I am escorted through the ultra modern gallery of the Jerwood Space, a Pollack splash away from Tate Modern, and into the intense rehearsal room for the Donmar Warehouse's latest production, Grand Hotel -- The Musical. Based on the Vicki Baum novel, with the book by Luther Davis and music and lyrics by Robert Wright, George Forrest and additional material by Maury Yeston, the Grand Hotel in question is in the Berlin of 1928. The German economy is recovering after years of post-war starvation and hardship, and despite outrageous reparation demands from the allied powers through the Treaty of Versailles.
The Berlin stock market is sky high as investors gamble on the prosperity of a defeated nation, unaware that the Wall Street Crash in the United States and the Great Depression of Europe is only a few months away. Adolf Hitler, the army lance corporal turned political prisoner has secretly scribbled the last chapters of Mein Kampf whilst a decadent lifestyle of excess and consumption is enjoyed by a select Berlinese few. It is this world that the Donmar Warehouse production of Grand Hotel is trying to capture with a multi-talented cast of seventeen actors and a seven-piece orchestra.
Michael Grandage as director is drawing together the pieces of this vast enterprise and transferring what was last performed in the early nineties as a blockbuster extravaganza at the Dominion Theatre, London , into an intimate experience for the environs of the Donmar Warehouse. I am here, though, to interview one of the stars of this particular production. Daniel Evans plays Otto Kringelein, a book-keeper from the Berlin provinces, who discovers that illness threatens his mundane life and who decides to cash in all his savings. What should he spend it on but a glorious swansong in the heady luxury of Berlin 's Grand Hotel. Evans refuses to give away the plot, but hints that all does not turn out the way Kringelein expects.
Evans is himself a mercurial figure, with black black eyes and a facial growth that turns this handsome young man into the period oddity he chooses to portray. No stranger to the Donmar Warehouse, Evans appeared in their acclaimed Merrily We Roll Along of 2001; it is however as Ariel in The Tempest, starring Derek Jacobi and also directed by Grandage, that Evans is embedded in my memory. This many-faceted actor is as enigmatic in performance as he appears in real life.
We talk easily about the rehearsal process, about Evans's background and the demands of this production. Evans creates a picture of the narrative of forty eight hours in the life of an hotel, where rich and poor work and reside, only to leave and continue their lives elsewhere. The nomadic nature of the hotel clientele is highlighted by the six intertwining narratives of the musical. Evans sees the whole as producing a 'microcosm' of Germany in the 1920s. Is there a polemic behind all this? 'No, it's not like Cabaret with overt references to the rise of the fascists -- it is more personal but with the historical reality of a boom and bust economy.' Perhaps Grand Hotel really is relevant to our own time after all.
It is Grandage's approach to this production which is foremost in Evan's mind. 'Michael really focuses on the actors -- on the characters themselves.' It is this concern with 'actors' and not 'musical performers' that distinguishes Grandage's directorial style. 'The Donmar production is one that concentrates on the tensions within the situations.' It is situation which determines the unfolding narrative. Narrative is not the link between song and dance routine; it is the structure within which these additional entertainment factors evolve and complement the whole.
Of course, Evans is eager to add that there is 'glitz' in this show; any production with an orchestra and great singer/dancer/actors is bound to have the wow-factor. On the Donmar stage this has to be condensed: 'Adam Cooper is choreographing the show' adds Evans, 'and he is magnificent at condensing and integrating the dance routines into the characters and the situations -- there is no "dance for dance sake".'
Evans convincingly destroys the argument of those detractors who have voiced concerns that the Donmar space is more 'Grand Motel' than Grand Hotel. 'There is a philosophy and a style behind this production -- by concentrating on the actors and characters in the story it removes the need for huge production numbers.' Grandage's grand design is certainly one which has proved successful in the past. The great acting musicals are those that reinterpret and re-present their material using dramatic skills that are all too easily glossed over or masked by the glitz, glamour and non-substance of the traditional blockbuster musical. The Donmar have obviously made a shrewd move here, and just because tradition has dictated that mass entertainment means brash entertainment doesn't mean that an intelligent and narrative-specific approach isn't the way forward for a reappraisal of the musical genre.
What of Evans himself? How come he has such a talent for musical performance? It goes without saying that Evans betrays his roots with his mellifluous and undiluted Welsh accent. 'I'm from the Rhondda Valley --Welsh is my first language' he muses, spelling ' Rhondda ' with the ease and resignation of a Welshman used to giving his address to an Englishman. 'My father and my grandfather and my great grandfather were miners, serious working class people.' I cheekily suggest it is a national trait that all Wels h people are good singers. 'I suppose they are -- I remember my father singing me to sleep at nights, and I have a history in the Chapel choirs and the Eisteddfods.'
Evans also enthuses about his new-found hobby, academic study: 'I've completed my foundation course for the Open University and think I shall take a degree in Philosophy -- I left school and went straight to drama college, and then into the business -- I haven't stretched my mind -- until now.' Evans is as excited about his personal voyage of discovery as he is about the discovery of his character within Grand Hotel.
What about the rehearsal process itself? How is that different? 'We didn't have a read-through, we just jumped into learning the music -- we spent the first week learning our songs.' Evans admits this can be frightening and daunting for an actor, but the process aids the gradual building of a character. 'The songs complement this character-building without dictating it.' Evans acknowledges the joy of working once again with Grandage: 'We have a shorthand -- we can communicate symbiotically.'
Obviously a huge fan of his director, Evans describes Grandage's 'greatest skill': 'He marries the acting and the text -- integrates them -- so there is no extraneous affectation; all the acting is done "on the lines", responding in the moment but also within the text.' I ask him to explain what this means in practical terms. 'It means an actor doesn't indulge him or herself by crying for half an hour and then delivering one line.' It is this 'responding in the moment' which distances traditional musical delivery and the artistic whole which Grandage is seeking for the Donmar's Grand Hotel.
What is it that makes Grandage so good as an actor's director? Evans highlights how important it is 'to give notes; it is not enough to know the right note to give -- the good director also knows instinctively when to give it.' 'Too soon and the whole creative process can be destroyed -- given at the right stage and with the right guidance, an actor can feel safe to explore and make mistakes.' Evans agrees that this also means a director must trust his actors and have the self confidence to know he can eventually draw together the finished product without compromising his overall artistic vision.
I leave Evans to continue his exhausting rehearsal day, and ask for a final thought about this production and what he would like to say to a prospective audience. He eagerly accepts the challenge and simply and sincerely asks everyone to 'leave behind your prejudices about musical theatre in general and this musical in particular -- whatever you think Grand Hotel is and whatever you think it may be about -- and just come and enjoy a hilarious evening with show-stopping numbers and high-kicks.' An hilarious evening of song, dance, and intelligent acting is a devastating combination. Knowing the Donmar's impeccable reputation, I personally can't wait to see it.
Kevin Quarmby © 2004