Michael Blakemore, director of both 2000 Tony Award winners - Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (Best Play) and Kiss Me, Kate (Best Revival, Musical) - is experiencing deju vu. Ten years ago, he was director-nominated for Peter Shaffer's Lettice and Lovage and the film-noir musical City of Angels. (He won Drama Desk Awards for direction of both shows.)

Three years ago, he was nominated as director for The Life, that very American musical about naughty, bawdy 42nd Street. On its long road to Broadway, director/choreographer Joe Layton died and Blakemore stepped in. Co-star Lillias White was taken aback "that this Brit (actually an Australian), was going to direct. I thought, `Wait a minute! What does he know about the subject?' But he knocked our socks off. He was so insightful, accessible and correct. He brought a fresh point of view and such a sense of humor that he added new elements to a dark piece."

This season, he's directed two American-themed productions: a deep and intellectual play and a musical that's pure fun and whimsy. And he's spent nine months doing it. In fact, he's spent considerable time here over the last 11 years, but that, he claims, isn't the reason he's so in touch with American sensibilities.

"Though I've worked the bulk of my life in England, I'm Australian. Our counties are different but have more in common than England and America. I was always attracted to American writers, such as S.J. Perleman, and playwrights; and, temperamentally, I'm more in touch with American culture. It's a great deal easier getting in tune with your culture than, say, an American trying to plug into French culture."

Blakemore, speaking of The Life, explained he had no experience with drugs and prostitution, "but I know what it's about." He was "terribly drawn" to City of Angels because of his love of Hollywood film noir. "I grew up under the influence of the great age of Hollywood movies."

With Kate, which he saw in the 50s West End production, Blakemore was motivated by the music. Copenhagen was different. "It's a play about concepts and ideas, and you have to grasp those ideas. I went to pains to understand, at least, everything Michael discussed. I didn't have to become a nuclear physicist, but I needed to know the scientific concepts - as, indeed, did the actors." It was easier, says Blakemore, "since I had rudimentary science and studied medicine, with no great success, for three years."

Blakemore was delighted to cast Copenhagen with American actors "because I wanted to see the play through the lens of the American temperament to get a more emotional and explosive quality, which wouldn't necessarily be better than the English cast but would be different. Indeed, that's the case and, rightly so, since the subject matter belongs more to America than Britain."

"Writing in theater is not the whole thing," says Blakemore, "but you have to pay attention to the writing to realize what you're given. Once the director realizes the possibilities of what's on the page, he can extend the work by adding touches the writer didn't dream of."

It must be fun to go from directing something so serious, as is Copenhagen, to Kate, which is so high-spirited. "Actually, it's the reverse. When directing something serious, I like to direct my points through humor. Often there's a great deal more laughter in the rehearsal room than when you're doing a comedy. Comedy is very serious! It's either funny or it's not. No argument."

Blakemore was also Tony-nominated for his direction of the hit farce, Noises Off, also by Frayn, and Joe Egg. Off Broadway, he directed the Woody Allen/David Mamet/Elaine May one-acts, Death Defying Acts. He'll be here for the Tonys, but he has "no plans to return for any extended periods. My family's gallantly done without me for some time, but, if I come over to do another couple of shows, it's at the risk of divorce." He'll drop in occasionally to check on his two shows "because I like to personally participate in anything where my name's involved. And if they continue to do well, we'll be considering recasting and tours. Some shows are easier to get casts into quickly, but Copenhagen's a difficult play and it takes times to prepare the actors." At home, he's directing the Almeida Theatre production of Arthur Miller's Mr. Peter's Connections, seen here Off Broadway starring Peter Falk, and back at work again on a memoir (following his popular, thinly-disguised novel "Next Season") which focuses on his early years in England as actor and fledgling novelist. His New Yorker "diary" of working with three such different playwrights on Death Defying Acts was delightful - actually, more funny than the play.

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Key Subjects: 
Michael Blakemore, Copenhagen; Kiss Me, Kate
Writer: 
Ellis Nassour
Writer Bio: 
Ellis Nassour contributes entertainment features here and abroad. He is the author of "Rock Opera: the Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline," and an associate editor and a contributing writer (film, music, theater) to Oxford University Press' American National Biography (1999).
Date: 
May 2000