Global Entertainment  

Kenny Wax is one of the country’s leading theatre producers with Six and The Show Goes Wrong series under his belt among many other productions. Susan Elkin meets him.

Kenny Wax, 54, is a very focused man. Yes, the pandemic has made his life quite difficult, but the long gap means, he tells me, that “shows are stacking up” so his organisation is now pretty busy. 

Coming imminently, for example, is a new nationwide tour of Bugsy Malone and that’s breaking new ground. “There have been professional productions before, of course, and hundreds of amateur ones but ours is the first professional tour” says Kenny, telling me that he has loved the show since childhood and, more recently, has fond memories of his daughter as Bugsy in her school play. “We’re co-producing with Danny Moore and Birmingham Rep and we open at Theatre Royal Bath on 02 July.”

The show’s USP is, of course, that it needs a juvenile cast. “Our decision is to have all the principals played by under-16s who require chaperones and can work only restricted hours, so we have three teams,” explains Kenny. The rest of the cast – the ensemble – are young professionals and I’m really glad we’re providing work for them. We call the two groups our ‘unders’ and ‘overs’.”

Kenny is also delighted that his family show Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World promises to pack a powerful message, will tour after a five-week run at Theatre Royal, Stratford East opening on 15 June. “Based on a book by Kate Packenham, it’s a girl power, pop musical like Six” he says. And he’s so enthusiastic – he shows me pictures on his iPad – about his forthcoming show Identical (Styles and Drewe), inspired by The Parent Trap and opening at Nottingham Playhouse in August that I’ve arranged to review it almost before I’ve left the building. 

Said building is a calm oasis in Kean Street – a few minutes walk from Theatre Royal Drury Lane and the bustling buzz of Covent Garden. Kenny Wax Limited – he has a staff of 35 – occupies a light, airy space on the eighth floor. Kenny and I are talking over mugs of tea in his understated, glass walled office at one end of it.

I point out that “producer” is a slippery word. Once it meant the director of the show and often still does on the radio. How does Kenny define it today? “We employ everyone – that’s the simplest way of explaining it” replies Kenny, who has clearly answered this question many times before. “A show will start here. We commission it. Then we pay the writer, the designers – everyone. We buy the rights and we take the risk. We then work out the best way of seeding it into the market, it’s a great deal more than just investing money although sometimes that’s a good thing to do. I don’t want to list dozens of co-producers on a show’s credits, but sometimes people put in relatively small amounts and lose it if the show doesn’t do much, but if it takes off then the dividends can be substantial – like investing in anything else really”.

Kenny Wax Limited specialises in comedy, musicals, family shows and entertainment. “We don’t do Ibsen or Shakespeare – there are plenty of other companies doing that very well” says Kenny, who believes that at present people are desperate for a good time – high quality escapist stuff. “Six, for example, sells out wherever it goes although The Magic That Goes Wrong is hard work” he says, adding that they’ve just booked another tour for The Play That Goes Wrong.

Some of Kenny’s employees are designated tour bookers and his company, because it has the expertise and the contacts, often books tours for other people’s shows. Other departments deal with performance rights and news of a new project is breaking even as I sit there. Kenny Wax Ltd has always worked a lot with the education sector and, the day after I met Kenny, they were announcing the launch of Six-Teen – a schools’ version of Six with options to work with provided backing tracks rather than a live band and to build in an ensemble. “We try to be as flexible and as inclusive as possible” he says.

“Mischief Theatre Company and the The Play that Goes Wrong have become a worldwide brand” says Kenny, happily adding that it has played in every continent except Antarctica. 

And, as he observes with a big smile, lightning really can strike twice because the same thing is happening with Six, which sold out in the West End, on Broadway and in Canberra. It is currently playing on two Norwegian Cruise Ships, in Chicago, on a US tour and in Las Vegas. An English company, meanwhile, is taking it to China, Japan and the Philippines. It’s also scheduled for a series of performances at Hampton Court and audiences of 10,000 this summer with the original Queens in the cast – all six of them for three performances. “Perhaps Fantastically Great Women Who Changed the World will be similar?” he says. 

So where did Kenny’s involvement in theatre start? “I grew up in Manchester and was taken to live theatre a lot by my parents. I took part in a few school shows too but didn’t seem to have the talent for performance” he recalls. “Then in 1985 I saw Me and My Girl in London and that was the turning point. I loved it and started to think about how wonderful it would be to be the person who makes all that happen”.

Then he did a four-year Business Studies degree in London. “The third year was an industry placement and I tried to get something in theatre but ended up in Dixons in Edgware Road – which taught me that I definitely didn’t want to do that!” Meanwhile Kenny’s brother Derek who now works as an award-winning TV producer was beginning to make a name as a director – “a very clever man” – and that helped to focus Kenny’s mind. 

“When I graduated, I persuaded my parents that I could spend a year trying to get into theatre producing and I started by doing front of house on Miss Saigon at Drury Lane which meant I could attend rehearsals and meet people. Then I worked as a runner for an agent in Leicester Square, which got me into every producer’s office and I worked at New London Theatre on Cats – doing any job which needed doing”.

He also worked for Cameron Macintosh as a runner and asked him if he could talk to him about producing. “Cameron was very generous with his time and taught me a lot” says Kenny. “That’s why I try to advise and mentor any aspirant producer who approaches me now – it’s fair to pass it on”.

Then Kenny produced Sunday Nights at King’s Head Theatre and began to produce one play a year. Top Hat, which won an the Evening Standard “Best Night Out” Award in 2011 and three Olivier awards in 2013, was a big milestone. “Today we produce ten or eleven a year” he says adding that you need a team. “It’s a journey and you gradually build respect – I’m even working with Trevor Nunn – industry royalty! – now.”  He says several times that you can only find out what you need to know by getting in there and doing it. “You can’t learn any of this stuff on a university degree” he tells me firmly. Perhaps that’s something teachers might bear in mind when they offer careers advice?  020 7437 1736

SIX:TEEN is available for licensing in the UK for amateur schools performance with cast aged under 19.