Asked to name his favourite ever show as a producer, Norwegian Cruise Lines’ vice-president of entertainment Richard Ambrose doesn’t hesitate in answering. It was a show called And The World Goes Round, presented on the Norwegian Jade around eight years ago, when he first joined the company.

"It was spectacular," he says. "And our guests hated it."

Bittersweet as the memory may be, Ambrose laughs heartily as he recalls the audience’s nonplussed reaction.

"The talent was great, the direction was great, the music was great – it was just a beautiful, beautiful show, and the guests hated it. It was one of those shows where you really had to sit and listen to the story, and when people are on vacation, that’s not what they want."

As Ambrose goes on to describe what it was they were actually looking for – the glamorous, high-energy spectacles of which he and Norwegian are today seasoned impresarios – his voice again lights up.

"They want the big, the flashy, the uplifting. And we heard that loud and clear; we switched it and built a show called Elements, which is a huge spectacle of dance, magic and aerial cirque, and it truly is one of the most popular shows we have in our repertoire right now; it’s on three different ships."

For Ambrose and his counterparts heading up entertainment across the cruise industry, matching the right potential stage shows to specific guest demographics is essential. Listening to passenger feedback is a huge part of getting this right, with Ambrose asserting that he "lives and breathes guest satisfaction scores".

The perfect fit

In some cases, this means self-produced shows tailored to prospective audiences, with creative talent often pulled in from mainstream theatre. For example, Elements and another successful current piece, Paradis, were created by Patricia Wilcox, whose choreography accolades include an Astaire Award for her work on Broadway’s Motown: The Musical in 2013. Tailored for the international market, with itineraries running throughout Europe, the shows are highly visual song-and-dance spectacles designed to transcend language barriers.

Alongside these bespoke pieces, cruise lines are also increasingly bringing high-profile Broadway and West End originals to the high seas, with Norwegian and Royal Caribbean heading the fleet.

For Norwegian, current and upcoming shows include Rock of Ages on Breakaway, Legally Blonde on Getaway, Priscilla Queen of the Desert on Epic and Million Dollar Quartet on Escape. Big names on Royal Caribbean, meanwhile, include We Will Rock You on Anthem, Chicago on Allure and CATS on Oasis.

Bringing such shows on board may mean a direct adaptation in collaboration with the show’s original creatives, as is the case for After Midnight, recreated for Norwegian’s Escape by the original Tony award-winning director/choreographer Warren Carlyle, as well as the original costume and set designers. The second approach involves licensing the rights to a show and then creating Norwegian’s own version, as is the case for Legally Blonde.

Scouting out a good play, ensuring it’s a match for guests, then adapting and staging it is a process that takes around 14-18 months from start to finish. Jukebox musicals (those woven around a soundtrack of existing tracks) have traditionally been a great fit for Norwegian’s cruises, as well as music-heavy ‘book musicals’ (those stemming from a book and lyrics).

"We basically look at what’s currently hot in New York and London – and Las Vegas, to be perfectly honest – and what might be touring internationally," Ambrose says. "We then look at the ship demographic and whether we think this is something for our guests and audience. And now we start getting into the particulars of the actual show: how many cast members, how many scene changes, what are the requirements for actually producing that show and can we do it in our venue, knowing that we also have to ‘rep’ – because for all intents and purposes, our theatres are repertory theatres."

Behind the curtain

With one theatre staging two large productions, guest entertainers and film screenings, each show needs to be able to set up and pack up easily and efficiently. However, this doesn’t mean productions take place on a smaller scale than their Broadway originals, in any sense.

"Rock of Ages is closed on Broadway right now, but our production is as similar to it as you can get," Ambrose says. "The only difference is that our stage is actually bigger than the Helen Hayes [Theatre] was in New York. We were crossing talent; Broadway was coming to us and we were going to Broadway, so it was a great vehicle for us and it’s a huge hit for our guests."

The magnitude of such productions is also naturally reflected in the cost of putting them on. But with so many entertainment options for guests on board, and the huge array of attractions above and below deck, is the proportion of overall spending directed towards stage shows actually smaller today?

"No, absolutely not," stresses Ambrose. "Theatrical stage shows are very, very expensive to produce when they’re produced correctly, and so it is a large investment, but it’s an investment that the company is very positive and excited about for each and every ship. If you look at the entire Norwegian fleet – and also the Oceania brand and the Regent brand, which are now part of the umbrella I oversee – the investment is being made into entertainment, because it is still at the forefront of Norwegian."

This investment reflects the fact that stage shows remain a central attraction for guests, to the point that the selection on a particular ship can influence a guest’s decision at the booking stage.

"For us at Norwegian, it’s all about ‘freestyle’, where you do what you want, when you want, wherever you want," Ambrose says. "So you can plan your evening around your dining experience at one of our speciality restaurants, or visit one of the multiple venues; but from an entertainment perspective and how we programme everything, those theatre shows are the cornerstone. The expectation of our guests when they come on to a Norwegian ship is that above all, they know that every single night they can do something different, from an entertainment perspective. That goes from our legacy Jewel-class ships up to our newer, larger vessels."

Raise the bar

The ever-rising bar for entertainment programming – from Royal Caribbean’s high-tech robotic performances, to Disney’s theatrical recreations of family favourites, to Cunard’s highbrow partnerships with the likes of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art – emphasises that guests’ expectations across the industry are as high as they are diverse. But if such varied commissions can be read as litmus papers for the differing guest demographic between cruise lines, the job of marrying the tastes of individual passengers aboard just one ship is no easy task. After all, in choosing his showstopper, Ambrose can only bring one small fragment of Broadway or Theatreland on board.

"You have to remember that as opposed to what’s playing in the West End and what’s playing in New York, there is some material that I just cannot put on, because I’m addressing a mass market," Ambrose says. "It has to be a show that crosses all generations and all types of ideas, so that’s how we look at it."

This might mean that the latest political drama is out of the picture, but it certainly doesn’t mean a censored approach to commissioning, Ambrose says.

"The interesting thing for us here at Norwegian is that we can push the envelope, because our guests actually expect us to. At the beginning of Rock of Ages, there is an announcement by Lonny, one of the characters, telling the audience ‘You’re in for a great evening, but this is not your grandmother’s cruise show, because there is language and there is content that’s inappropriate for young children’. So we do a very good job of promoting that, but at the same time, our guests wanted Broadway – so we gave it to them."

While Ambrose is always on the lookout for new shows, if audience numbers and guest feedback demonstrate that an existing show is performing well and will continue to do so, he is not afraid to let it play on. This can mean extending the licensing agreement and letting it run for five years, or even longer for self-produced shows. For Ambrose, this measured approach is key to successful programming.

"We’re not about producing quantity, it’s all about quality, and just being proud of what we’ve done here," he says. "I think that’s the difference between Norwegian and other cruise lines; our guests know that when they come into our theatres, venues or clubs, they’re seeing quality entertainment. That’s where our reputation is lying right now, and everyone is talking about what we’re doing. But I’m not reinventing the wheel, I’m just producing first-class entertainment that you would see on land – but you get to see it on a Norwegian cruise ship."