As his new musical prepares to open in the West End, director Christopher Renshaw reveals to Caroline Bishop that Zorro isn’t the only one leading a double life.
It has become a familiar format: normal young man leads normal life in normal town, until disaster strikes and he takes his glasses off, puts his underpants on over his trousers and is transformed into a dashing superhero, fighting crime and injustice on behalf of the inhabitants of his city and bagging the attention of a beautiful woman in the process.
But before Batman, Spiderman, Superman – not to mention Bananaman and the Milk Tray man – there was Zorro, the mysterious masked alter ego of Don Diego de la Vega, a Spanish-Californian character created by American pulp fiction writer Johnston McCulley in 1919.
The original caped crusader has spawned a plethora of cartoons, books, films and television series over the years, so much so that he warrants a whole company – with the suitably macho name Zorro Incorporated – to manage his various masked activities around the world, which now extend to a West End stage outing.
The draw of the masked man is such that Zorro the musical has gathered a creative team that includes Spain’s international exports the Gipsy Kings developing the music, flamenco star Rafael Amargo choreographing, and a producer in the shape of acclaimed Chilean-American author Isabel Allende, who wrote the 2005 book Zorro: A Novel.
Tying all these elements together into a West End musical is director Christopher Renshaw, who was initially approached about the project by producer Adam Kenwright more than six years ago, in between two of Renshaw’s best known productions – Boy George musical Taboo and Queen-fest We Will Rock You.
"I think in most cultures there is this belief that someone is going to come and purge us of all our wrongdoings"
Work on the musical began in an idyllic manner, with Renshaw travelling to France to meet the Gipsy Kings and start piecing the show together. “I had this wonderful two weeks in an old, old farmhouse where they record, in the Pyrenées, and they sang to me,” remembers Renshaw, when he meets me at the Garrick during previews for the show. “I was explaining what the emotions of each scene were and they would improvise and record it. They don’t write any music down, so it’s all like true flamenco, true gipsy music, it is a sung tradition.”
Meanwhile, John Gertz, head of Zorro Incorporated, had persuaded Allende to turn her considerable talents to writing a Zorro novel. Renshaw comments: “Her book came out while we were in development with the Kings and so we had meetings with her and we certainly were very influenced by her and her book and her spirit, which is amazing. But it’s not totally based on the book… It’s a different story but there are some similarities.” Instead, the show follows a storyline by Martin Guerre writer Stephen Clark, which sees the young Diego begin his tale as a gipsy performer and magician in Spain, before becoming Zorro.
Neither does the musical borrow story or imagery from the 1998 Oscar-winning film, in which Antonio Banderas portrayed the masked hero. While Allende is quoted in the The Times as saying that Banderas was her ideal Zorro and inspired the character in her novel – “immensely attractive, with a sense of humour, who can act, sing and dance” – Renshaw has purposely avoided re-watching the hit film and has made no attempt to recreate it. “You can’t copy a movie, you have to create it for what theatre has, and I think I’ve made it very, very theatrical.”
Whatever theatrical license is employed by the show, it intends to stay true to the fundamental character of McCulley’s Zorro, a heroic figure that Renshaw feels appeals to people’s universal desire for the triumph of good over evil. “I think in most cultures there is this belief that someone is going to come and purge us of all our wrongdoings. You see it now – you saw it with Kennedy, and you see it a bit with Barack Obama. There is a need for change and… people have this innocent notion that everything can be solved and the bad people will be put down. He [Zorro] is a fighter for justice – done in a kind of tongue-in-cheek way, but it still has at its heart a man who believes that wrong cannot prevail.”
At first glance, Renshaw seems an unlikely candidate to harness the Latin passion and gipsy spirit of this sword-fighting, rope-swinging, most alpha male of heroes. An averagely-built, quietly-spoken, unassuming man, the director appears the epitome of middle-class, middle-aged Britishness; someone who would rather eat his own pipe and slippers than display the unabashed passion of flamenco.
"[Gipsies] have something that we don’t have; an access to passion and fire that is so wonderfully un-British"
Certainly, Renshaw admits laughing, flamenco dancing is not his forte – he managed to injure his knee while attempting to explain to choreographer Amargo what he wanted from a particular scene – but the director’s gentle exterior belies an inner love affair with Latin culture that makes him more than capable of bringing feisty Zorro to the stage. In fact, like Diego de la Vega, you could say Renshaw has an alter ego, an inner Zorro that takes a bit of probing to uncover.
Half the year he is an esteemed musical theatre director dealing with the highs and lows of bringing a show to the West End stage; the other half he lives in a remote house in the jungle in Nicaragua with nine pet Dalmatians. “It’s kind of a weird one isn’t it?!” Renshaw laughs self-consciously, when he reveals this adventurous second life. He was on holiday in neighbouring Costa Rica some four and a half years ago when someone suggested popping down the road to the more culturally-rich Nicaragua. So he did, and liked it, and “quite stupidly” bought a piece of land upon which to build a house.
