Life is a theatre set in which there are but few practicable entrances. TV Executive and Theatre Impresario Kris Lythgoe has embraced these entrances and made a big impact to theatre by bringing Pantomine to the US. He explains what pantomime essentially is and how it helps introduce theatre to children. Sharing his experiences and achievements in media, this episode tells us how Kris juggles the roles of being a father, an executive at Warner Brothers and a successful TV producer with such flare and success.
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Bringing Pantomime Theatre To LA With Kris Lythgoe
We have a great guest. As you know, we love to spread the gauntlet wide, whether it’s here in LA or just our friends from good old blighty who are now living here and working in Los Angeles. We have somebody that we’ve never had on before. Tara, why don’t you tell us who’s our special guest?
From international TV success globally, from London’s West End and back to Panto in LA, our next guest has achieved so much on both sides of the Atlantic. Welcome, Kris Lythgoe. How are you?
Thanks for having me.
The first thing I’ve got to ask straight out of the gates is that I had no idea that there were pantos in America. Why don’t you describe what is panto and the history behind it and how you even get one in production?
It’s funny because some people turn around and say, “I didn’t even know that the panto wasn’t in America.” Some people say, “It works both ways.” Panto is musical theater but it is good for the family. It’s interactive so the kids don’t get told to sit down and shut up. We always turn around and we beg our kids to walk and talk and then when they can we tell them to sit down and shut up. This is not that. This is interactive stuff. They’re always set to fairytale. They’re fairytales we know like Aladdin, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty. It’s from our point of view. We brought it to America because we didn’t see anything in the theater realm that introduced kids to theater. We take it for granted in the UK because we think it’s the cheesy pantomime every Christmas, the whole family go. What it essentially does is it introduces kids to theater.
You’ve been doing this for quite a few years. You’ve got one coming out later in 2019. Tell us about that. You always get amazing stars as your principal boys and your leading cast members. Tell us also what a principal boy is.
Principal boys, we don’t do here.
Why is that?
We try to stick to how it was. The principal boys from the research that we did, they used to do principal boys so that the dads in the audience could see a little bit of leg. A principal boy is a woman playing prince charming as opposed to a man playing prince charming. If you remember James Marsden in the fabulous movie Enchanted, that would be played by a woman, which doesn’t make sense to me.
There’s a little cross-dressing in pantos.
The cross-dressing where it does make sense to me is that when we did Cinderella with the step-sisters. We tried to do that with two girls but it’s so bullying. It’s so vicious. When you have two guys dressed up as women doing it, it’s so ridiculous. It becomes funny. We stick to dames, we do have dames but we don’t do the reverse. We don’t have women playing principal boys.
What panto can we see this year?
in 2019, we’ve got Snow White in Los Angeles. We’re all over the country in the States. We have Snow White in Los Angeles, Aladdin in Nashville, Peter Pan down in Orange County and another Snow White in Raleigh, North Carolina. This is our 10th year anniversary.
They will start on December 1st. When does the Christmas season kick in?
They all start at around that December time, the first week of December.
That’s so exciting. You not only have done the pantomime but you are Mr. Westend producer here. You produced Footloose, The Wedding Singer. What was the difference in working on and producing a big Westend show like Footloose to doing an annual Christmas pantomime?
It’s the kick that I personally get out of it. Getting families together at the holiday time and seeing them and introducing kids, we bust in something like 10,000 title 1 school kids that don’t have lunch money to come and experience theatre. Those kinds of things with Footloose and The Wedding Singer, you don’t get those kinds of things. There’s not so much charity involved. It’s all about money and trying to make money at the box office. With panto, we’ve taken it a different angle and trying to give back and get these kids into theater. Yes, from a personal point of view, I much prefer doing the panto.
Tara mentioned, here are your stars to share that we would know, whether it’s was LA or the other locations.
When we first started off, our first Snow White was Ariana Grande.
