West End theatre agent, producer and composer Jimmy Jewell on succeeding in showbiz and more
Jimmy Jewell is a West End theatre agent, producer and composer who has lived – and is living – an amazing life in the entertainment industry. From playing keyboard with Alice Cooper and Roger Daltrey on tour to producing Peter Rabbit and Paddington shows at Edinburgh, the British creative is packed full of exciting stories and invaluable info. Here Jimmy shares his fascinating entertainment industry journey with Mandy News in amazing detail and offers priceless tips to actors and performers hoping to get ahead in the world of theatre.
Jimmy, tell us about yourself, what you do and how you got started in the entertainment industry.
I’d describe myself as a composer, producer and an agent. In reality, those three things have kind of happened at different times, but they now all seem to exist together. Quite how, I’m not certain. It’s a bit like juggling.
I was a singer in St Paul’s Cathedral Choir when I was a child, so that got me into music and then – as well as singing in the cathedral every day – we would do all sorts of outside gigs. I did my first ‘tour’ as a musician when I was eight years old. We toured the states, did 25 concerts in 26 days in 25 different cities. I was on a plane every day, so I got the bug very early. Then, we did a lot of film recordings and soundtracks, including the soundtrack to The Land Before Time with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. We did it in Abbey Road, and I think it was James Horner conducting the LSO or something like that. It was just the world I had to be in. Even then, at nine or ten years old.
I left there, went to school and joined the National Youth Musical Theatre and was in that famous production of Bugsy Malone. I don’t meet anyone now who’s anything to do with the industry that isn’t at least two degrees of separation from someone who has something to do with that Bugsy Malone.
Then, I got into the Royal Academy of Music to do composition. The beauty of this industry is you can start working while you’re studying. Our professors would take us to recording sessions with Oasis, and the Lighthouse Family and things like that, and you’d be doing practical music. Out of that came jobs, as well. So, I got involved with the theatre side of the academy, because I’d been in NYMT. I got involved with Mary Hammond and the musical theatre group. I ended up doing loads with them.
Then, out of that came various jobs; conducting pantos, conducting and depping on West End shows. I depped on the first ever year of Mamma Mia, in 1999. I had a lot of lucky breaks. You have to prove yourself when you get them, of course, but I was in the right place at the right time. At the same time, while I was at the academy, an advert went up on the noticeboard that Roger Daltrey from The Who was about to embark on a US symphonic tour and they were looking for players, so I auditioned to play the keyboard strings – the awful string patches on the keyboard – and I got it and went off with all the proper musicians from the Academy. We went out to the states with Roger Daltrey and had a ball. That tour then got bigger and they asked me to join the band. So, rather than being on the strings keyboard, I ended up being on the keyboards and the piano.
I ended up writing charts for the Harlem Boys Choir and the orchestras and ended up touring with various members of The Who, Alice Cooper, Peter Frampton and Tony Hadley. In the middle of all of those gigs I’d never say no to any work. I remember one night, we were closing up a South American tour, it might have been Buenos Aires, and I think it was Roger Daltrey who turned to me and said “what are you doing when you get back?” and I said “I’m starting work on a pantomime at the Aylesbury Civic Centre with Keith Chegwin.” I treated every job the same. I was just happy to be in work, and it was great because I got to cross over. I remember one of the Pantos, at Aylesbury, with Ben Townshend, who’s Pete Townshend’s nephew and Simon Townshend’s son. Ben had been on the Australia rock tour with us, so I got him in to do a panto, and so you had a Townshend doing a panto with Keith Chegwin. It was just bananas, but I loved it.
I was really lucky and I guess you could consider me successful at a very young age. I moved over to America for two years, because the work was there. I ended up conducting broadway tours, conducting in Seattle, orchestrating all these shows, and I just had a ball. I used to commute back and forth from New York to London but, during the downtime, I started putting on my own shows. Probably to make money, but more just to keep me interested.
