Theatre: Top Hat, Leeds Grand

The company in one of show's big dance numbers.
The company in one of show's big dance numbers.
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No matter how much you might think you want to see Top Hat, the musical spectacle at Leeds Grand over the festive season, I guarantee you don’t want to see it as much as Kenny Wax.

How badly did he want to see Top Hat? He flew to New York on the off chance that he would be given permission to produce the stage play of the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie.

Wax is a UK theatre producer whose own story is remarkable, from working front of house in theatres to running his own production company, but perhaps the most remarkable chapter in his life is the one still being written, the one where he brought to life a classic musical on the stage.

It began ‘five or six’ years ago when the theatre producer was having dinner with some friends. “They were avid fans of Strictly Come Dancing and were asking if I had ever thought of doing a stage version one of those old- fashioned Fred and Ginger type movies, full of glamour and ballroom dancing, the sort of thing that Strictly had proved was still really popular,” says Wax in his busy London office.

He had not, but his interest had been piqued. He got hold of a number of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies and started working his way through them. Immediately the one that grabbed him was Top Hat. “It was easily the most theatrical of the ones I watched, I could see straight away exactly how it would work on stage,” he says.

What followed was a long and convoluted story of trying to discover who owned the rights to Top Hat – the 1935 movie was produced by RKO, a company that has gone through a number of different hands and Irving Berlin, the man behind the music, was long dead.

Berlin, however, was survived by three daughters, who control his estate via a producer in New York called Ted Chapin. “I wrote to Ted and explained my idea, he wrote back and said that he had spoken with Berlin’s three daughters – it was a thanks, but no thanks. Having got so excited about the idea, I was really devastated.”

As well he might be. Wax just knew in his bones that he had the potential for a great hit on his hands, but it wasn’t just that – he truly believed that this was an important musical to bring to the stage.

He was 16 when he saw Me and My Girl, the award-winning musical starring Robert Lindsay and Emma Thompson and it was a moment when he knew his future belonged in the theatre.

Despite that calling, he had no desire to be on the stage and so pursued a business degree, at the end of which he went to a theatre in London and sought out uber-producer Cameron Mackintosh.

A whole series of jobs followed – operating a follow spot on Cats, working the box office at Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, working on stage crew – it was all Wax’s apprenticeship as a producer. He went on to produce tours of the Witches of Eastwick, Aspects of Love, Strangers on a Train and Rain Man.

Yet Top Hat had eluded him. Clearly a man who doesn’t like to fail, three months after Ted Chapin had written to him and explained that Irving Berlin’s daughters didn’t like the idea of a stage musical of Top Hat, he decided to roll the dice. “I wrote to Ted and told him I was going to be in New York in a month’s time. I didn’t mention Top Hat, just that I was a producer and, as I was in New York, would he spare me twenty minutes,” says Wax. “Fortunately he did and I bought a plane ticket. When I met him, I walked into his office and confessed immediately that I really wanted to do Top Hat and I had no other meeting in New York – he was my sole reason for being there.”

The gamble paid off – after a fashion. Chapin was interested, or at least impressed by Wax’s tenacity, but he couldn’t speak for Berlin’s daughters. They happened to be due in that week and Chapin wondered if, having come this far, Wax would postpone his return flight by a day to meet with them. Finally Wax got to pitch to Berlin’s daughters directly and the rest is history.

Top Hat, Leeds Grand, until January 11

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