One Sunday afternoon, producer Kenny Wax saw a play at the Trafalgar Studios. The production had been mounted on a shoestring budget, but the audience was laughing so much that Wax suspected he’d seen a potential hit.
The rest is history. Last week The Play That Goes Wrong opened on Broadway, to positive reviews. It’s still running at the Duchess Theatre in the West End and the current UK tour of 30 venues is virtually sold out, so Wax has decided to tour it again next year.
He’d dreamed of being a theatre producer since he was a teenager at Carmel College, spending weekends in London watching mega-musicals such as Phantom Of The Opera, Les Misérables and Miss Saigon.
Theatre isn’t in his blood: “My dad had a hire purchase company for drivers of black cabs.”
But the family did go to the theatre in Manchester. “I remember travelling in from Hale with my parents to these magical places like the Royal Exchange or the Library Theatre.”
He’s the youngest of three siblings and his elder brother Derek is a multi BAFTA and Emmy winning television producer.
Kenny Wax began his theatrical career as an usher for the Cameron Mackintosh group. He wrote to Mackintosh asking to work on the production side. “But he told me that I needed to get more experience in the business. He said that if he gave me a job, I’d be a tiny paper clip in a huge pencil case, and I wouldn’t learn anything.”
Wax persevered, taking on all sorts of roles in theatre companies, including one conducting backstage tours at the New London Theatre. His first West End opening in 1997 — a play, Maddie — was a flop. Luckily he was undaunted and today, about to turn 50, Wax is one of the country’s top theatrical producers.
The Play That Goes Wrong is a supremely funny tour de force about an amateur dramatic group from Cornley Polytechnic as they try to stage a 1920s murder mystery.
First written and staged by the Mischief Theatre, the play opened at the Old Red Lion in Islington in 2013 and on one night played to just four people.
Its set was built for £300 and Mischief were still using it when Wax first saw it at the Trafalgar Studios. The audience were laughing so much he thought some must be in on the act.
“What I saw was total pleasure. The audience was literally crying with laughter.” he says. He decided to organise a British tour.
“Nobody could have foreseen this success,” he says. “It has a massive fan base and appeals to all generations, from six year olds to grandparents. It’s international too. We’ve currently got it playing under licence in 30 countries.
“My wife Daniella and I went to see it in Budapest recently. It was all in Hungarian but the comedy remains and every laugh was just as big.”
The play has gathered a clutch of awards including the 2015 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, and the 2015 BroadwayWorld UK Best New Play.
This month it opened on Broadway, and in Melbourne.
It’s a long way from the £300 set.The New York production is costing $4 million to stage: “We could have raised the money three times over, we were turning people away.”
The play has spawned a brand with another comedy The Comedy About A Bank Robbery doing brisk business.
The Apollo Theatre staged the “alternative pantomime” Peter Pan Goes Wrong last Christmas.
Wax is also currently staging a tour of La Strada, taken from the Fellini film, along with a tour of Around The World in Eighty Days.
But his most important production comes in August when his son Jasper is barmitzvah. The Waxes have two other children, Joseph and Jemima.
With all this going on, you wonder how well Wax is sleeping. “I sleep fine” he says.
“Although I’m probably more nervous about the barmitzvah. It’s the last one and we’ll start on the weddings in a few years!”