Then, I got signed to an agent. It’s really funny, I did an Equity panel three months ago with two other agents, in front of 100 actors, and we were asked how we became agents. I said, “I married my agent,” the person next to me said “it’s my dad’s company,” and the person next to them said something relatively similar like “it belongs to my brother” or something. I don’t think anyone ever wakes up wanting to be an agent. No one sticks their hand up, when asked “what do you want to be when you’re older?” No one wants to be an agent. It just happens, and you find that you’re good at it, and you find that you enjoy it.
I got signed to an agent, in London, he had an assistant and she wanted her own agency. We were together and so we set one up together. That was 13 years ago. It’s a slog, setting up an agency. It’s not a slog setting one up and going, but it’s a slog surviving sometimes. Keeping businesses going for that long is hard and tough sometimes. It’s not always great, and you have to move and adapt with the times. We’ve got bigger and smaller and staff come and staff go, but I have a constant in Neal, who’s my business partner there, and him and Connie, who’s been with us for a few years, really run that ship tightly.
I’d love to be able to say that I could do everything I do on my own, but I can’t. I think the secret in being able to sustain owning an agency and running it, owning a production company and running it, and also being a creative – being a composer – is by having brilliant people around you. People that you trust implicitly – with your babies – to run them with you. Not for you. That’s really important. I don’t think anyone runs anything for me, everyone runs things with me.
During that time, were you still doing the other stuff as well?
Bits, but when you start a company like that, there’s not a lot of time. It is all-consuming, and the ideas of it change, as well. One thing that we said when we started the agency is that it’s entirely possible to get through this industry by being a decent person and treating people decently. You see so much in this industry – especially as an agent and as a producer – of people being treated appallingly by other people who seem to have this self entitlement.
Yes, it does take longer to be successful, but it’s perfectly possible to do it by just being a decent person. I think quite a lot of our clients are surprised when I keep the promise that “by the way, I’m never going to slam the phone down on you and I’m never going to say a bad word about you. I’m never going to say you’re not talented.” The amount of agents that you see saying “I used to look after her, she’s appalling.” Why would you sign anyone that was appalling? What does that say about you, as an agent?
When my ex-clients get amazing jobs, I’m genuinely happy for them, and I’m still in contact with them all. Not because I want to poach them, but because we have those relationships with all our clients. How can you say that you’re an agent and sell someone if you don’t have the belief in their talent? How can you then turn around, and be like 80% of the industry and go “Oh they’re rubbish. Appalling”? Once upon a time you were selling them!
Perhaps it’s because you understand being a creative, when others don’t?
I get myself involved in all these wacky, wonderful projects. I mucked around with producing I guess for a good 10-15 years, until I started doing it properly about six years ago. I became an associate producer on Memphis and The Mentalists in the West End, and also started rolling out a program of my own shows. I’m about to do my third Edinburgh season. We’re about to take another three shows up to Edinburgh.
What are the Edinburgh shows called?
Last year we did a big children’s show, Peter Rabbit and Jemima Puddle-duck and Tamar Broadbent’s show Get Ugly. She’s an incredible stand-up comedian. We also did a show called Beak Speaks, which was a kind of Radio 4-style character comedy. This year, we’re doing the children’s format again with Paddington Bear’s First Concert. Tamar’s back with her new show Tamar Broadbent: Best Life, and we are also doing a piece called Dietrich Natural Duty, which is an example of how all these worlds can come together.
My agency represents a wonderful physical theatre performer and incredible actor called Peter Groom, and he’s been talking to me for a long time about his ideas for Marlene Dietrich and creating a show about her. He got some funding from some various creative houses, and put together his own show, where he becomes Marlene Dietrich, and it is one of the most enthralling, captivating, wonderful hours I’ve ever spent in a theatre. It’s genuinely mesmerising. He looks unbelievable. He looks like her, sounds like her, and it’s not like a brash drag act. He’s there in a dress, sure, but he becomes Marlene, and it’s astonishing. It played The Vaults for five days and got five-star reviews all around. We’re taking that up to the Pleasance Courtyard, and then it’s transferring to Wilton’s already.
