feeds through a little bit to Oz”.

The Vivienne presiding over a dramatic moment in The Wizard of Oz. Credit: Marc Brenner

Tantalisingly he adds that there’s “a bit of the Bates Motel feel going on” in the famous poppy field scene.

“What we didn’t want to do was an MGM retread. The film is so iconic and we’ve all seen that. So while this is absolutely the film — it’s the music you know, with all the songs — there’s a feeling for today. Visually it’s very arresting.”

Michael, best known in the North East as mastermind of the Theatre Royal panto, says that’s going well.

Pinocchio broke box office records last Christmas and The Little Mermaid is already setting records of its own. “I’m working on some new sets and Danny Adams is working on some old jokes,” he jests.

But in his panto supremo role Michael has 24 of them across the country to oversee. 

And as if that weren’t enough, he also has Hello Dolly to keep an eye on and a new touring production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which opens in Edinburgh at the end of the year.

He says he persuaded Donny Osmond to leave his Las Vegas residency for a month to play the Pharaoh in the Scottish capital, although he will have vacated the role by the time the show comes to Newcastle.

On top of all that, there’s the small matter of a new 40th anniversary production of Starlight Express opening this summer in London’s Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre.

When does Michael Harrison sleep?

The job, he admits, is pretty much round the clock and seven days a week. “It has to be if you’re putting on all these shows. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

His eight-year-old son Alfie, it seems, is a chip off the old block.

“It’s in the blood,” says his proud dad. “He was mortified when The Wizard of Oz closed at the London Palladium. But if you ask him what his favourite show is, he’ll say The Phantom of the Opera.”

That’s one for another day.

The Wizard of Oz runs in Newcastle from Tuesday, April 16 to Sunday, April 21 (two daytime performances on that final day).

Tickets from the box office on 0191 232 7010 or the Theatre Royal website


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