City Theatre wants a bite of the Big Apple

Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire'Ambassador Theatre group
Howard Panter and Rosemary Squire'Ambassador Theatre group
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DIRECT From Broadway. Three words you could be seeing more often if Howard Panter has his way.

Howard Panter is joint chief executive of the Ambassadors Theatre Group (ATG), owners of the Edinburgh Playhouse which, the Evening News can exclusively reveal, he plans to turn into Scotland’s very own West End.

Sitting in his London office, overlooking the theatre land he hopes to emulate here, the energetic 62-year-old offers: “There is no reason why the Edinburgh Playhouse should not become the West End of Scotland.

“Somewhere with significant runs of shows, which attracts audiences locally and from a much larger region in the same way that London West End shows attract audiences from a far wider region.”

The plan is simple: Bring big shows and audiences will follow.

“The truth is that one of the reasons people visit London is because they know that, say, The Lion King is on. Or because Phantom Of The Opera is on. Shows like that are huge magnets.

“It seems to me, when I look at Edinburgh, that while we can’t sit one show down there forever as is the case in London, we can bring some cornerstone blockbusters to the Playhouse, productions that are unique in the firmament of Scotland.”

From the off it is evident that Howard is passionate about theatre. He has, in his own words, worn many hats in his day, from stage manager to lighting designer, scenery director to producer – and now joint chief executive, a role he shares with his wife, Rosemary Squire.

It’s in the latter role that he finds himself with the challenge of running the Playhouse, the UK’s largest all-seated theatre.

ATG, which controls 39 British theatres, acquired the 3056-seat Playhouse on November 2, 2009, as part of a £90 million purchase of Live Nation venues. The move freed ATG to be more adventurous in their programming of the venue.

Indeed, Howard now foresees a day when shows will transfer directly from Broadway to the Edinburgh Playhouse, instead of first heading to London.

He reveals: “Simply because of the scale of the building, because it is in the Capital, and because of the Festival and all the other things that make Edinburgh the special place it is, the Playhouse will feature more in our international planning.

“I have been talking to a number of international directors and others about creating work specifically for the really big venues around North America, with a view to then bringing that work to the Playhouse.

“That is what the people in the city expect from the Playhouse and, with one or two announcements that are coming shortly, we will show that really big stuff is coming to Edinburgh for periods of time that seem to make sense – longer runs for the bigger shows.” Longer runs will mark a change in direction for the venue which, for the last 15 years, has seen most productions run for a week, occasionally two.

However, there is a precedent for Howard’s vision. In 1993, Les Miserables transferred direct from the West End to Edinburgh, for a six-month season. Two years later, Phantom Of The Opera followed, this time for a record-breaking, nine-month season. It’s a record that looks safe even with Howard’s proposals.

“Today, you might be talking about two or three-month runs of shows that play to the Playhouse’s strengths,” he says. “We’ve only owned it for just under two years and I’m hoping that we are going to create new musicals for it and do revivals of great musicals there.

“I also want to work with colleagues to bring productions there from North America and vice versa, as well as from other parts of the world.” He continues: “The Edinburgh Playhouse is such an important theatre. It’s known worldwide. Of course, we have more to do there yet and the scale of the building means that you have to think big. That’s the trick, you have to think big in every sense because it is a fabulous cathedral of a building.”

Audiences will get a taste of Howard’s “thinking big” next April when the venue welcomes New York’s Lincoln Center Theater’s award- winning production of South Pacific.

Winner of seven Tony Awards, South Pacific is produced by Broadway’s only not-for-profit theatre.

Recalling how he brought the show to the UK, Howard says: “One of the American producers asked me to go and see it fairly early on in its life, and I thought it was fantastic. A great piece of work, done really well, is what you want in life in the theatre.

“A great bunch of ingredients cooked brilliantly makes for a great meal, and this has got wonderful ingredients and is indeed cooked brilliantly.

“So I spent the two years or so since it opened in New York – and won all of its Tony Awards as well as selling out on Broadway and all the rest of it – plotting to get it to come to London for a limited season and then to tour it around our bigger theatres in the capital cities and regional centres around the UK. I wanted it to be something first class coming straight out of New York.”

In future, the intention is that shows like South Pacific will bypass the West End and come direct to the Edinburgh Playhouse, creating a huge buzz.

Howard says: “We want to encourage people to come to Edinburgh for a theatre weekend.

“The fame of Edinburgh around the world means that people know the city, and we need to make the Playhouse more and more a part of that.”