Poker Fiend Babani Turns Chocolate Factory Into Theater

Photographer: Tristram Kenton/ArthurLeone PR via Bloomberg

Jenna Russell, Clare Foster, Mark Umbers and Damien Humbley in "Merrily We Roll Along" by Stephen Sondheim at the Harold Pinter Theatre. The musical tells the story, in reverse chronology, of three aspiring musical-theater writers. Close

Jenna Russell, Clare Foster, Mark Umbers and Damien Humbley in "Merrily We Roll Along"... Read More

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Photographer: Tristram Kenton/ArthurLeone PR via Bloomberg

Jenna Russell, Clare Foster, Mark Umbers and Damien Humbley in "Merrily We Roll Along" by Stephen Sondheim at the Harold Pinter Theatre. The musical tells the story, in reverse chronology, of three aspiring musical-theater writers.

Any poker player, gambler, or theater producer will tell you there’s no such thing as a sure bet. It’s just that some bets are surer than others.

David Babani, 35, theater producer and poker buff, runs the Menier Chocolate Factory, a powerhouse venue housed in (you guessed it) a former chocolate factory near London Bridge.

Its latest success, a production of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Merrily We Roll Along” directed by Maria Friedman, has just moved to the Harold Pinter Theatre.

The show is a story told in reverse chronological order about a friendship turning sour, and gets a near-ideal staging from Friedman (a singer who once starred in it herself). The set pieces are zingers, the central trio of friends makes a knockout combination, and the slick pacing never loses a beat. Despair and self-destruction have never seemed so appealing.

It joins an impressive roster of other transfers to the West End and Broadway, including “Sunday in the Park with George,” “La Cage aux Folles” and “A Little Night Music.”

Coming up in July will be the European premiere of the musical “The Color Purple,” which ran on Broadway between 2005 and 2008.

There’s no public subsidy for the plucky venue, which operates on an annual turnover of roughly 3 million pounds ($4.7 million). So how does Babani punch above his weight? Has he found the Holy Grail of making theater pay its way?

Photographer: Alastair Muir/ArthurLeone PR via Bloomberg

David Babani, artistic director of The Menier Chocolate Factory, an enterprising 180-seat theatre with restaurant near London Bridge. "The Color Purple," a large-scale musical, opens there in July. Close

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Photographer: Alastair Muir/ArthurLeone PR via Bloomberg

David Babani, artistic director of The Menier Chocolate Factory, an enterprising 180-seat theatre with restaurant near London Bridge. "The Color Purple," a large-scale musical, opens there in July.

Industrial Chic

I meet up with him in the Menier restaurant, an industrial-chic space with wooden floors. He’s delightfully student-scruffy in jeans and loose shirt. A gold chain hangs under a T-shirt.

There used to be a television advert for Maxell cassette tapes, in which a listener’s hair got blown back by the energy coming from the loudspeakers. Meeting Babani is a bit the same. When he talks about theater, it’s like a nuclear blast.

I wonder how he manages to balance the books?

“We’ve got three sources of revenue,” he says. “Ticket sales, then ancillary revenue from the building itself -- that’s the restaurant, program sales, ice creams -- and then money coming in from our transfers.”

He likes to maintain a level of control, even when working with co-producers who take a show elsewhere.

“We would never take a minority position in those cases,” he says. “Then we raise money from our angels and backers, just like the other producers. We general-manage our own shows, which keeps a stream of royalties and management fees coming back into the building. That’s how we can run a show here at a loss.”

Photographer: Tristram Kenton/ArthurLeone PR via Bloomberg

Mark Umbers and Jenna Russell in "Merrily We Roll Along" by Stephen Sondheim. Maria Friedman's production has transferred to the West End from the Chocolate Factory. Close

Mark Umbers and Jenna Russell in "Merrily We Roll Along" by Stephen Sondheim. Maria... Read More

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Photographer: Tristram Kenton/ArthurLeone PR via Bloomberg

Mark Umbers and Jenna Russell in "Merrily We Roll Along" by Stephen Sondheim. Maria Friedman's production has transferred to the West End from the Chocolate Factory.

Midas Tarnish

A loss? Is there a tarnish on his Midas touch after all?

“We have 180 seats, so even if we sell out a run for a big musical like we did with ‘Merrily,’ it can’t make a profit. I consider those productions loss-leaders. We balance them with smaller-scale work.”

In the case of “The Color Purple,” which requires a cast of 17 and a band of six, he was wooed by the show’s U.S. producer Scott Sanders, who wanted to find a berth for it in London.

“It’s such a big venture that we wouldn’t be able to weather the loss ourselves, so Scott has provided financial enhancement. With our smaller production costs, we could take it to the West End for, say, 700,000 pounds to 800,000 pounds, rather than the 3 million pounds to 4 million pounds it would take from scratch.”

Why did he think the Chocolate Factory was the right venue for an epic piece spanning many years of rural black womanhood?

“It’s a brilliant ensemble piece, and not one of those shows you can just stick a star in and watch it fly. It needs a level of intimacy to get it right.”

How was he persuaded to take the show? “I didn’t see it on Broadway. I ended up seeing it in a ‘bus-and-truck’ touring production, which is the least glamorous version a show can have, in Riverside, California. And it blew me away.”

Babani gets a thrill from taking a risk. Are there other similarities between theater producing and playing cards? “The odds are so much better playing poker!” he deadpans.

For information about The Menier Chocolate Factory: http://www.menierchocolatefactory.com or +44-20-7378-1713

“The Color Purple” runs July 5 through September 14. “Merrily We Roll Along” has transferred to the Harold Pinter Theater.

Muse highlights include Martin Gayford on European art, Ryan Sutton on New York dining and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.

(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on this story: Warwick Thompson, in London, at warwicktho@aol.com or https://twitter.com/ThompsonWarwick.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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