I saw that on the pictures on your website. I was like, “Is that Ariana Grande?”
She couldn’t have been such a big star back then.
She was just launching. She was in Sam and Cat. She’d already been in Victorious. She was in Sam and Cat, which is her own show. She was a big star in her own right. She just wasn’t an international star.
You’re telling me she’s not doing the 10th anniversary for you.
Who do you got then for your 10th anniversary?
We’ve got Destiny’s Child, Michelle Williams. She’s playing our Wicked Witch. We always have our friend and amazing supporter Neil Patrick Harris. He wants to bring families into theater. He’s playing our Magic Mirror. We have some Disney kids. We always have these Disney kids like Olivia Sanabia who’s from Disney’s Coop and Cami. That’s how we try and cast it family-wise. We have the parents, the grandparents and the kids all know someone from the show.
How do you juggle being an executive for Warner Brothers, to your TV business, to your Pantomime success and being a dad and a husband? What are you up to at Warner Brothers? Tell us about that.
What’s your job title there?
I’m over at Warner Brothers for international. For example, Ellen DeGeneres does a game show. When that gets sold to France or Italy or Spain or somewhere, I then travel to that country and help them produce the same show. I’m like a walking Bible to help them produce the show.
They take the license to their country and you make sure it’s done pretty much the format, correct?
How did you get that job for people aspiring to be in the world of Hollywood?
Working in the world of TV, I did a few shows for Fox Sports or work for Fox in a few pilots.
I was at Fox Sports. I was on Fox soccer. Were you on the soccer side?
I was on the soccer side.
How come we didn’t meet then? I had some pundit stuff, the catch-up games. That’s so funny. I’ve worked with your dad, the Nigel Lythgoe. Back in the day, Nigel was known as a choreographer to my mom’s generation. He was this well-known choreographer. People don’t know this. Mom was quite a big dancer, wasn’t she?
My mom is a big dancer, that’s how they met yet. Growing up for me as a kid, it was the Nigel Lythgoe dancers or the teachers. He will be at school, “It’s the Nigel Lythgoe dance kid.”The internet phenomenon allowed people to vote. With talent shows, texting was the key. Click To Tweet
Dad went into TV in the UK and I hosted a bunch of shows that dad produced back in the day. Obviously, Dad came over stateside with the success of directing American Idol, and then obviously So You Think You Can Dance, which you worked on as well. Did you create the show with that or did dad bring you on after it was up and running?
No. He created it with Simon Fuller one night thinking about how they could do a spin-off the singing idol to make into a dance show. I worked on a show. I used to do all the audition shows and managed so that all the dancers were seen and everything like that. Why I’ve got this job now is that I took So You Think up in Canada and help the Canadians produce their own version and did that and helped them recreate the magnificent format that it is.
It’s become a bit of a phenomenon, hasn’t it? It’s been going on for years now.
Nobody can quite believe it but they’re going onto season eighteen.
I love that it gave such a platform to the fabulous Cat Deeley. She’s done brilliantly off the back of that show. There were a lot of amazing dancers. I remember seeing a little boy called TJ. He was five, six maybe or seven and he was just so brilliant. It’s amazing when those shows give platforms to kids like your dad’s annual show does.
All those shows opened up the world of talent not just to the industry but to the public. Pop Idol, as it was originally called, it became American Idol. We had opportunity knocks in our with the talent shows. That’s integrated the viewer with the show and have that public boosting going on and anyone could give it a go and have a possible chance.
It was definitely the right time, the right moment and the worlds collide when it came to internet, texting. If it was now that the landscape of television is so fractured that you wouldn’t get out to get the viewers to watch it. Back then, when you still had the four main broadcast channels and this internet phenomenon that came out that allowed people to vote and the telephones and things like that and the texting, the texting was key. They always talk about American Idol taught America how to use text.
America was behind the UK. I’m not sure why. They’re so tech-savvy over here.
