Michael Cassel is a theatrical mover and shaker. He discovered at an early age that producing musicals rather than treading the boards in an array of colourful costumes was actually his preference. His enthusiasm is infectious, his joy evident and, speaking as someone who never seems quite ready for actors to spontaneously break out into booming song, (and has been known to jump so violently with surprise that the row in-front found themselves wearing pop corn and Chardonnay), I find myself feeling little flutters of excitement at the thought of spending this chilly and grey afternoon watching the passionate and highly acclaimed performance of Les Misérables.
We meet an hour before curtains up at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney and Michael is beaming. He’s like a kid in a candy shop, eagerly awaiting the crowds and yet still manages to focus fully on our conversation and my questions. He’s also remarkably fresh-faced, considering he only stepped off a plane a few hours ago and is suffering with jet-lag. It’s clear to see that he’s living his dream and he can’t get enough of it.
Already achieving so much and with dreams of even bigger things and wider global domination, I’d watch this space and keep your eyes centre stage because this producer is going to be bigger than Ben-Hur and The Lion King put together.
In the Beginning.
I grew up in Minnamurra, on the New South Wales South Coast, just north of Kiama. My two brothers, Matthew and James and sister, Haylie, and we all attended Minnamurra Primary School. Music played a big part for me at primary school and we staged our school musical when I was in Year 6 – Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, I played the role of Pharaoh. My parents took me the following year to see the professional production at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Like Superstar, I’d read the programme over and over again each night and always wondered who the guy was who was billed as the producer for the Really Useful Group, James Thane… I wanted to do what he did!
From as early as I can remember, I was always putting on shows for the family and the neighbours. I started piano lessons in kindergarten and loved performing for the family – in my first year, my piano teacher gave me a gift with a quote from Walt Disney which used to sit on my piano which said “If you can dream it, you can do it”. I think of that often and it’s always been my guiding principle – every time an idea pops up, I just go for it, as my colleagues will tell you!
Inspiration growing up definitely would have come from Young Talent Time and that was staple viewing in our home and was inspiration for many of the neighbourhood concerts I would stage, but I’d say the Mike Walsh Show had an influence, as Mum would tune in while we’d have lunch each day! At the age of three, I had an imaginary friend, Mike Walsh, who would come everywhere with me, much to my family’s bemusement… you can imagine my great excitement when I met Mike for the first time, we were staging The Lion King in Melbourne. I was able to call my parents and tell them “I just had lunch with Mike Walsh, and for once, he was there in the flesh”! I told Mike of his impact in my life when we first met – he’s still happy for me to work at his beautiful theatre, Her Majesty’s in Melbourne, so hopefully the story didn’t spook him too much!
The first time I actually realised that I could have a job as Producer would have been after Harry M Miller’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar. I was twelve. I’d read the programme every night before going to bed, while listening to the cast recording. I knew Harry’s biography backwards and memorised all of the production credits, trying to understand “who did what”. I wrote to Harry that year and asked if I could have a job working for him… he wrote back and suggested that I should go to High School first!
We had a very active local amateur musical group in Kiama, the Roo Theatre. My parents finally allowed me to join their drama group and while I participated in some of their productions on stage, I soon realised that I was much more suited to being behind the scenes! I was the Music Director for a number of their Youth Theatre Productions while in High School, but by the time I was fourteen, I decided I wanted to produce my own show. I remember driving in the car with my Dad one day, during the summer school holidays when I had the idea that I would produce a Carols by Candlelight concert. My reasoning being that it would (a) give me almost twelve months to plan and (b) everyone loves sitting outdoors singing Carols, so hopefully there’d be an audience! I wrote to the Council to ask if I could stage their concert in the local sporting Quarry, which provided a beautiful backdrop and I began writing to anyone and everyone, both for sponsorship and to perform. I assembled a forty-piece orchestra, a massed choir from local community groups and schools and managed to entice a couple of celebrities, including Jesse Spencer from Neighbours at the time, to come and appear. The local media organisations in the Illawarra all got behind the production and we had quite a marketing campaign! I had hoped we’d have about 200 people turn up, so you can imagine my surprise when the local Rotary Club clocked 2,000 people! From that moment, I was hooked – I definitely wanted to be a producer!
I produced the Christmas Spectacular for ten years. I loved it… I ended up moving it to WIN Stadium in Wollongong, where we’d have an audience of 15,000 people.
I’m always grateful that I grew up in Minnamurra. I don’t know if I would have had the same opportunity to take over the town if I hadn’t lived in a community that provided this opportunity and were so supportive in allowing a Year 9 high school kid to go and stage something of this scale… and back them all the way!
Kick Start. Alan Jones and Harry M Miller.
