How Director Michael Longhurst Is Resuscitating Theater on Both Sides of the Atlantic

·8-min read

Like everyone on Broadway at that moment, British director Michael Longhurst remembers exactly where he was when the COVID-19 shutdown came. “We had just done our dress rehearsal of ‘Caroline, or Change’ and were gearing up to bring the public in,” he recalls. It was devastating, but spirits remained strong: “We all said goodbye and ‘See you in a few weeks.’”

The rest, of course, was silence. Or it was until re-rehearsals for the highly anticipated Broadway revival of the Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori musical began, ahead of previews starting Oct. 8 prior to an Oct. 27 opening.

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In the interim, Longhurst has emerged as a leading figure in bringing theater back to life on both sides of the Atlantic.

Having worked in key regional theaters and all the major London addresses from the Almeida and the Royal Court to the Young Vic, he overcame stiff competition to take over as artistic director of London’s venerable Donmar Warehouse, the venue that made the international careers of previous incumbents Sam Mendes, Michael Grandage and Josie Rourke. At the Donmar, he had a guiding hand in “Blindness,” the recorded audio drama/sound installation with in-person audiences that, in the depths of the pandemic, toured cities in North America, Mexico, Ireland and then across the U.K. And prior to his return to New York for “Caroline,” he helped resuscitate theaters on the West End with a revival of the play “Constellations” with a rotating, diverse cast, in a reimagination of the show that felt right in step with the broader industry’s movement toward greater equity and inclusion.

Rufus Norris, artistic director of the National Theatre — where Longhurst directed a hit revival of “Amadeus” — is clear-eyed as to why Longhurst has risen so swiftly. “He has a very particular skillset as a director, combining excellent dramaturgical insight and emotional subtlety with lovely flair. He’s also very collaborative, and this mix was made gloriously manifest in his approach to ‘Amadeus.’ His team worked brilliantly together and the result — delicious acting, terrific use of the space and a complete dancing orchestra — was a glorious example of total theater.”

Now he’s directing the first post-shutdown show at the Roundabout Theater’s Studio 54 on Broadway, “Caroline, or Change.” Even before the pandemic, the Broadway run had been a long time coming. Longhurst opened the first British production of the landmark musical in May 2017 at Chichester Festival Theatre, the vigorous regional producing house on the U.K.’s south coast. Rhapsodic reviews took it to the off-West End Hampstead Theatre a year later for a sold-out run, and then into the West End where its star, Sharon D. Clarke won the Olivier (her third) for her explosive performance in the title role.

The show’s New York incarnation will not be 40-year-old Longhurst’s Broadway debut. That came almost seven years ago with the U.S. premiere of “Constellations,” Nick Payne’s time-splitting, life-and-death two-hander about a quantum physicist and a beekeeper, which starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Ruth Wilson. That was the play to which Longhurst returned the moment the U.K’s COVID restrictions were lifted in June. It opened in a West End revival with a unique twist: the limited three-month run had not one but four diverse casts. (The production, with all four casts, can be streamed digitally this month at the Donmar’s website.)

The idea sprang initially from practicality. Like all directors, he was looking for a small-cast show because the fewer the people, the smaller the potential for infection possibilities. But as soon as he re-considered the play, which is built around the idea of parallel universes, he began having ideas.

“Theater has been rightly examining itself around who gets to make and tell stories,” he says. “Up to this point I’ve only directed ‘Constellations’ with white thirtysomethings. It became really exciting to think bigger — not just the chemistry between actors but the identities of the play’s couple. How much could that change how audiences receive the story?”

Its 70-minute running time meant they could run 12 performances a week using two casts. If one cast were to become unable to perform due to illness, others would automatically be available. This ultimately proved unnecessary, but since U.K. commercial theater troupes have been given neither lump sums nor insurance to protect them from infection closures, this was an incredibly inventive safety measure.

Longhurst’s first two couples were young Black actors Sheila Atim (Olivier-winner for “Girl from the North Country”) and Ivanno Jeremiah, and older white couple Zoë Wanamaker (double Olivier winner and four-time Tony nominee) and BAFTA-winner Peter Capaldi (“Dr. Who”). The second half of the run was played by a mixed-race couple of out gay actors Omari Douglas (“It’s A Sin”) and Russell Tovey (“Looking”), with the quartet rounded out by fortysomething screen actors Anna Maxwell Martin (“Bleak House,” “Line of Duty”) and Chris O’Dowd (“Get Shorty,” “Girls.”)

Longhurst points to the contrasts in seeing Douglas and Wanamaker in the same role. “It’s the difference between a newly graduated Ph.D. student and someone who would have lived through the birth of string theory. The way mortality and love is experienced at different life stages becomes keenly focused.”

Looking at the wider theater landscape, he speaks strongly about looking at who gets to write and direct. “It’s important that we make space to shift commissioning budgets to where they should be,” he insists. “But it’s also pleasing to know that Nick, a working-class white boy from Luton, has written this character and that Sheila Atim can just go, ‘This feels like me and I can put myself squarely in this. There’s a universality that I can draw on.’”

He’s also proud of how the production has drawn different audiences keen to see versions of themselves. “It’s really affecting to see yourself represented on stage if you haven’t before. Speaking personally, I find it incredibly moving to watch the gay couple, and in not ‘a gay play’: Nobody dies of AIDS, it’s not about open relationships going wrong or all those sorts of stories that’s I’m so used to being told are the most important things about my identity.”

At the same time, Longhurst has continued as artistic director of the Donmar, the 250-seater in Covent Garden that Stephen Sondheim once declared to be “the greatest theater in the English-speaking world.” Ten months into the job when the shutters came down, he has found novel ways of producing work, including Adam Brace’s solo piece “Midnight Your Time,” a portrait of long-distance motherhood with Diana Quick that he first directed ten years ago and which he re-conceived as a succession of video messages by the mother. The online production was then streamed worldwide. And then there was “Blindness,” which he notes has been “a way for theaters to re-open when they can.”

Like most in the industry, he balks at the idea of seeing advantages deriving from COVID but is excited by the increased access of online initiatives. “A hundred thousand people usually see the Donmar work in a year. Twenty-five thousand alone watched Diana’s piece, and far more saw ‘Blindness.’”

He’s further invigorated by what audiences will experience when they return to the Donmar venue, which has had a major renovation. “I’m being rude, but the Donmar was slightly being held up with Sellotape,” he jokes. The building will now have much more open space and be open throughout the day, and he’s lined up a season of four new plays that will carry the company through May 22.

As a director almost exclusively of new plays (with “Amadeus” as a notable exception), “Caroline, or Change” is an unusual proposition for him. But having missed George C. Wolfe’s original production, he’s felt free to make his own choices about how to present the material.

“It’s an astonishing story,” he says. “The combined force of Tony [Kushner] and Jeanine [Tesori] – it’s thrilling the way they complement and challenge each other. And, once again, Tony turns out to be a prophet. In a domestic setting he tells the story of a whole society in a single moment, and he’s pegged it all on a statue being pulled down.”

Longhurst considers himself privileged to be able to put this story on Broadway at this precise moment, pointing to its engrossing complexity and the portrait it draws: “Not just of Caroline, but that whole family and of the nuances of race relations in that period, how privilege is taken for granted, how offense is caused. Caroline’s journey is tragic, but her struggle is acknowledged by the next generation.”

He’s welcoming the opportunity to once again refine his production with its band of 14 and strong cast. Happily, he knows he doesn’t have to work on the central performance, since Clark, his star, is fired up and ready to go.

That part of the job, for him, is simple. “I can’t wait to give her the Broadway platform she deserves.”

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