You know why? Phone calls were expensive in the UK, whereas phone calls are free in America locally and domestically. They’re typically free, so everybody calls. Whereas back home, you have to pay for every single phone call. It was more convenient. Back then, people didn’t do it because they have free three-way calls as well. How do you think the landscape of TV has changed? Not only you’ve been on the backhand of producing shows but you’re now an exec at one of the big studios. How has TV changed and where do you see it going?
It’s massively changed. There’s so many nowadays at these studios, they have overruled deals. It’s so hard if you’re to think that Simon Fuller with the American Idol was just on a piece of paper that he wrote, scribbled down and then took to the studios and managed to sell this show. That could never happen now. The studios now, we’re spending upwards of $60,000 on teaser tapes and things like that to make them and buying formats from all over the world. It’s such an international playing field now, television. A lot due to the internet that has changed tremendously. Going forward, it’s interesting, everybody’s always trying to get that next home run. At the moment, we’ve got The Masked Singer that seems to be holding up.
Is that not just out of nowhere, who made it?
It’s one of those things and I’m sure you’ll agree that people say, “We need our Masked Singer.” Nobody saw that coming.
This is going to be a big flop. Who’s going to watch this?
To think this ten years ago would never have happened. We focus our attention on places like South Korea because they have the ability to launch these kinds of formats. We’re always looking at what South Korea is doing. That wasn’t the case ten years ago. It’s so international television.
Is that the industry is opened up to the average Joe to submit an idea or is it very much a closed industry?
It became much more closed. I sometimes think when I was an independent producer, I used to go around to the networks and pitch. I now laugh at myself that I thought I might’ve sold a show because a lot of these networks now have overall deals with talent. They expect to get those ideas out of them. It’s very tough to break down those doors.
Kris, we had a meeting. I was telling you at that point about Dani’s and my company, DanTar Productions that we set up a couple of years ago. We sit there day after day creating concepts, formats and we know that for every 50 we create, hopefully one will happen.
At least get to the table. What are you telling us now, Kris? Are you breaking the news to us and not paper, is that what you’re telling us?
Since I saw you last, I don’t know whether it was then or an event probably with Dan or something, things have moved along and we’re seeing exciting progress with some of our shows. We have to keep persevering because it’s very easy as you were saying to feel like the doors shut in your face. You might as well walk away, but it’s not in our natures.
Listen to what Kris is saying. He’s saying the probability of getting something sold is so much limited than it’s ever been. What is interesting is that there are so many more distribution areas with panels and networks. It’s almost like the distribution and the channels have opened up and become broader. The buyers have become wider but the limitations are narrowed.
You’re exactly right. You keep hearing and we all keep hearing that there’s so much more content that’s needed and more avenues and more this and more that. If you take a look where it’s going, it’s always going towards someone who’s already got a deal there. For example, Ellen, who’s absolutely amazing here. Ellen phones up and says, “I’ve got this game show idea. We’re going to do the game show idea.”
She’s Ellen and she’s got that much power. She’s running the show, literally.
I love that Kelly Clarkson Show seems to be doing so well. She’s very likable. Obviously, it’s all been about Ellen for so long and I’m sure it will be because she’s so amazing. It’s nice to have another woman doing a talk show in the afternoon and national.
I will say from our panto point of view, back to our panto for a second, we do them in Nashville. They’ve stopped doing their morning show in Nashville because they take on Kelly Clarkson Show. There are interesting little bits where things have closed down to accommodate a national thing.It's interesting how everybody's always trying to get that next home run in the next moment. Click To Tweet
What trends are you saying in the world of TV? What shows should we expect to see and where are the trends going?
It kills me to say this because I’m sure you’ve seen this as well. Everything’s got to have a celebrity attached. It’s one of those things where you go, “This is a perfectly good game show.” If it’s a game show with three contestants, two of them have to be celebrities and it’s like, “Why?”
We hear that all the time.
I like the regular people. I think they are far more entertaining most of the time, the regular Joe.
