By Jeremy Miles
Standing on stage at the London Palladium, Michael Rose surveys the auditorium and shakes his head in deliriously-happy disbelief.
All around him is the clatter of a show coming together. Riggers, lighting and sound designers and even computer experts are racing against the clock. He stares out into the auditorium which is undergoing a much-needed re-fit.
The seats are lying in chaotic piles of topsy-turvy red velvet. Around the stage there are huge pieces of half-built scenery, while several feet beneath it technicians scurry back and forth testing a bank of computers and several tons of hydraulics.
It all looks an unfathomable mess but there is a tangible sense of optimism in the air. Somehow everyone knows that it will be all right on the night.
"It's so exciting," enthuses Rose. He's right, and five weeks later the unfathomable mess has been transformed into the magical makings of a show that is likely to go down in the annals of theatrical history.
This a dream come true for Rose who 15 years ago was struggling to make ends meet running a fringe theatre company out of a modest office in New Milton.
Today he's a leading theatrical producer with a sizeable stake in what promises to be the biggest, most spectacular musical ever to play the West End .
As co-producer of the first stage adaptation of the classic children's story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, it looks as though Rose has made it, big time!
The show, which begins a series of previews on Tuesday prior to its official world premiere on April 16, has already taken more than £5million in advance bookings.
It boasts a cast of household names including Michael Ball, Brian Blessed, Nichola McAuliffe and Richard O'Brien and is directed by Royal Shakespeare Company artistic director Adrian Noble. The choreography is by Gillian Lynne who includes shows like Cats and Phantom of the Opera on her CV.
What's more, it has the kind of special effects that are already leaving seasoned veterans with their jaws firmly on the floor.
When the technical rehearsals finally unveiled the full splendour of the greatest flying car ever to be launched from a London stage, onlookers might have been forgiven for thinking 007 himself could have been at the wheel.
But that's not surprising. The principal producers behind the show are Eon Productions operated by Dana and Barbara Broccoli, widow and daughter respectively of legendary Bond movies producer Cubby Broccoli.
And, of course, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang originally started life as a children's story by James Bond author Ian Fleming.
It tells of the family and friends of dotty inventor Caractacus Potts (played by Michael Ball) and their adventures in a magic car as they battle to outwit a dastardly baron and evil child catcher.
Rose says everyone working on the show has been astounded at the sheer high-tech wizardry of the production.
"It's bigger, it's more magical than anything I've ever seen. You sit there and you are just amazed.
"It's overwhelming. The very word that Barbara used the other day was 'unbelievable', and from her that's quite something. They don't do things by halves at Eon Productions."
Indeed Ms Broccoli is dividing her time between the set of the new Bond film and the technical rehearsals at the Palladium.
Even as I talk to Rose he takes a call from her car en route to Pinewood. She might be about to help 007 save the planet from world domination yet again but she still wants the latest update on Chitty.
Despite his success Michael Rose is not the sort of producer who wields a fat cigar and a heavy attitude.
A likeable forty-something, he still operates his production business from a home and office he shares with his partner, David Morgan, on the outskirts of Bournemouth.
Although they have produced a string of national and international shows including Marlene with Sian Phillips; The Lion In Winter with David McCallum; Sweet Charity with Bonnie Langford and La Cava with Oliver Tobias, Rose is probably still best known locally for his annual pantomimes at Poole Arts Centre.
THE easy smiles of Bournemouth based theatrical producer Michael Rose and his partner David Morgan betray little of the hard slog that has taken them to the top of their chosen profession.
Standing in the auditorium of New York’s vast Hilton Theatre they watch as a team of set painters apply the finishing touches to the backdrop for the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
In exactly six hours the curtain will go up on the official Broadway opening night of this blockbuster family show.
It has long been a huge success in the West End and has already previewed for a month in New York. Unfortunately a last minute mishap with the sprinkler system has flooded the orchestra pit, drenched a bank of computers and, worst of all, caused the sky and clouds against which the famous Chitty Chitty Bang Bang car flies, to smudge and run. Hence the painters.
Rose and Morgan take it in their stride. In 21 years in the business they’ve seen it all. In a roller coaster ride that has taken them from triumph to disaster and back again (several times) they have on occasions come close to losing both their business and their home.
Now as co-producers of the biggest musical in the biggest theatre on Broadway they are in a position that once they could only have dreamed of. So what if there’s a last minute hitch? They’re lucky to be there, part of a creative team that includes Eon Productions headed by Barbara Broccoli, daughter of the late James Bond producer Cubby Broccoli.
