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Interview With Matthew Iliffe, Up And Coming Director Of Thoroughly Modern Millie
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Interview With Matthew Iliffe, Up And Coming Director Of Thoroughly Modern Millie

Picture of Emma Cooke
Updated: 6 January 2017
A multi-award-winning Broadway smash, Thoroughly Modern Millie returns to London after twelve years. A pared-back cast of fresh-faced actors and the work of new directing talent, Matthew Iliffe have transformed the show into an intimate, whirlwind romp through the 1920s. Emma Cooke speaks to director Matthew about translating a big-scale musical to a small-scale theater, why now is the right moment for a Millie comeback, and the magic of musical theater.

Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey towards directing Thoroughly Modern Millie?

I started directing three years ago, self-producing plays on whatever money I had (really minuscule amounts) with one-night productions of plays I’d read in school. A producer from the Tabard Theatre came to see one of them, was impressed, and asked me to come do something for a week up in London. From there, I got onto the Stonegrabs Young Directors Training Programme at The Albany, a six month scholarship that takes 12 young directors every year. It’s aimed at encouraging the next generation of directors and, thanks to it being free of charge, is a social project as well as an artistic one. With them I was able to hone my skills, work with professional actors, and meet Effie, the producer of Thoroughly Modern Millie, who after seeing my work, invited me to come and work with her. I love musical theater, but it’s unfortunately very expensive to produce, so it’s been great to finally be able to tap into that. Everything’s all clicked into place.

What specifically is it about musical theater that you love?

It’s the heightened emotion that musical theater brings to a performance. It’s the joy of a piece like Thoroughly Modern Millie that has such vibrancy about it. I love straight drama, too, don’t get me wrong, but there’s something very special about a performance that can capture the imagination in such a vibrant and interesting way. Live music is so compelling, and when you merge drama with music it creates something really magical.

It’s been over ten years since Thoroughly Modern Millie was last performed. Why is now a good time for it to come back?

I think now is a good time purely because it’s been gone for ten years! The first time around, it didn’t receive the reception it deserved – it was a tricky climate for this type of show as there was fierce competition from Anything Goes. It was a huge hit on Broadway, but not so much over here, and so London’s never really had the opportunity to see the show. It’s also summer, which is the perfect time for something lighthearted!

How do you think your background at the Fringe, and the Landor being a Fringe theater, will influence the show?

It’s much smaller, and much quirkier due to the Fringe-like environment. The piece was written for 25, but we’ve cut the cast down to 12, which has been really effective in keeping the piece zany and giving it a real madcap nature. We have people multi-roleing, dashing on and off to change wigs and costumes and I think the overall quirkiness hasn’t been something that’s been brought to Modern Millie before.

Thoroughly Modern Millie Rehearsals ©Landor Theatre
Thoroughly Modern Millie Rehearsals | ©Landor Theatre

Has it been difficult translating a big Broadway show to an intimate venue?

Yes and no. It’s been difficult in a practical sense as you have to be very strict with yourself and the team around you about what you can and can’t afford, but it’s also meant we’ve had to be much more imaginative than other productions of the show. So rather than a limitation, I’d say it’s been a fantastic challenge. If we’d been trying to achieve the same thing on a smaller scale it might have been harder, and created an inferior show, but instead we’ve been constantly reimagining the show to fit in with its surroundings.

What’s been your favorite part about directing Thoroughly Modern Millie?

Working with the choreographers, who’ve created four absolutely incredible dance numbers, and also with the two vibrant young leads. Francesca Lara Gordon, who’ll be playing Millie, has a real star quality about her and the chemistry between her and Ben Stacey (playing romantic lead, Jimmy) is really something special to watch.

What’s been your biggest inspiration?

The musical comedies I grew up listening to. I was the kid that put on cast recordings and danced around the living room to them, and all of those bled into my mind while I was interpreting the show. Even the big lavish Hollywood musicals, like Singin’ in the Rain and just about everything with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers have been key influences – not intentionally, but just because they’re part of my lexicon. I think when your work is at its best, it’s a combination of everything you love and everything you’re passionate about, and I hope that’s what Thoroughly Modern Millie will be.

Thoroughly Modern Millie is on from August 18 to September 13, 2015.

Landor Theatre, 70 Landor Road, London, UK, 020 7737 7276