“Theatre is totally unique… there’s simply nothing else quite like it”: An interview with Sir Howard Panter as the new cast of Jersey Boys opens at Trafalgar Theatre
August marks one year since Trafalgar Entertainment reopened their newly renovated Trafalgar Theatre (previously Trafalgar Studios) and with it brought Jersey Boys back to the West End stage. This week the production opened with a new cast, hosting a gala night to showcase the team.
The Upcoming were delighted to chat to producer of the show and owner of the theatre Sir Howard Panter about all things Jersey Boys and Trafalgar Entertainment.
For the readers who don’t know you, could you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m Howard Panter, a theatre producer, theatre owner and lifelong theatre fan! Along with my wife and business partner, Rosemary Squire, we are the joint CEOs of Trafalgar Entertainment, a global live entertainment business focused on new productions, venue ownership (15 theatres in the UK and Australia), performing arts education and the distribution of live-streaming innovative content.
Before Trafalgar Entertainment, Rosie and I built from scratch and ran, for its first 25 years, the world’s largest and most successful live theatre businesses – the Ambassador Theatre Group. Theatre is our life, and the greatest reward of all is keeping people entertained, night after night. Theatre is totally unique: it’s a shared live experience, it brings people together and there’s simply nothing else quite like it. My love for the industry goes back a long way, with over 40 years of experience gained in organisations such as the Royal Court Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company and Michael Codron Ltd. I’ve also been involved in other ways, as chairman of the English Shakespeare Company and director of West End theatre owners Maybox Group PLC. As chairman of Rambert Dance Company, the UK’s leading national contemporary dance company, we successfully built an award-winning new dance centre on the South Bank, leading the company into a new era of success and stability. I’m also director of the Rocky Horror Company Limited (a show which I adore!) and chairman of the Birmingham Rep Theatre.
How was Trafalgar Entertainment born?
In 2016, Rosie and I took a step back from ATG to focus on new projects. Still passionate about theatre and the provision of unique live experiences, we wanted to expand further into the entertainment sector, not only by producing theatre shows for the stage but through the distribution of specialised content to cinemas worldwide and the nurturing of new theatre talent through performing arts education. With that in mind, Rosie and I co-founded TE in 2017, with the purchase of Trafalgar Studios (now Trafalgar Theatre) and the acquisition of Picturehouse Entertainment – known now as Trafalgar Releasing – which operates in more than 120 countries worldwide. A year later, we purchased the global brand, Stagecoach Performing Arts, the UK market leader in extra-curricular performing arts tuition with over 2,000 schools and classes and over 60,000 students in the UK and worldwide. Both Trafalgar Releasing and Stagecoach formed the building blocks of TE and would have a huge influence on where the business would go next. The company was born out of a lifelong love for theatre and entertainment.
What is your TEG Production bucket list of shows?
We have a number of new musical projects in the works, including a major Hollywood film adaptation. And, following the huge success of Anything Goes, we are producing this great show globally.
Once you’ve agreed on a show, how long does the process usually take, from script to stage?
For a musical, it can be anything from one to three years. For a play, it can be a much quicker turnaround – a matter of months from decision to rehearsal. It all depends on the scale of the show and when the people are available as well as the theatre.
Why did you choose to revive Jersey Boys? What drew you to that script?
I love Jersey Boys! It’s a fantastic, feel-good show with timeless songs such as Beggin’, Sherry, Walk Like A Man, and Oh What a Night – songs that are engrained in popular music. And we’ve worked with the show’s producers before on a previous production. The creative team behind the original Jersey Boys production, led by Tony award-winning director Des McAnuff and Tony award-winning choreographer Sergio Trujillo, have reunited for the new successful London production. Written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with music by Bob Gaudio and lyrics by Bob Crewe, the musical is based on the rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
Jersey Boys is also a great story of survival and overcoming the odds, and I think that it is really important in the current climate, following Covid and everything else going on in the world, to have positive, uplifting true stories. We thought that it was the kind of the show that would bring a sense of confidence and a sense of wellbeing back to the West End, and it was the perfect show to reopen Trafalgar Theatre, following a multimillion-pound renovation project to return the theatre to its 1930s art deco glory. The theatre is now home to the London production of Jersey Boys and audiences are loving it! The show is now celebrating its one-year anniversary of performance at Trafalgar Theatre this week. Alongside the anniversary celebrations, we are welcoming new cast members to the show. Luke Suri, recently the alternate Frankie Valli in the UK and Ireland tour of the production, made his West End debut in the role in July. Luke joins Adam Bailey as Bob Gaudio, Karl James Wilson as Nick Massi, and Benjamin Yates as Tommy De Vito, who are all continuing on the show.