He is an hour from the nearest town, surrounded by jungle and its poisonous inhabitants; it is certainly not the lifestyle choice you would expect from a Reading-born, Oxford-educated director, but then maybe that is the point; his life in Nicaragua allows him to escape convention. “I’ve always loved flamenco and I love the whole tradition of the gipsies coming through India and Africa – that extraordinary mix of cultures. They have something that we don’t have; an access to passion and fire that is so wonderfully un-British. So I’ve enjoyed that, both in the theatre and in life, that contact with that other side of things which I think is very liberating.”
Like the gipsies whose passion he so admires, Renshaw has always been a bit nomadic. After studying music at Oxford, he started his career in opera, directing productions all over the world, including Monaco, Israel, Northern Ireland, Belgium, Australia and the US. “I’m a bit restless,” he admits. “I don’t mind where I am really as long as it doesn’t stay the same.”
This need for change may have contributed to his decision to move from directing opera to musical theatre, a move he was encouraged to make by producing impresario Cameron Mackintosh, who saw an operatic production directed by Renshaw at Sadler’s Wells and suggested he should try his hand at a musical. “I haven’t done opera for so many years, I’ve almost forgotten I did,” Renshaw smiles. “That was a massive part of my life and a huge passion, but when I made the change over it was for good really.
“I love the fact that in music theatre you really are creating, whereas in opera you’re interpreting,” he explains. “When I was doing opera… it still is the trend that you have to do something with it, so you have to set Madam Butterfly in a concrete factory, and it’s that, I think, that is very exhausting for a director. Whereas in the theatre you are trying to work out the truth of everything and you don’t need to be interpreting it. I’ve loved the creation of it, sitting with George [O’Dowd] or The Gipsy Kings or indeed Queen – Brian [May] and Roger [Taylor] – and actually working it out with them; watching great people work is very exciting.”
"I don’t mind where I am really as long as it doesn’t stay the same"
Taboo, written with Boy George, and We Will Rock You, devised with rock legends Queen, are, along with The King And I, the productions that have shaped Renshaw’s musical theatre career to date. Taboo, which was nominated for Best New Musical at the Laurence Olivier Awards in 2003, was based on the 1980s New Romantic scene and the life of Culture Club singer Boy George and club promoter Leigh Bowery. “Taboo was one of the most special experiences in my life. It was my idea and I contacted George who was wonderfully easy to contact. Underneath all the makeup and what people might think he is, he’s an inspired genius and I learnt a lot from him about life and art and the whole thing.”
Swiftly on its heels came We Will Rock You, the Ben Elton-penned jukebox musical whose futuristic storyline provides the framework for a crowd-pleasing string of Queen’s greatest hits. Despite not gaining the love of the critics, We Will Rock You has proved an enduring success since its premiere at the Dominion in 2002 and is still going strong.
But Renshaw knows the smell of failure as well as success – the extensively reworked Broadway production of Taboo was beset by troubles, received a critical panning and lasted just three months. Mounting a new musical in the West End seems riskier than ever right now, in the wake of recent big budget musical flops like Trevor Nunn’s Gone With The Wind and last year’s Desperately Seeking Susan (starring Zorro cast member Emma Williams). So it is no surprise that Renshaw is grateful for Zorro’s pre-London try-out; the brief national tour earlier this year allowed the team to gauge audience reaction and “sharpen it up” for the West End. “It’s bliss. I think both Taboo and We Will Rock You opened cold here. It is a stressful place and… I really welcome not opening [here]. But it’s strangely similar. You do all your work on tour and then it still feels the same; you still feel the pressure of what the West End means. You just mustn’t let it get to you and you carry on and make it as good as you can get it.”
He adds: “I’ve had times when it’s been very tough. I think as you get older you learn that it happens like that and you shouldn’t take it personally – but you do. You learn more from failures than you do from successes. That’s the wisdom. I guess if I didn’t want to do it I wouldn’t do it, and I’m braced for what this world is.”
Though he says there is no recipe for success, Renshaw is hopeful that Zorro will tick the right boxes for the West End, after which, the nomadic director hopes to export his caped crusader around the world. But, whatever happens, Renshaw is at a stage in life where, thanks to the financial freedom We Will Rock You has given him, he is able to enjoy not working as much as working. “It’s changed my life. I’m not unbelievably wealthy at all but I have a little bit… I’m enjoying learning that there’s more to life than work.”
So while Christopher Renshaw the West End director has to concern himself with readying his new musical for press night next week, his alter-ego Christopher Renshaw the jungle-dweller has other concerns on his mind, like the price of electricity in the rainforest (quite steep, in case you wondered). Soon he will be back with his dogs in Nicaragua, leading his other life – a life which seems the antithesis of the hectic pace of London. “I’m trying to read more. I love floating in water. I want to start having chickens and growing vegetables. Does that sound like The Good Life?!” he laughs softly. He may not have a mask in his pocket, and he hasn’t yet put his underpants on over his trousers, but still, who would have guessed?