This week's Canadian première of the chamber musical Daddy Long Legs does not represent director John Caird's debut at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.
His name first came to the notice of MTC patrons in 1991 as the Tony Award-winning co-director of a little musical called Les Misérables. He and Trevor Nunn, both then with the Royal Shakespeare Company, had overhauled Victor Hugo's story, added the signature revolving stage and opened it in 1985 in London, where it continues to run today.
"I knew we were doing something fantastic," says Caird, the 64-year-old Canadian-born Brit, during an interview this week in the RMTC boardroom. "In those days musicals didn't automatically run forever. A great success was a two-year run. The huge global success that it has had is largely due to the entrepreneurial, Napoleonic skill of (producer) Cameron Mackintosh."
Nor is this his first time in Winnipeg: Caird was a two-year-old when he and his parents stopped at Union Station in 1950 during a train trip from his birthplace in Edmonton to a new home in Montreal. By the time he was 10 he was living in England, where he would rise to prominence as a director first in 1980 as the co-director with Nunn of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, where they earned their first Tony Award after the show's transfer to Broadway.
Reminiscing about past achievements is not a favourite pastime of Caird, who works all over the world, including Stockholm, where he is principal guest director at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, and in Tokyo, where in 2007 he had three productions running simultaneously. He has worked with many British stage stars, including Judi Dench and Daniel Day Lewis -- an unknown in 1983 when Caird cast him as his male lead in Romeo and Juliet at the RSC.
"I'm always thinking of the next thing, not the last things," he says, before bemoaning the current public's obsession with artistic competitions and award shows.
"I find the whole business of Oscars and Tonys preposterous. I don't know why people take such account of them, these little gold statutes. We don't do the work we do for silly trinkets. If what we do is in any sense an art, then it is demeaned by odious comparisons."
Caird remembers being pleased by winning for Les Misérables, which in near 28 years has been seen by more than 60 million people in 42 countries. Within two days, the glow of winning disappeared.
"I can't bear to see them," he says of his Tonys and pair of Oliviers (London theatre awards) gathering dust in his basement. "They are nowhere evident in my house because they have become a sort of rebuke. You can't allow your life to be ruled by them."
Caird, best known for his monumental stage projects -- the eight-hour Nicholas Nickleby and the spectacle that is Les Miz -- is here with one of his most compact shows, Daddy Long Legs, getting its Canadian première at RMTC. The story, by little known American novelist Jean Webster, is about a college-age orphan and her anonymous benefactor, whom she nicknames Daddy Long Legs.
Webster's 1912 book, Daddy-Long-Legs, was given to Caird by his Japanese wife, who was surprised he was unaware of one of her home country's favourite stories. Japan's main orphan charity fund is called ashinaga, which in Japanese means "long legs."
"I read it and thought it was a charming story that could make a small musical," says Caird, who wrote the book to American Paul Gordon's music and lyrics. "I was thinking at the time I wanted to write a recession musical, something that could be done very cheaply."
Caird says the book cried out for musicalization mostly because it is made up of a series of letters the girl, Jerusha, is writing to her male patron. He says the best musicals are dramas in which characters have secrets they can't share with any other character but the audience.
"It's about the meaning of charity," says the father of 24-year-old singing sensation Eliza Doolittle (Caird), whose first album went platinum in England. "It's about what charity can do for people who have nothing but also what it does to people who are giving it."
The story of an orphan and a sponsor named Daddy Long Legs will make some people think of a more famous musical called Annie, which Caird calls not very profound, given that it is based on a comic strip. He thinks the more interesting comparison is with Anne of Green Gables, written a few years before. Perhaps the popularity of Lucy Maud Montgomery's series about the freckle-faced, redheaded girl overshadowed Daddy Long Legs.
The books are similar in that they explore the relationship of a very bright child and explores how that child grows up into a real proper woman. It's a storyline that has appealed to him before.
"There is an obvious link with Nicholas Nickleby, the orphan child who desperately needs help, and a basic story of a benefactor helping a young woman is in Les Misérables. It's the same core relationship."
Daddy Long Legs
Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre
Opens March 14, to April 6
Tickets: $29-$68.50 at 204-942-6537