What has been your involvement in selecting this new cast?
We were very keen to give new graduate performers an opportunity to come into this exciting fresh new production of Jersey Boys for the West End. There is a huge amount of talent in the UK, and we wanted to give them a chance to play these iconic roles in the red jackets alongside some more established performers in the other roles.
Can you tell us a bit about the efforts TEG is making to promote diversity in theatre?
Our regional venues have been doing some great local community activities, providing different cultural events whilst offering creative and appealing content to engage and encourage new audiences. For example, in recent years, the Beck Theatre in Hayes, West London, has seen a substantial evolution in its demographics and now sits as one of the most diverse areas in West London. The Beck team has increasingly worked directly with diverse artists to create live shows for the stage that are culturally relevant to its audience. This has seen them present some extraordinary events and rapidly build new audiences in a short space of time. During Pride month, the Chiswick Cinema supported the West London Queer Project, and the Orchard Theatre in Dartford hosted the first ever Dartford Pride event, amongst other projects. We’ve also been working with school programmes to raise awareness of opportunities within the industry, and we have an EDI policy in place along with a working group from across all areas of the business to ensure we are focussed on continual improvement around this area.
What advice would you give to someone looking to follow in your footsteps?
Relationships are essential to everything. Try to build relationships with people you respect and you think you’ll develop lifelong working relationships with. Michael Codron was very important to me; I worked with him as a company stage manager, and he knew what he was doing and was right at the centre of new writing. It was a great experience working with someone who really understood how the commercial theatre worked – he’s unrivalled, still, as a play producer in his lifetime. Determination, resilience and belief in yourself are other powerful attributes that will serve you well.
What does a typical day look like for you?
We start by reviewing the sales from yesterday across all our shows and venues – the best guide to what is working and what audiences are enjoying. Then, there’s likely to be a schedule of meetings with colleagues across our production, marketing and development departments; potentially a lunch or coffee with a key collaborator (another producer, director or perhaps even performers) followed by a chance to work on any more detailed points arising from the morning in the afternoon. In the evening, I’m often meeting collaborators or perhaps taking key investors or guests to see a show. The job is all about collaboration with people!
Can you recall the moment you decided to follow this career path?
My love for theatre has been a lifelong passion. From my early days as a budding producer to building two of the world’s biggest entertainment companies. My first unpaid job was as a drummer for the group the Norsemen in Iwerne Minster, Dorset. One of my earliest jobs was as a lighting designer with the London Contemporary Dance Theatre. From there, I pursued a career in stage management with the Royal Court Theatre and then went on to work for Woodfall Films, where, in 1969, I worked as associate director on a production of Hamlet, starring Nicol Williamson as Hamlet and Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia. At LAMDA I was stage manager, production manager, lighting designer and designer – everything; at the London Contemporary Dance Company. I was all the technical and design departments rolled into one. All these roles set me on my theatre journey.
What are your hopes for TEG in the next five years?
Following the opening of our first international venue, Theatre Royal Sydney, last year, a priority is to grow the theatre landscape in Australia, and collaborate with leading producers and promoters across our industry networks worldwide to establish a diverse programme of first-class theatre productions across Australia and the wider Asia-Pacific region. The plan aims to increase our production output, develop new venues and bring the very best of international and Australian theatre to the people of Australia. In the UK, a main focus for us will be the development of Olympia Theatre in London, which will be the biggest new permanent 1,575-seat theatre to open in London since the 1970s, as part of the £1.3 billion Olympia development. Our acquisition of the 70-year lease to operate the theatre is part of a broader ambition by TE to create new venues of national stature. But we’re always on the lookout for new investment or acquisition opportunities, whether that’s in the UK or overseas. We have a great team of people working with us on business development projects and we have some ambitious plans for the company’s future growth.
If our readers wanted to get in touch, where could they go?
Readers can get in touch via the contact form on our website www.trafalgarentertainment.com.
Jersey Boys is at Trafalgar Theatre from 10th August until 30th April 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.
Watch a trailer for the show here: