Published: July 29, 2011
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We are delighted to give you an exclusive interview with New Yorker, Richard Ambrose, Vice President of Passenger Programs and Entertainment for Norwegian Cruise Line.
After an amazing career spanning three decades as a performer, Richard moved over to the creative side of entertainment and is now a world renowned producer of some of the best production shows at sea.
Read more about his brilliant career and his plans for NCL Productions...

Ladies & Gentlemen, SBF member: Mr. Richard Ambrose.
Richard Ambrose

  • When did you start performing and what made you take it up?
    NCL Epic
    Quote ...For us at NCL it's quality, not quantity that matters...
    Richard Ambrose: I started out very young - I was a child actor - commercials, theatre, etc. So I've been in entertainment professionally since I was 10 years old, living in New York City. My parents told me I couldn't get a degree in the entertainment fields, so I went to the American University in Washington and got an International Relation and Communication's degree, but realized that wasn't what I wanted to do. All I wanted to do was dance on Broadway. So I auditioned and first joined the American Ballet Theater, followed by 42nd Street, A Chorus Line and Anything Goes. Then I joined the international touring company for Anything Goes and eventually ended up in Berlin, Germany at the Friedrichstadtpalast theater. At the end of the tour I was 32 and it was one of those moments in life, when I felt that I'd been in the business long eough. There I was, dressed in a white sailor's suit and tap shoes and I thought: "I don't want to do this anymore". I say that 'my pilot light had gone out'. I thought that I was going to leave the business and have 'a normal life', but this business has a funny way of dragging you back.

  • How did you get back into showbiz?
    RA: After the tour I went back to New York and worked for an accounting firm. I soon realized that I needed to further my education and got a MBA at Thunderbird, the international school in Arizona. Then I went back to NY and became the Production Manager for Smokey Joe's Cafe and took that show internationally. Subsequently became Production Supervisor and then General Manager.

  • NCL Epic,
Blueman Group Do you miss performing?
    RA: There are times when I miss being on stage, but it's just a flash. Then I think about how difficult it is - the auditioning, the rehearsing, what happens backstage! I really do think that I was fortunate in that my pilot light went out. I had a brilliant career from 10 to 32. I pretty much worked non-stop. I had a bizarre childhood, but I wouldn't have had it any other way. I don't come from a show business family and I ask my mom all the time: "why did you let me do this?" and she says: "Richard you have to understand, it's all you wanted!" I say all the time that McDonalds paid for my college education. Back in the 1970s I was a blue eyed, blond kid and that's what used to sell. I've been very lucky and I'm continuing to live my passion.

  • What brought you to the cruise industry?
    RA: I got a call from Disney - they caught me on a good day, because I never thought that I would leave New York, but I went down to Disney World to work. As it turned out, the assignment that they had hired me for, didn't happen, so they asked if I would be interested in going over to Disney Cruise Line. I started out as Production Manager and worked my way up to Producer and then Senior Creative Producer. I was with them for 5 years. They only had two ships, but for me it was a great introduction to the cruising industry. I had a great fun run time there and by the time that I left the company, I had produced all the shows and the big firework spectacular. It was time to leave though, so I did my own thing for about 1 years as Producer. I had clients in Japan and the Caribbean. NCL Epic
Legends in Concert Then Norwegian Cruise Line called me and asked if I would be interested in joining them. In the beginning I thought no, as I was enjoying what I was doing, but they asked me to go and talk to them and... here I am! It's been 4 years now and it's great. It's amazing how much has happened in these 4 years - I've got a great team here and I couldn't be happier.

  • Please tell us about some of the changes at Norwegian Cruise Lines?
    RA: We want the world to know what we are doing here at Norwegian Cruise Line. We really believe that we are changing. We've had a wonderful relationship with Jean Ann Ryan for 30 odd years, but now we want to go in a different direction, so we are bringing everything in-house. We're in the process of building a 32,000 sq ft facility in Miami, just down the street from the NCL offices.
    Quote ...We also have great transitions between our numbers, so that one runs into the next. From my world, the difference between a good show and a great show is transitions...
    The interesting part about what we are doing, while we are bringing everything in-house and we're definitely involved in the creative process, I don't want it to become a creative house. I want to go out and look for those 'blue sky thinkers', the people who are thinking 'outside the box', to create a spectacular experience for NCL. Subsequently when we have decided what we want to do and where we want to go, bring those people in and work within the unique environment of cruises. It's a totally different matter building a show for a cruise ship and a lot of people have difficulty doing it. From my point of view, I have to make sure that the show can run. I have to operate the show. We do repertory theatre - we do three shows and have variety acts coming in. The theatres are constantly being used for everything and anything, but their main goal is for big production shows and that's what our guests want. So in that respect, that's where we're going. We are really excited about it. My team right now is traveling the world looking for talent. As we design and build our facilities, we obviously still have to keep the operation going. We're not doing multiple shows, we are concentrating on one production at a time and getting it right. Each show will be on 3 ships at the most.

  • NCL Epic
Cirque Dreams Entertainment is a very important part of a NCL ship. Can you give us some more details?
    RA: When NCL first hired me I said to my bosses: "are you sure you want me, because I don't produce crap, I just won't do it". So we've really pulled back on what gets produced, because we want to make sure that we are doing it right and we're producing less shows, but of a higher quality. Our shows need to be better than what our guests would see on land. We put the creative development into it, before we even start building. We are spending the money up front, so that we don't have to come back and fix it and spend a lot more money.

    Entertainment has always been important for NCL, but now, it's really taken a step further, especially with our new ship the NCL Epic. We have Blueman Group, Legends in Concert, Cirque Dreams, Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Club, Nickelodeon - it's all branded entertainment. Again it's going back to the uniqueness of cruise operation - the shows are great on land, but how do you bring them on a ship? You have to share a theater and the performers have to live in a confined environment for anywhere from 4 - 6 months. However it's something that is creative and challenging to do. At the same time, that is why we are going for the 'A' list of choreographers, directors and the creative blue sky thinkers, not only because they produce something brilliant, but also so that the performers are excited to work with these people and perform the product. We are really pushing to see how far we can go, because we believe we can be a driver in why people choose a cruise. The cruise industry is the last bastion of live entertainment.
    Quote ...we are going for the 'A' list of choreographers, directors and the 'creative blue sky thinkers', not only because they produce something brilliant, but also so that the performers are excited to work with these people and perform the product...

  • Elements is your first in-house production. Please tell us more about it?
    RA: Elements was created for our European ship, the NCL Jade. It's perfect for a European audience because it's non verbal, highly visible, acrobatic with huge illusions and incredible dancing. Patricia Wilcox was the Creative Director on it, James Kronzer the set designer and Eduardo Sicangco, the costume designer. The same show is also on the NCL Spirit and the NCL Star. We will keep it on a ship for three years and then move it. We have several other shows on the drawing board. For us at NCL it's quality, not quantity that matters.
    We've had an excellent response to Elements in the dancer community and they are saying: "you have got to dance this show, because it's hard!" It's certainly not a showgirl show. You have to be an athletic, strong modern jazz dancer, with heavy, heavy technique. If you don't have technique with us, you aren't going to make it - so get to ballet class!

  • NCL Epic
Fat Cats Jazz & Blues Club Elements has a lot of amazing aerial work in it. Can you tell us more?
    RA: Yes, Elements has a lot of aerial, so it can only go on ships that have the right facilities. We have the specialty acts who do the principal aerials and the dancers do the web and bungee. That's not just aerials for the sake of it, there is a choreographic number around it. I'm a firm believer that no matter what theater you are in around the world, the audience must be engaged with what is happening on stage and vice versa the performers must be engaged with what is happening with the people in the theater. So one of the things we are doing is going back and re-choreographing the aerials in past shows, so that it's not just jump, jump, jump, there are actually choreographic movements. We also have great transitions between our numbers, so that one runs into the next. From my world, the difference between a good show and a great show is transitions. You can tell there has been creative thought about why they are getting from A to B and how they get there, but at the same time, we must make it entertaining for our audience.

  • Where do you recruit performers from?
    Quote ...We are really pushing to see how far we can go, because we believe we can be a driver in why people choose a cruise. The cruise industry is the last bastion of live entertainment...
    RA: Literally all over the world. Because we've had such a strong relationship with Jean Ann Ryan, a lot of people don't know about Norwegian Cruise Line Productions, so we're in the process of rebranding and getting out there to show people who we are now. Robert Dean Hertenstein, who is my Manager at Theatrical Operations and also Casting Director, has opened Australia for us. We have casted from there before, but not as NCL. Also South Africa, Germany, United Kingdom, Canada, the US and Russia. We are always looking, always expanding. We have a philosophy here - it's called the Benetton philosophy - we really want the diversity on our stages and in our cruise staff. For us it's more exciting to watch different shapes, sizes and colors. We are a global operation, but we do a lot of analysis. We aren't just going to fly somewhere to audition - we know if we are going to get the right turn out and if there will be talent. We work with a lot of schools and do many master classes around the world, to basically show them the style and the technique that we are looking for. Technique being the most important, because if you have the technique, you can usually do the style. We ask our dancers to do three types of choreography. NCL performing talent must be what we call a triple threat. They have to dance, sing and be able to act.

  • NCL Epic
Nickelodeon, Slime Time Live! Do you think that performing has changed now compared to when you were on Broadway?
    RA: When I was performing, I was doing eight shows a week and now I get people complaining about doing four shows. They are crying to the wrong person! I've had singers who tell me that they can't sing in two shows in one night. I tell them that they should reconsider what business they are in. The singers who work for us are in the Production shows, in the cabaret and they have to be prepared to work, but I'm also on the philosophy that in the entertainment industry we are our own worst enemy. There is nothing that will kill the moral of a performer more than not letting them work. So, we'll give them the opportunity to work, doing a good product and something that they can be proud of.
    One of other things that we do here at NCL is give the opportunity for performers, usually our production singers to develop their own act. During their six-month contract, we will pay for their music charts to produce a 45-minute cabaret act.

  • Lastly, can you tell us something about the Free Style Cruising?
    RA: NCL is known for its 'Free Style Cruising', which originally was about food and the choices of dining rooms, but now with the NCL Epic, we have taken 'Free Style Cruising' to the next level by including entertainment as part of that package. People are loving it. It is literally like going to a Las Vegas resort, where you can choose what you want to do. Today I want to have dinner there and see that show, tomorrow I'll have dinner over there and see that show. It's totally your choice and we believe it's the only way to cruise. I wouldn't do it any other way. On top of that you get to go to multiple destinations...

    Thank you Richard for this great interview and for all you did to make the NCL article and interviews happen on SBF. Best of luck with your career!

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