It was Alan Jones, who after coming along to host the Christmas Spectacular suggested that I should go and meet his manager, Harry M Miller… you can imagine my response! I took a day off school and Dad drove me to Harry’s office in Woolloomooloo. I told Harry I wanted to be a producer and was desperate to work with him (and I reminded him of the letter I had sent four years earlier!) Harry suggested that I could come to his office to do work experience with him during the school holidays. So, during the school holidays from Years 10 to 12, I would catch the train to Sydney and participate in the best work experience I could have asked for.
During Year 12, I had actually set up an office in Wollongong as I had secured a contract to produce all of Tourism Wollongong’s major events such as Australia Day, the Folklorika Festival and the Sea, Food and Sail Festival. This came about in response to a proposal I had written to the Tourism Wollongong Board suggesting that they engage my company to produce their events. At the time, I didn’t have a company, nor staff, but I managed to convince a great lady, Allison Bryant who at the time was the Marketing Manager at Prime Television, to come and work for me, which she did. It was a great time and we had a lot of adventures together.
It was during the second term and Harry called and asked if I wanted to work with him full-time upon completing my HSC. I was to begin in February 1999 and I, along with Harry’s daughter Lauren (who now runs the business) would attend college, part-time. It was in January, just before I was to make the move from Minnamurra to Sydney when Harry called inviting me to have lunch at his home in Foxground, as he wanted to introduce me to a colleague who had recently joined his company as Managing Director. You can imagine my surprise when he told me the name, James Thane — it had been the name that I had studied in the Joseph programme!
I spent three years with Harry and the focus during my time there was client management, which I really enjoyed. Harry was exploring a few theatrical projects at the time, and we came close with HAIR — The Arena Spectacular. James left Harry at the end of 2001 and I was focused on that time looking after Sara-Marie Fedele and Ben Williams from the first series of BIG BROTHER.
The Lion King and James Thane.
Camille and I were planning a holiday that Christmas to the UK and I was desperate to see THE LION KING in London. I asked James if he might know somebody who could arrange tickets for me, and he kindly looked after us.
I remember my first time seeing THE LION KING. Disney use it in their advertising, but there is no better way to describe it: I had never seen anything like it. Camille and I left the show that evening and I purchased everything at the show that I could get my hands on: the programme, Julie Taymor’s “making of book”. I made my way home to our friend’s apartment, only to stay up until the wee hours reading every page! I was hooked.
Camille and I went back to the theatre the next day to try and get tickets to the matinee. Low and behold, the only sets they had available were the house seats that we had sat in the previous night. I thought that was a sign, but of what I didn’t know!
After seeing the show for a second time, we made our way to a web café as I wanted to send James an email thanking him for arranging the tickets and telling him how much I loved the show. You can imagine my surprise when on the new websites that day there was the headline “James Thane appointed to open Disney Theatrical office in Australia”! So, not only did I write to James thanking him for the tickets, I quickly put up my hand as I was now desperate to work for Disney too!
Disney Theatrical and Shaghai.
I joined Disney Theatrical in March 2002 as James’ assistant. It was the best experience I could have asked for. James is a wonderful teacher and mentor and has worked on the most successful theatre productions ever staged in Australia – he established Cameron Mackintosh’s original office in Australia. I was subsequently promoted to Production Coordinator and then Production Administrator.
James moved to the New York office of Disney Theatrical in September 2005, and I stayed with the company in Sydney to continue to oversee our production of The Lion King, which by that time was running in Melbourne. It was at this time that the company was exploring an opportunity to take the show to Shanghai – it would be Disney’s first major theatrical production in China. I was tasked with making that happen and in July 2006, after flying three 747’s from Melbourne to Shanghai with all of our sets and costumes, we opened The Lion King at the Shanghai Grand Theatre. It was a terrific experience and the show became the longest running Western musical to play in China – we played for twelve weeks and 101 performances.
Thomas Schmacher, the Engagement and New York.
Thomas Schumacher, the President and Producer of Disney Theatrical Group came to Shanghai and we had lunch together one day, next door to the theatre. Tom asked me if I would be interested in working in New York, on their international productions with Ron Kollen, who was the Senior Vice President, International. Of course I said yes.
Johannesburg and The Lion King.
Between getting engaged in Shanghai, closing the production in China and preparing to move to New York, I started work on The Lion King in South Africa. It was a huge deal – bringing The Lion King home. I moved to Johannesburg in February 2007 and stayed through to our opening in June. Watching members of the original creative team, including Julie Taymor and Lebo M, work with the entirely native cast was a phenomenal experience. It would have to be one of my absolute career highlights seeing that production open and run so successfully.
Eveleigh is born.
