We chat to Michael Cassel about his experience with COVID-19 and plans to re-open

Michael Cassel is an internationally recognised producer and entertainment executive. He formed his company, the Michael Cassel Group, to produce and present the world’s greatest musical and theatrical productions, live entertainment experiences, marquee events and concert attractions.

Michael Cassel

Mr Cassel is the Executive Producer of the Australian premiere production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child which was playing at the Princess Theatre in Melbourne prior to the COVID-19 lockdown. His other recent productions include the international tour of The Lion King, last seen in Hong Kong and Rita Wilson in Concert at the Sydney Opera House; and herein lies our story.

I quickly learned that Mr Cassel was ahead of most of us in adapting to news of the virus discovery and was making plans to cancel shows before Australia truly knew the extent of what was about to happen.

“Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, we were touring The Lion King internationally which had been very successful for the last 2 years, with a lot of Australian folks involved in the production, both as cast and crew. On 23rd December I landed back in Sydney after opening the show in Hong Kong and I sent the team an email congratulating them on such an epic year. We started the year by opening Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, we then did 5 international launches of The Lion King, we produced the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in October and finished the year by starting to cast for Hamilton and opening The Lion King in Hong Kong. I encouraged the team to go and have a well-deserved break, enjoy Christmas & the New Year and get ready for an amazing 2020.

The Lion King - Sydney 2013 Image by Deen van Meer
The Lion King – Sydney 2013 Photo by Deen van Meer

“Then on the 28th December, I got an email from our head of marketing saying, ‘Michael, you might just want to have a read of this article’. It was the first article I had read about a virus in Wuhan. The reason this was curious to me is that our next engagement for The Lion King was in Wuhan, due to open there mid-February. Fast forward to the middle of January and we were now dealing with the full-scale outbreak of the virus in Wuhan. There was quite a lot of press about what was going on, although it wasn’t what we know about the spread of the virus now and there were no preventative measures in place at this point, so it was very worrying for us. We were about to send 105 people into this city and it was obvious that something wasn’t right. So, working closely with our partners, we made the decision to cancel our upcoming 6-week engagement of The Lion King in Wuhan and also in Bejing, where it was due to play next.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Red Carpet. Michael Cassel, Sonia Friedman and Colin Callender. Photo by Julie Kiriacoudis

“Meanwhile, over in Australia, we were celebrating the 1 year anniversary of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, which was going great and it felt like business as usual.

“A week after we did the Harry Potter first birthday presentation, I presented Rita Wilson in Concert at the Sydney Opera House which was absolutely brilliant.

“Then it was just a few days later on the following Thursday, my team and I were meeting to talk about what we would do if somebody contracted Coronavirus in our office. What our procedure would be, how we would adapt, we were talking through it all. At the end of the two and a half-hour meeting, exploring all scenarios including the impact if we were asked to close Harry Potter, I finished by saying, ‘I can’t believe we have just spent two and a half hours talking about COVID-19 but at least we are now in great shape and all know how we will cope if it does become a problem’.

“Then my assistant, Jennifer, walked into the board room; she just had this look on her face and I knew something was wrong. I asked her what was going on and she said, ‘Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks have just announced that they have tested positive to Coronavirus’.

I looked at Michel Hryce, who is our director of people & culture and said, “what do we do?”

“A few of us that had been in contact with Rita and Tom were advised to go and get tested, so we got straight onto that. After the test, we were told to stay in isolation whilst awaiting the results, which was the remainder of Thursday and all of Friday. I didn’t really have any symptoms at that point, so I thought I was fine. Then on Friday evening, I got a call from New South Wales Health confirming that I had also tested positive.

“In the space of those few days, we had met to discuss an action plan, I had tested positive and Harry Potter was closing, the show had its final performance (for now) on that Sunday, it was crazy.”

Now fully recovered, in great spirits and with a positive outlook, Mr Cassel is looking ahead to the future and assessing plans to get back to work.

We are talking a lot about the future and what we do when we are allowed to get our shows back up and running again.

“I feel extremely positive about the easing of restrictions. If we look at how the Australian Government have put the health, science and the data first over the last few weeks; and comparing ourselves to other nations that are going through the same thing, I think we are extremely lucky position.

“We are going to return to a state of normality at some point and although it is going to be different from what we are used to, we will adapt. We have to trust the experts and adopt the right protocols and procedures to limit the transmission and allow the economy to reboot.”

The Potters
Photo by Damian Bennett

Is there a chance that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child could re-open to smaller audiences as restrictions ease?

“We’ve looked at this in great detail since the pandemic began but because of the sheer scale and cost of the production, we need to run at capacity for this show to be financially viable. Operationally if we opened any sooner, we would be losing on the production which is just not sustainable for us.

“It also wouldn’t be right for the audience experience; we cant have actors playing to half-empty houses and have patrons spread out around the auditorium. Can you imagine if you booked as a group to come with your friends or family and were told that you had to split up? Also, given that the upcoming performances of the show are sold out, how would we even go about opening to half houses? We’re certainly not going to tell one group they can come and another group they can’t.

“We need to wait for the time when gatherings of 1,500 people are permitted.”

The arts sector and production companies around the country have been hit incredibly hard with a large number of organisations finding themselves ineligible for Government support. Evaluating the support package, Mr Cassel said,

“We are very fortunate in the case of Harry Potter that the show had been running for over a year and that we were eligible for Government support. We can simply down tools for while and then fire back up when restrictions are lifted. We empathise so much for our colleagues that are not eligible for support and if this had just fallen at a different time, the majority of other productions we have produced including Beautiful, Prescilla, Kinky Boots or Les Mis would not have been eligible either. It is very disappointing that there has not been more support for arts organisations and other producers that are finding this situation so devastating.”

Mr Cassel identified the key role producers play in making theatre as accessible as possible to audiences when shows can mobilise in the future. He also pointed out the unique responsibility that productions such as Harry Potter and the Cursed Child have, to return as quickly as possible. There will be a huge lag period for some venues that will need to set about seeking content for the stage but for resident shows like Harry Potter, it is important to get back quickly once the green light is given.

“We are in the fortunate position that we are ready to get back into the theatre as soon as restrictions are lifted. It is important for us to get back to business as usual to give audiences and other producers the confidence that we can return to normality.”

Disney have confirmed that Frozen will be pushing forward later this year and Hamilton will also be opening in March next year. So, provided that we are all going to be ok, there will be plenty of productions around for people to see.

Mr Cassel is due to produce the Australasian premiere of the landmark, multi-award-winning musical Hamilton at the Sydney Lyric Theatre, in March 2021.

He tells me that amidst the devastation of the current situation, “it has been so wonderful to be able to make job offers to people for this production during the current lockdown.

“Virtual meetings are taking place to discuss various elements of the show, the [set] build is underway and we are about to announce our pre-sales and on-sale dates for tickets, which is so important in staying focused on the future. I think it’s critical that we remain optimistic about what’s to come. We have to unite as an industry and find our way through this.”

So whilst we may not see the return of any large scale shows in the immediate future, we can rest assured that once the restrictions do begin to lift and crowds can return to the theatre, there will be plenty on offer for audiences to see.

Peter J Snee

Peter is a British born creative, working in the live entertainment industry. He holds an honours degree in Performing Arts and has over 12 years combined work experience in producing, directing and managing artistic programs & events. Peter has traversed the UK, Europe and Australia pursuing his interest in theatre. He is inspired by great stories and passionately driven by pursuing opportunities to tell them.

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