Chitty was of course originally written by Bond author Ian Fleming and, although it’s a children’s story, you don’t have to dig far beneath the surface to discover many parallels with his 007 adventures.
The good guys use a flying car and extraordinary gadgets to defeat a megalomanic foreign power, a crazed Baron, his child-hating wife and their evil henchmen. The heroine, Truly Scrumptious, even has a Bond style name, albeit a squeaky clean one.
Despite years of producing or co-producing shows including The Boyfriend, Steel Magnolias, Hot Shoe Shuffle, Tap Dogs and of course Chitty in both London and on tour , Rose and Morgan have always stayed loyal to their provincial base in Dorset. They still bring shows to Lighthouse in Poole and for more than a decade have produced the annual pantomime there.
Indeed the last time I met David Morgan he was standing by the side of the Lighthouse stage holding Brian Cant’s wig during a press call for last year’s festive offering Beauty and the Beast. They may be loving every minute of being part of the latest big thing on Broadway but they’re certainly aren’t taking anything for granted.
“It’s just unbelievable,” says Rose gazing towards the stage. “There’s so much luck involved in this business and we’ve certainly had our ups and downs but somehow everytime we’ve done something wrong or had a big disaster, we’ve learned something from it which has protected us the next time around.”
Chitty came hot on the heels of two difficult West End shows – Marlene and Sweet Charity. They were high quality, high profile productions that should have boosted the business reputation of their company, Michael Rose Ltd. But the pair found themselves on the receiving end of some extremely ruthless business practices. In the space of a few months they were threatened with a winding-up order and nearly lost their home. It was a tough time and Rose admits that for a while “I was in a terrible state. I just fell apart”. With hindsight though he’s convinced it was for the best.
“I’m sure we could never have produced Chitty Chitty Bang Bang unless we’d gone through that tutorial. They were low and difficult times but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger and we came out of the other side of that experience far better equipped than we had ever been before. It was an expensive education but now I look back and think it was meant to be.”
Posing for photographs outside the theatre amid the bustle of New York’s famed 42nd Street, they admit they have come very, long way since they first established an office in the roof a tiny house on the outskirts of Christchurch.
“We couldn’t afford to put stairs in and every time the phone rang we had to climb up on a chair and hoist ourselves up through the loft hatch,” recalls Morgan. Quite how far they have travelled is perhaps indicated by the fact that when I called their mobile the evening before they had told me they were “in a shop on Fifth Avenue.”
Now, face to face, they admit that the “shop” in question was none other than Tiffany’s. “...but you don’t want to sound too ostentatious do you?”
They certainly believe in keeping their feet firmly on the ground, acutely aware that success in the theatre is a notoriously fickle affair.
“You never stop learning in this business. The moment you reckon you have is the moment you will fall flat on your face,” says Rose. “Our industry can be extraordinarily cruel. When you’re in you’re in when your not, you’re out. It’s as simple as that.”
That evening we are among guests at the gala opening night and Chitty is an absolute triumph. It’s principal stars - Raul Esparza, Erin Dilly, Philip Bosco, Marc Kudisch and Jan Maxwell may be unknown in the UK but they’re seasoned veterans of the Broadway stage and produce a magnificent performance.
After the show we are driven across midtown to a lavish celebration at the Hilton Hotel. The party, held in a huge Chitty-themed ballroom, is attended by the cast, various showbiz insiders and literally hundreds of guests. It’s an exotic affair, complete with pulsating dance music, fine food and wines, stilt-walking waiters and waitresses and even an impressive little model train delivering a variety of fruit jellies laced with generous slugs of vodka. It’s a great evening and as people gradually let their hair down the only remaining concern seems to be what all-powerful New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley is going to say in tomorrow morning’s paper.
I fall into conversation with a woman who tells me she has money invested in Chitty. “Yeah OK, it was a great show but it’s also an expensive show,” she explains. “It has to take $600,000 dollars a week just to break even. We need Brentley to say something good in fact we need all the help we can get.”
To set her mind at rest she is trying to download what appears to be the entire arts coverage of tomorrow’s New York Times onto her cell phone. I point out it’s still only 10.15 in the evening.”
Eventually she gives up. “Guess I’ll have to wait until tomorrow,” she says sulkily.
She needn’t have worried. the next morning Chitty receives a rave review. There’s a huge picture and several hundred words of unstinting praise from Mr Brentley.
*Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is currently playing the Palladium Theatre in Argyll Street, London W1. Call 020 7494 5573 and The Hilton Theatre in in W. 42nd Street, New York. Call 212 307 4100 or www.ChittytheMusical.com