After that, it was a whirlwind of productions all over the world. I enjoyed my time at Disney dearly and working with the team in New York and I will be forever grateful for the friendships that I made during my time there, and the experience it gave me. After almost five years in New York, Camille and I welcomed to the world a baby girl, Eveleigh.
While part of me did think we could end up living in New York forever and continue working for Disney, I knew that eventually, I wanted to work as an independent producer and I also wanted Eveleigh to grow up in Australia. I made the move back home, having been offered a role as Head of International & Creative Affairs at Gerry Ryan’s Global Creatures, the company behind Walking With Dinosaurs, How To Train Your Dragon, King Kong and Strictly Ballroom.
Cameron Mackintosh and Les Misérables
I had been with the company for just on a year, when the opportunity to work with Cameron Mackintosh on Les Misérables came about. For me, this was a major turning point and an opportunity I had been dreaming about… to go and set up my own theatrical production company, as well as work with the world’s most successful theatre producer on this incredible show!
I officially hung out the shingle to the Michael Cassel Group in January 2013 and began assembling a team to produce Les Misérables.
Notable Achievements & Oprah Winfrey.
I think every opening night is a notable achievement! You can spend years working on a show and to finally get to opening night – seeing it all come together and to see the audience reaction, it’s always a great thrill – and a huge relief!
Personally, a moment I’ll never forget, was when we were in South Africa producing The Lion King. Oprah Winfrey had recently opened the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in Johannesburg and was keen for the students to attend the show on opening night. Oprah sat in front of Camille and I that night – we had a brief hello at interval and I thought that was to be my sole Oprah moment!
The Principal of the school had asked if I, and some cast members, would come and meet with their students the day after opening night to talk about the production and perform some songs from the show. We were setting up in the school theatre when we heard a lot of singing and screaming coming from outside. We all ran to the door to see what the commotion was about – and headed right towards us was Oprah! She ended up joining us for the entire presentation and asked questions throughout – so now I can say I was interviewed by Oprah! She was terrific and I became an Oprah fan from that moment onwards!
For me right now, wandering down to the Capitol Theatre to see what our company are delivering, eight shows a week, is impressive. They never lose the energy, the focus, the passion for Les Misérables and their work and that’s evident in the audience response to the show – we’ve just celebrated our 400th performance of the Australian production and to see how talented and committed this group of people are – the cast, crew, orchestra – night after night, it just blows me away!
Trying to take time to just relax! Traveling and holidays with the family is the top of our list – we’ve just returned from a lovely break soaking up some sun in Malaysia with Eveleigh and Vaughn. We’ve been fortunate to do some really great trips with the family – last year, as part of a working/holiday, we did LA, New York, London, Amsterdam, Vienna. I love that Eveleigh, our four-year old, enjoys travelling and the adventure just as much as Camille and I. It’s great to spend that time together as a family.
I have always looked to great mentors and I’m pretty lucky to have a great group of individuals who I can turn to. I admire their careers, their tenacity and their creativity. I’m lucky that they include two of the most successful producers in the world – Thomas Schumacher (President/Producer at Disney) and Cameron Mackintosh. James Thane has always been there as a guiding hand and for that I am tremendously grateful – his experience in Australian and international theatre is beyond par, together with that of Ron Kollen who I worked closely with in New York and who has worked with the Walt Disney Company for over thirty-five years! When I started thinking about establishing my company I was on a trip to New York and thought “who is one person who I don’t yet know, who would be a great mentor as the business evolves”. I contacted Michael Eisner, the former Chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Company – he had grown Disney from a $1.8 billion company to a media empire valued at $80 billion. I ended up spending some time with Michael in New York, reviewing my business and plans for the future. He’s got a great interest in theatre having been integral to the launch of the theatrical division at Disney.
Holiday – with the family, on a beach!
Right now, it’s working on a number of projects that will hopefully come to fruition over the next few years with a small team and making sure we deliver each one with great attention and artistic excellence.
Developing a new, successful theatrical production and bringing it to audiences around the world. Being there at the very beginning, collaborating with a creative team and then watching the process evolve to the stage where you can have audiences enjoy it around the world – that would be a phenomenal journey.
Lots of adventure, projects and friendships!
Diary Snapshot 2015/2016
In November 2015 Les Misérables will open in Brisbane before embarking on a tour of Asia in 2016.
The Michael Cassel Group will produce the Australian premiere of Kinky Boots with pop icon Cyndi Lauper. Kinky Boots will open at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne in October 2016.
Michael is currently producing the Chichester Festival production of Singing in the Rain (directed by Jonathon Church) This is currently on tour in Asia and will arrive in Sydney in 2016.
Thank you Michael Cassel, Jessica Carrera @ The Carrera Press Agency, The Michael Cassel Group and Capitol Theatre.
Images of Michael Cassel at The Capitol Theatre by Fiora Sacco