Agreed. If you’ve got your right casting director, because out here, I don’t know if it’s the same in the UK. If you’ve got a good casting director who can cast good members of the public, it’s perfect.
What are your TV guilty pleasures? I’m a bit obsessed with Love Island and I’m back watching from season one UK. FYI, I’m a bit obsessed.
I’m starting to watch Working at Warner. We have so much success with The Bachelor. I never used to watch The Bachelor, I’ve started to watch The Bachelor, which I am becoming obsessed with that. Love Island, I can get now and then right on. I have tried to watch a couple of episodes, but I can’t.
What are you been watching, Tara?
I’ve re binge-watched the Downton Abbey with Alyssa because Alyssa had never seen Downton Abbey. She wanted to go see the movie. I’m like, “We can’t see the movie without seeing the series.” We watched 59 episodes over a three-week period. I’m excited about The Crown coming back. Rather than reality, I’m more of a drama person. It’s so easy with these streaming platforms.
I now get annoyed that there’s an ad now swirling every ad one or four. I’m like, “No.”
I’m now with the obsessed with Absentia on Amazon Prime, which is a bit of a drama crime thing. I’m a bit into that right now.
I was talking about it to some of my American colleagues. One thing that’s beautiful about the British way, from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to winning all those awards on TV and capturing a nation, I don’t think that could ever happen in the American way. Could you imagine something opening on the Hollywood Fringe and then being this huge show announcement?
Didn’t she start in Edinburgh?
Not only that. I don’t think that she would’ve got past the having an affair with the vicar.
She’s so brilliant with the way that she’s written.
She has a unique style about her writing, which is original and candid and refreshing.
The Americans call it The House of Cards thing when she talks to the camera. Breaking that fourth wall thing is a lot more and I’m bringing it back to panto.
Sex and the City did that. They were one of the first to bring that back.
A lot of people love talking to the camera.
A lot of people couldn’t pull it off but she can. You got to have that specific comedic timing. Some of it is comedic with Phoebe Waller-Bridge in that show. You’ve got to have that perfect timing. Gentleman Jack is another show where they broke the fourth wall recently. I don’t know if you saw that. That was not comedic. That was serious.
It all depends on the writing and the actors honestly.
Do you see a time where you would ever move back to the UK or are you stuck in LA for good?
Retirement there sounds quite good but I’m a bit far away from that, I hope. I love the UK. I love going back and it’s my home. I’m married to an American, Becky, who loves the UK. She was at Rada for a year. She’s a musical theater performer as well. She loves the West End. She’s a big England fan. I never say never. I have to stay, as most people do, where the work is.
As Dani and I have both found, we do feel that LA is full of opportunity and anything you want, you can give a go out here. Whereas in the UK, it feels narrower and people aren’t as open to being flexible.A lot of people say there's no history in America, but look around you and you’ll find it. Click To Tweet
It’s an awful saying because it pulls you in. I always say to my friends, “You are only a phone call away from changing your life here.” One of your pitchers for these TV shows, you can get a phone call this afternoon. They could pick it up and order ten episodes. That is not happening. That wouldn’t happen in the UK. You have to be here to be able to make it happen.
The people in the UK don’t realize until they properly come here and stay here for a period of time what the possibilities are. They don’t get it.
You have to be over here a bit because so many people travel not just from outside of the country but from Texas and Michigan and all these places. They come to LA to try and make it and you have to be here for a while because they end up packing their bags and going back.
It’s a city of out of sight, out of mind. You have to be in everybody’s faces all the time because if they don’t see you, they forget about you. It’s a constant hustle. Where are your favorite places to go in LA? Where are your favorite hotspots to hang out?
I’m an old school, crazy person. I love places like Musso and Frank, which is one of the oldest restaurants in LA. Miceli’s because I’m a sucker for musical theater, so Miceli’s pizza. They have all the waiters sing to you. They’re all in musical theater.
