“Of course I’m nervous, I’d be foolish if I wasn’t,” Sheader told Official London Theatre. “One of the biggest titles of the 20th century and the greatest director of musical theatre in this country [Gone With The Wind and Trevor Nunn] lasted for a few weeks in that theatre. Who do I think I am?”
Selected press and invited guests were treated to performances of three of the show’s numbers at the launch held at the Duthy Hall Studios in Southwark. Hail, Far From Here Far From Now and Imagine This were performed for the first time in front of an audience by the show’s West End cast which includes Peter Polycarpou, Leila Benn Harris and Simon Gleeson.
The privileged audience also heard from cast member Roy Litvin, whose grandmother survived the Holocaust. His description of just some of her ordeals threw added gravitas behind the performances and brought tears to many an eye.
Sheader is adamant that the tale of ghettoised Jews is a story of hope and the triumph of the human spirit, and that in staging a show depicting events surrounded by such pain and anguish, he is following a rich tradition: “Richard Rogers put Nazis on stage in The Sound Of Music. Cabaret takes it one step further; certainly the revival did. Post Schindler’s List, it’s not that daring. If Schindler’s List or The Pianist or Boy In The Striped Pyjamas hadn’t existed, I think this would be provocative, but the same audience that went to Schindler’s List – broad, mass, populist – why would they not come to this?
“It’s epic music, fantastic hummable tunes with a gripping story about real people struggling against adversity, and how their spirits survive. We should leave the theatre crying but uplifted by what we’ve seen,” he concluded, adding that the tale of hope definitely had humour running through it. A musical theatre fan, he put it into context, citing another piece set during turbulent times, Les Misérables: “You couldn’t listen to Marius talking about the barricades all night long, could you?”
Joining cast and crew at the launch, producer Beth Trachtenberg spoke about the specific challenge facing everyone working on this new musical production: “All of us working on Imagine This every day are aware that we have been given the unique, challenging and thrilling gift of creating a new original musical: not one based on a book; not one based on a movie; not one based on a song catalogue; not one based on any other written material; not a transplant from Broadway; and not a revival. We’re engaged in a rare and sadly fast-disappearing endeavour.”
Imagine This was previously staged in Plymouth in July 2007 but has since been reworked for its London outing, with songs both removed and added, and even characters killed off. The final results can be seen when Imagine This opens at the New London theatre on 19 November, following previews from 4 November.