Risky Business: Nicholas Hytner Sets the National on an Adventurous Course

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Pundits eager to compare the Royal National Theatre regime of Trevor Nunn that has just ended with the still-aborning one of Nicholas Hytner--the latter took the company's reins in hand this past April--need look no further than the two directors' recent choices for musical productions. First, consider Anything Goes, the generous serving of Cole Porter champagne that Nunn revived in the Olivier auditorium just before Christmas, and that is due to transfer to the West End in the fall. Second, contemplate Jerry Springer--The Opera, the scabrous, gleefully scatological new British musical from Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee that opened under Hytner's tutelage in April, and that--guess what?--transfers to the West End in the fall.

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One production, clearly, doth not an artistic directorship make. Yet these two decisively divergent pieces of programming speak volumes about the men who opted to stage them. For all his talk about populism (he is the director who, let us not forget, begat the Andrew Lloyd Webber skating extravaganza Starlight Express), Nunn would be as unlikely a choice to alight upon Jerry Springer as Hytner would be to revive Anything Goes.

"It's always safer doing a musical revival, anywhere," Hytner has told me, adding that with a new musical, "You could be gone tomorrow." And yet there's a poetic justice of sorts in the fact that it is the breathtakingly risky Jerry Springer that appears likely to be cloning itself the world over, long after Nunn's shipboard frolic has sailed into oblivion. If you go for broke, as Hytner has done, sometimes the world goes with you.

On the surface, Nunn and his successor share numerous common denominators, even if Hytner is 16 years Nunn's junior. Both Cambridge graduates, the two men have alternated both between work in the subsidized and commercial theatre sectors and between theatre and opera. (Of the two, Hytner has the weightier film resume; indeed, it was he who worked for a year with dramatist Wendy Wasserstein on the film of Chicago until their joint efforts were scuppered, and the rest, well, is history.) Both men were influential in the British musical revolution that turned a once-localized art form into a global behemoth, with no small thanks to the producer Cameron Mackintosh. Nunn hitched himself to Mackintosh on Cats and Les Miserables, with Hytner doing the same on a subsequent Schonberg-Boublil collaboration, Miss Saigon.

But here's the difference: I once heard Hytner deliver a lecture informally titled, "How I learned to live with myself and direct Miss Saigon," a witty response to life in the mega-musical fast lane. If Nunn has an equivalent moment, it would be his well-rehearsed defense of the musical as a genre. A debate on the actual content of Cats simply isn't done.

ON THE ONE HAND, ONE MUST BE FAIR TO Nunn, who was a surprise choice as National Theatre chief when he took over from Richard Eyre in the fall of 1997. As he himself has admitted, Nunn's appointment was something of a stopgap measure to fill a post that was going begging when Eyre's heirs apparent at the time--Sam Mendes and Stephen Daldry--appeared likely to pass on it. At which point, enter Nunn, with nearly two decades at the helm of the Royal Shakespeare Company on his resume. In context, the carping that ended up accompanying Nunn's five-and-a-half years in the National post can be seen as exceedingly graceless: Nunn didn't need the job and shouldn't be needled for having stepped up to the plate.

Still, the sigh of relief felt in April at the time of Hytner's accession was audible all over the British theatre, not least for the simple reason that Nunn's National was more or less solely about Nunn. To be sure, the building hosted numerous trophy-bearers under his auspices, a feat that Nunn's farewell commentary in the March 23 Sunday Times of London went to considerable lengths to catalogue: "Having won 112 major awards in the last five years, including 42 Oliviers--with a record-breaking 10 this year--the National has a lot of laurels to rest on. …