Ken Hill (playwright)
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Ken Hill (28 January 1937 – 23 January 1995) was a critically acclaimed English playwright, and theatre director.
He was a protégé of Joan Littlewood at Theatre Workshop. He was happiest directing chaotic musicals on the tiny stage of the old Theatre Royal Stratford East, Theatre Workshop's home in Stratford, London, for many years but he also had hits in the West End and abroad, among them The Invisible Man and the original stage version of The Phantom of the Opera, which inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber to create his musical blockbuster of the same title.
His stock-in-trade was musical adventure stories. Like Joan Littlewood, his aim was to make things look fresh and improvised, to which end he might spend hours working on one tiny scene with his cast. He set his lyrics to out-of-copyright popular tunes, so that the audience felt familiar with his songs without ever quite being able to place them, and, more importantly, so that music could be adapted without paying royalties the budgets at Theatre Workshop being famously small. He had an encyclopaedic musical knowledge. For example, in his final show, Zorro The Musical!, his lyrics were accompanied by melodies from 19th-century Spanish operetta.
Ken Hill was born in Birmingham, England on 28 January 1937 and was educated at King Edward's School, after which he joined an amateur theatrical company, Crescent Theatre, sweeping the floor, making props, writing and directing. His first play, Night Season, was put on at the Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, in 1963. For a time he worked as an investigative journalist for ATV and it was there that he caused a minor uproar with his report on corruption in Birmingham's local government.
In 1970, Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop returned to its old home, the dilapidated Theatre Royal Stratford East. A satire on local authorities was discussed as a good subject for a new production, and Hill's name was put forward as a possible writer. The result of the collaboration Hill's Forward Up Your End (1970) was condemned by some of the press for its juvenile humour but Joan Littlewood liked it and Hill stayed on.
He was roped in as an actor in numerous productions but writing, not acting, remained his first love. He was made associate director and resident writer at Theatre Workshop from 1970 to 1974 and from 1974 to 1976 he took over as artistic director, Joan Littlewood by this time having left for projects in Tunisia.
Hill's productions there included Is Your Doctor Really Necessary? (1973), a collaboration with hit songwriter Tony Macaulay, The Count of Monte Cristo (1974), Gentlemen Prefer Anything (1974) and Dracula (1974). He then became artistic director of the Musical Theatre Company, directing for the West End: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Westminster Theatre (for Andrew Lloyd Webber), The Mikado, and Fiddler on the Roof. Other West End credits include playdoctoring productions of Drake's Dream and Wren.
Shortly after, he was commissioned by the National Theatre for a version of The Hunchback Of Notre Dame. He then wrote and directed for television: All the Fun of the Fair – in the course of his life, Ken wrote over 100 scripts for various television programmes. His other commissions for various theatres include: The Curse of the Werewolf, The Mummy's Tomb, Mafeking, The Three Musketeers, Bel Ami, The Living Dead, and a new translation of La Vie Parisienne. Ken was also commissioned for productions of Sweeney Todd, Little Shop Of Horrors, and a Narnia Trilogy. He also adapted and directed two books by Catherine Cookson and completed a third for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre.
He cut a conspicuous front-of-house figure, joking with customers at the bar, and patrolling the stage with little solo dances until the audience was settled. In rehearsal he would leap about the stage to demonstrate ideas to his actors, a sight made even more alarming by his height and shock of red hair. He could be stinting with praise for his actors and had little small talk; but he always got the best out of his cast.He also got the best out of his backstage crew with his direct approach to achieving his desired effect on stage, particularly his approach to set design encapsulated in often heard phrase " jig it out of a bit of ply" when facing budgetary pressures.
He left Theatre Workshop in 1976 and worked for some years as the Director of Productions at the Newcastle Playhouse. That same year, he first staged his version of The Phantom of the Opera at the Duke's Playhouse in Lancaster (and also on Morecambe Pier). In 1983, he adapted Catherine Cookson's Katie Mulholland into an elaborate stage musical for the Playhouse with songs by Eric Boswell. In 1984, an updated version of The Phantom of the Opera was revived and produced in a joint-production with the Newcastle Playhouse and the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Andrew Lloyd Webber saw and liked it, and for a while there was talk about his bringing it into the West End. Nothing came of this, however, and Lloyd Webber's own version duly opened in the West End in 1986. Hill's Phantom went abroad to St. Louis in the United States in 1987 and also had another major production in San Francisco in 1988. The musical then embarked on a two-year long national tour of the US from 1989–1991. The show also transferred to the West End in 1991 but, despite excellent notices, did badly at the box office and was forced to close earlier than expected. Since then, The Phantom of the Opera has arguably become one of his most famous works, and has toured the world – the most recent production was in Tokyo, Japan in November 2004.
The Invisible Man, with illusions by the magician, Paul Kieve, fared much better in the West End, transferring from Stratford East to the Vaudeville Theatre in 1993. This show was a particular favourite of Hill's, combining his love of stage trickery and childish optical jokes in scenes in which, for instance, the unbandaged 'invisible' head of the Invisible Man smokes a cigar. Hill made everyone working in the theatre, from the cleaning staff upwards, sign a document forbidding them to reveal how this was done to the press.
Despite having cancer intermittently for 12 years, Hill still continued to deluge Stratford East with ideas for new productions right up until his death from his cancer on 23 January 1995 aged 57, and only five days before his 58th birthday. He died just two weeks before the opening of what was his final production, Zorro The Musical!, which he directed. Zorro opened on 14 February 1995, to rave reviews and immense box office success.
Hill was survived by his wife, the actress Toni Palmer (who appeared in many of his shows), and two sons from a previous marriage.
The Ken Hill Memorial Trust was set up after Hill died in 1995, to aid the Theatre Royal in supporting new talent in musical theatre. It now offers a biennial Musical Theatre Award annually to help nurture new talent in theatrical writers. The award in 1997 was a total of £5,000 for the winner – £1000 in cash, with the balance going towards the production costs of a week's showcase at the Theatre Royal, where many of Ken Hill's works were premiered. In addition, royalties were paid to the writer for the showcase. The trustees also offered small cash prizes to five runners up. There is now news as to whether this trust or award still exists today or not.
There are also "Ken Hill awards" for new talented playwrights and for the Best New Musical.
Some of Hill's plays, The Invisible Man, The Curse of the Werewolf, The Mummy's Tomb and his version of The Phantom of the Opera, are available to purchase from Samuel French Ltd. in London. The rights to produce these shows can also be obtained by theatre groups, professional and amateur, who wish to perform them.
- Ken Hill's Phantom of the Opera fan website
- Theatre Royal Stratford East's official website
- Samuel French Ltd. in London control the performance rights for Ken Hill's The Invisible Man, The Curse of the Werewolf, The Mummy's Tomb and The Phantom of the Opera
- Playwright listing for Ken Hill includes links to purchase Ken Hill's published works.