I wouldn’t do any show in Edinburgh unless I think it will have a future life. We’re already planning on putting last year’s Peter Rabbit back in London next Easter. Tamar Broadbent, we’re hoping to get her back out to Australia, and the idea of Dietrich is to do London and then New York, and see where it goes. That’s another example of when all the worlds can come together. Paddington, for example, is a concert written by Herbert Chappell, who wrote the original music to Paddington Bear. One of my clients is Herbert Chappell’s daughter, that’s totally by chance, but it just shows you how small the industry is. I’m writing a song to go in the first act to teach the children. It’s going to be an interactive and engaging hour.
Two years ago, I did production work on a big YouTuber tour, which was crazy. I did some production consultancy work on one of the highest-grossing live tours of this decade, and it’s bizarre, the YouTube generation, the YouTube world, because we need to understand it more and to harness it more. There is an entire generation that are being entirely influenced by people and we have no idea who they are. If they walked into this coffee shop right now, we wouldn’t have a clue, at all. They sold out arenas, worldwide, with no marketing. The NYPD had to shut the streets in New York, there were so many fans. I only did some consultancy work on it, but then as a result of doing that, because the person who hired me knew I was a songwriter, I wrote the song for the end of the show. That song eventually ended up getting released as an official charity single, and it went to number one in about 9 countries.
I get to dip in and out and do all of these crazy, wonderful things.
You’ve done and do so many things. Many performers or people in general get, when they’re doing multiple things, is a complex about whether they’re doing too much, spreading themselves too thin. Was that ever a problem or just something you overcame by showing your ability?
I think it only ever becomes a problem when it becomes selfish. There was a time (and I think any writer would do this, if no one else is going to), where I produced my own work. I produced two musicals that I wrote. That’s where you trip up, because if you’re in charge of the whole thing, you’re making the production and creative decisions. There’s no one there to go and look at it and go “hang on a second,” and it fails. Dismally.
I’ve always been one of these creatives that’s perfectly happy to hand the baby over to someone who knows what they’re doing. You know what I mean? As a producer, if I hire a director, then I’m hiring them because they’re brilliant at directing. I’m not one of these producers that thinks they have the right to go into a rehearsal room and say “I don’t like the way that’s being directed.” I take that risk when I hire a director to direct a show.
So the same as you were saying with representing actors? If you don’t trust their ability, why work with them in the first place?
Exactly. I think that’s where it becomes muddy. For me, when I’ve tried to produce my own work it didn’t take me long for me to work out that that’s not what you do. And you know what? If no one else is going to produce your own musicals, then you’re not that good. You have to face that. It’s quite a harsh reality, quite a harsh wake up call. Because actually, what you see in people that produce their own work, is kind of a desperation, and the filter of the industry exists for a reason. Only the best stuff is going to work and only the best stuff is going to end up in London. Only the best stuff is going to end up on the stage, and if your work’s not been placed under that scrutiny, then you don’t deserve to have it there, you know?
I always have this thing about BBC Radio 4. Any of the comedy on BBC Radio 4 is incredible. It’s stunning. We have so many actors on our books involved in BBC Radio 4 drama and comedy. It’s amazing and you never go to the BBC Radio Theatre and hear anything bad, and there’s a reason for that. It’s because the BBC is still a body where everything that’s made goes through that scrutinisation process. You can’t, as a writer, go “right, I’m going to make my radio program, I’m going to write it, we’re going to make it, and dish it out on the beeb.” It goes through the right channels and only the best stuff ends up on it.
There are other platforms for people to do that, put their stuff out there and work out whether people like it or not, and it’s what everyone should do. If you’re a comedy writer, yeah, make a podcast it, put it on YouTube, put it out there and see if the world likes it - but don’t complain if the world doesn’t. Find something else and move on.
Luckily, people do still produce my musicals.
There’s a great book called Sick in the Head by Judd Apatow, which is interviews with all these comedians, and Jerry Seinfeld says exactly that. Go and do it, and if people don’t like you, that’s just the way it goes.