It’s on Hollywood Boulevard, right?
There’s one in Hollywood, there’s one in Studio City as well.
Which one has got better singers?
There’s a fight going up between the two locations. I don’t know if you know that. One side does the opera and the other side is musical theater, it’s hilarious. It depends what you like but the opera people are in Studio City. I’ve been to the h Club.
Are you a member there?
I went there on Saturday night and had such a great time. The h Club originated in London, was set up by Dave Stewart and Paul Allen in London. H club was launched here again by the late Paul Allen’s company. It’s a place where you go work, you go socialize, they do fantastic events, screenings, eat and be merry.
Is it the serious version of the SoHo House is how I see it? It’s much more serious. Finish off your LA hotspots.
Smokehouse made famous by George Clooney. George Clooney ended up naming his production company, Smokehouse Productions. He’s here by Warner Brothers and Smokehouse is another old eatery where you walk in and there are pictures of Frank Sinatra on the wall, sitting at booths and things like that. I love old Hollywood. A lot of people say there’s no history in America but if you look around, you find it.
There’s a lot if you look for. Where do you like to take your wife and kids? Where are your good weekend hang-out spots? You’d like to go to the beach?
I love the beach but we never go. It’s too far away. We’re at Toluca Lake Way, it’s near Burbank. We’d go down to Palm Springs. I’ve got a little four-year-old Leo, so we will tend to try and go to somewhere like Universal which is close or even Disney. There’s so much to do to for families here.
Do you take him around the Warner lot a lot?
I did and they’re filming Batman here at the moment. He loved it. He saw the new Batmobile.
Did he meet Robert Pattinson?
No. Is he the one playing Batman?
Yes, I think he is. Kris, if there’s one thing you miss from the UK, what is it?
I’ll skip on friends because we’d all say that. It’s the summer moment when the sun first comes down and everybody’s outside the pub and we see a little bit of sunshine and the streets are packed and everything like that. I used to miss Black Cats but now I don’t miss Black Cats anymore. I used to miss fish and chips, but there’s lots of fish and chips here now. It’s that whole pub mentality where you can get off work early at 5:00 and go down the pub.
Everyone’s hanging out and there’s always someone you know. You don’t have to make a plan, you don’t have to coordinate.
I’ve said what mine is multiple times on different interviews. It’s very basic. It’s chocolate.
You can get chocolate here.
No, but it doesn’t taste the same.
I come back with Percy Pigs, wine gum.
I love those from M&S, Marks & Spencer.
All this time, I bring them back.
We are very excited to tell our readers about the panto. Tell them where they can go and get the tickets and where it’s showing.
We’re at the Pasadena Civic. It’s a Snow White Christmas with Neil Patrick Harris as the on-screen Magic Mirror with Olivia Sanabia, a Disney kid. Michael Campion from Netflix’s Fuller House is the Prince and Destiny’s Child, Michelle Williams, is our Wicked Witch. It’s the typical British style Panto, so it’s full of interactivity. It’s behind you. We’re going to have plenty of that. It’s a lot of fun. It’s PasadenaCivic.com.
We can’t wait to see it. We will definitely be there to spare you along. Thank you so much for being our fabulous guest. It’s been an honor. You can check us out at our website, LaLaLanded.com, on Instagram @LalaLandedPodcast and on Facebook at La La Landed. Thank you, Kris.
- Kris Lythgoe
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About Kris Lythgoe
Kris is an executive at Warner Brothers. TV credits include: “So You Think You Can Dance” (Fox), “Corkscrewed: The Wrath of Grapes” (Fox Reality), “Who Are You?” (Fox), “On The Nose” (TVG), “My Beautiful Game” (Fox Soccer), “A Snow White Christmas: Opening Night” (Ovation) and “Soccer Superstar” (Nickelodeon).
Theatre credits: Footloose, The Wedding Singer and many American pantos across the country. Over 5000 kids will be introduced to the theatre this holiday season through Panto!