That’s the point. I’ve raised a few eyebrows, of course, when I say I’m a producer and I own an agency, because then people just assume you’re going to place your own clients in the show, but I deal with that in exactly the same way as any other creative. I hire casting directors that I respect greatly. In the last two years, I had Ginny Schiller, Siobhan Bracke and Anne Vosser, who are all incredible casting directors. If I’m getting them to cast my shows, and I’m getting directors to direct them, I’m not going to have any part of that casting process.
If they happen to call one of my clients, then that’s great, but my clients have got to prove themselves. Everyone has to prove themselves. No one gets a leg up. Luckily, some of my clients do get into shows because they are good, but they don’t get in because I’m the producer.
You’ve obviously worked with amazing musicians, like Alice Cooper, Roger Daltrey and West End performers. This is sort of a two prong question; when you’re talking about that kind of level of household name, or any brilliant performer, what is it that you’ve noticed that makes someone so good at what they do?
I think it’s a really fine line between confidence and arrogance. This probably doesn’t sound like it’s going to make any sense, but ultimate confidence with humility. I’ve seen people who are very successful who are a****holes, but they’re never the most successful people in the room. On those rock tours, it was always very noticeable who was at the bottom of the pecking order, they would always be the people that were the a***holes. Always. I’m not saying it’s impossible to be successful and not be nice, but I think the people that are the most successful, and I think it’s the same with anyone, walk into that room, know they’re right for the job, but don’t assume that they’re just going to be picked because they can deliver. It’s about that fine line.
There’s always going to be something about the Peter Framptons of this world, that are just a little bit of a genius, but I also believe a lot in being in the right place at the right time. When I was on tour, with that rock tour for three years, going round the world, planes every day and limos and hotel suites, there were a large amount of people that would come up to me after the show, backstage, and angrily ask me why I was doing it. Because there are thousands and thousands and thousands of people who could have played those keyboards just as well as I could. But I was in the right place at the right time. I believe in that a lot.
It’s just the same as looking after actors in an agency. I believe in everyone on my books, and I defy any agent of their worth to say otherwise. They should believe that everyone on their books has the ability and the talent to have enormously successful careers in theatre. However, there isn’t enough work out there for all of that to happen, so it’s not always about whether you can do it, or how good you are. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s just about being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes it’s about having the right agent, or a different agent. Sometimes it’s about the different people you know. There is no formula, and if there was, then I think the industry would implode. And I’d be in the Bahamas.
Work-ethic wise, having been inside it. How much is too much and how much is too little? There is often that illusion – or truth, perhaps – that people who survive on little sleep and work all the time are massively successful. But there are also people who can be a bit chill and bohemian about it and still be successful. What have you noticed?
I think it’s all about time management, really. I have two children, and I think I only really started to learn this recently. My ex-wife would say I was terrible at time management. I think that’s something you can get better with as your priorities in life change. I will work 19-20 hour days, when I need to. I will work 20-hour days in Edinburgh, without a doubt, and that’s not because I’ll be out partying. Edinburgh, I’ll take the team up to our house up there and we’ve got three shows a day. We are running a big operation up there. It is not a party. It’s a job. We still have a lot of fun, but I think you just have to treat everything seriously.
Also, I learnt five or six years ago that holidays are really, really important. You do see some people who are very successful and they work 19-hour days, but then they go on holiday with their kids. You see it all the time. I go on holiday with my children and I see other people on holiday and the parents are on iPads or phones and they don’t stop working. Sometimes you’ve just got to lock your phone away in a safe and go off comms. It’s so scary to do. I don’t think I did it for the first five or six years of owning the agency. I’d be on holiday and I’d be on the phone to the office every day, and then one day I just said “I’m not doing that,” and it was one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever done.
Ultimately, at the end of the day, none of this matters. Really. We’re not brain surgeons. We’re not saving people’s lives. We’re entertaining people. We’re having an awful lot of fun. I’m very, very blessed and very lucky to work three jobs that I love. I don’t complain about any of them, I love them all. But none of it matters, much.
I do think this comes with age, and that’s not me being condescending to the millennial generation. I think the older you get, the more you realise this. I see some people of my generation who haven’t realised that, yet, and you just worry that they’re going to miss out on what life really is about. My greatest production is my children, without question. God, that’s cheesy. But it’s true.
A question for performers. If someone is contacting you, cold, about being represented by yourself, what is the sort of baseline stuff that you look for? Obviously a headshot and some credits, presumably?
We only accept things by email, now. Which is interesting, because it was never email before. What’s really important, I think, is personalisation. It’s not about fawning over an agent, at all. It’s not about our need to be loved. It’s about knowing that the actor understands who they’re writing to. Knowing that they actually want to be represented by your agency.
I gave feedback to someone because they asked for it, only two days ago. There is nothing worse than seeing a cut and paste that you know is going to 100 agencies. Do your research, know who you’re writing to, address it properly, and demonstrate that you know who you’re writing to. Pick out a client, pick out something, because otherwise, why are you writing to us? I don’t understand why people would just blanket write to 200 agents in the hope that one of them will pick them up. Don’t write to 200, write to 20 that you want to be represented by, and really put the effort into writing the right thing. But don’t go on too long, because we haven’t got ages.
You’ve already told us about the Edinburgh stuff, but is there any other stuff that you’ve got coming up that you’d like to talk about? Or things that you intend to do in the future?
Other shows, unfortunately, I can’t talk about really. They’re all under wraps at the moment, but there’s some really, really exciting stuff happening over the next couple of years. Up until about a year ago, I would produce show to show, so I’d kind of go “What’s next? What’s next?” and I’d open one and have the next one in rehearsals and then do one at a time.
The industry is changing, all the time. It’s getting much tougher, all the time, for producers as well. I know everyone looks at the industry and thinks actors are hard done by, but, and this is not a sob story for producers – it’s really hard. It used to be, that you could make money on tour to bring it into London. Now, touring is nigh on impossible because it’s so expensive. There are so many stakeholders in every aspect of theatre, now. It’s getting tougher and tougher.
Now, I think, my approach to producing is more about a linear long term strategy. Rather than going from show to show, we’ve got six major projects that will happen over the next five or six years. Ranging from stage to screen. My production company is a multifaceted company that deals with music production, theatre production, and we’re moving into screen production. That’s one of the exciting things that’s coming up.
What advice would you give to agents or producers that want to follow in your footsteps?
Like I said at the beginning, I don’t think you ever choose to become an agent. In the Agency, Connie is our assistant, and without her the whole place would fall apart. She grew up in a theatrical dynasty, which very quickly made her realise she never wanted to be on stage despite a great affection for actors. She came to work for us, then she went to work in the theatre, then came back. As I said, no one wakes up wanting to be an agent. It’s one of those jobs in the industry that you end up in, and you either stay or you don’t.
Producing? I mean there are all sorts of courses, all over the country now, on how to be a producer. It’s really interesting. Before the advent of Stage One, there was no one out there doing a course in how to produce a musical or how to produce a show. It’s just something you learned on the job. I went to university to study composition, how to write music. Stephen Sondheim didn’t do that. He sat backstage with Richard Rogers. It’s bizarre. There are all sorts of things you can do. Stage One is obviously the optimum – it’s the first place I’d send anyone to. But there are courses all over the country, from Mountview up to- I’m sure there’s one in Aberdeen, if you want one.
I think producing in theatre is like directing or producing in film. If you don’t know what the gaffer is doing on a film, or what’s expected of them, then you have no right to tell them what to do. I think being an effective theatre producer, or an effective director, is understanding what’s required of every role, and that you’re going to be far more respected and much better at it if you’ve done some of that.
I’ve seen so many people emerge as theatre producers at 23 years old and disappear at 25, because they just don’t do the graft. People are really, really scared of work these days. People want instant hits, and people want instant success. It’s that scratch card generation. You know what? You’ve just got to work hard. Everyone who’s successful in the industry, on a long-term basis, has worked bloody hard. So should everyone else.
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