The Producers: David Ian, Clear ChannelDate: 15 November 2004
Our new series interviewing the UKís leading commercial producers, inspired by The Producers, hits its mark this week with David Ian, the UK producer behind The Producers, which is now receiving its hotly anticipated London premiere.
Ianís musical producing and co-producing credits have included: in London, Saturday Night Fever at the Palladium, Grease at the Dominion, Cambridge and Victoria Palace theatres; Ainít Misbehaviní at the Lyric Theatre; The King and I at the Palladium; and Anything Goes at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane; and on tour, Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Pirates of Penzance, The Rocky Horror Show, Singiní in the Rain, Evita, Chess, Dr Dolittle and The King and I.
Heís also mounted Rob Becker's one-man comedy Defending the Caveman in the West End and the arena productions of Happy Days, the Musical and Grease in Australia. For four years, from 1996 to 1999, Ian produced the annual Laurence Olivier Awards on behalf of the Society of London Theatre.
In the summer of 2001, Ian was appointed CEO of the theatrical division of Clear Channel Entertainment - Europe. He was made Managing Director of Europe earlier this year. His responsibilities for Clear Channel include overseeing the operation of 21 UK theatres, amongst them, the West Endís Dominion, Lyceum and Apollo Victoria theatres.
The musicals currently produced by Ian for Clear Channel include the UK tours of Chicago, Starlight Express and Cats, as well as the much-anticipated UK premiere production of the multi award-winning Broadway hit The Producers, which opens at the West Endís Theatre Royal Drury Lane this week.
What's the first stage production you recall seeing?
Thatís an easy one. The first one I saw that had an impact was Billy, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, 1974, starring Michael Crawford. His performance was fantastic. I went to see it for my 13th birthday and the next morning I auditioned for the school play. I knew then what I wanted to be, and I did become an actor. I was in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for Bill Kenwright, a show called Time at the Dominion, and then I went into The Pirates of Penzance with Paul Nicholas. Paul was the star of the show, he was the Pirate King and I was Frederick. It was around then that I started talking to Paul and said that I wanted to produce. He said, ďwhy donít you think of something I can be in and weíll put it on togetherĒ. That was how it started.
Why did you want to become a producer?
I loved the acting side but mainly the rehearsal period and the first few weeks of the run. I didnít enjoy quite as much doing the show night after night for a year. And I had opinions about what the posters should be like, how the advertising might be done and other people in the cast. I started to realise that my interest was in the whole of the production rather than just the one part of it that was my performance. Also, I liked the idea of being proactive as opposed to waiting for the phone to ring for an audition.
The first production Paul and I did was a concert version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Paul had been the first-ever Jesus in the show at the Palace Theatre. My idea was to do a 20th anniversary concert back at the Palace, where it originated, with everyone in black tie, with the orchestra on stage, and Paul recreating the role of Jesus for the first time in 20 years. Which is what we did. And it sold out so quickly that we then toured it right around the country to sell-out business.
What would you have done if you hadnít become a producer?
I think Iíd still be acting. The passion was certainly theatre. I moved into the producing side quite naturally. If I hadnít done, Iíd probably still be auditioning for Les Miserables.
How do you decide what to produce?
If itís something original, in terms of source material, itís invariably because of something Iíve read or seen, either a book or a movie perhaps. But these days, and certainly running Clear Channel, this company tends to be less involved in originating. Instead, we get asked to be partners on other shows. For example, Iím the lead producer on The Producers, but it originated in New York. Tom Viertel and the other producers over there asked me to be involved because of my experience with musicals here. More things I do these days are a result of other people asking me to be involved in London transfers.
Which production are you proudest of?
Iíve got to say Grease. That was my first West End musical. It opened in 1993 and that same production is still touring the UK now, having spent another year in London, at the Victoria Palace, last year. Itís hugely successful. If someone had said in 1993 that it would still be going 11 years later - and still be in great shape, doing sell-out business Ė I wouldnít have believed it. So, as it was the first one and itís still there, I think thatís the one Iím proudest of. Thatís my baby.
Which production, in hindsight, might you not have done?
A revival of Chess we toured in about 1995. I think Paul Nicholas and I thought we could do no wrong at the time. Weíd done Jesus Christ Superstar to sell-out business, weíd opened Grease Ė a couple of actors whoíd never mounted a West End show before Ė and it was huge, you couldnít get a ticket. We then put a tour of Evita on with Marti Webb and it was a sell-out. And we thought, ďah-ha, Chess! Thatís the next one.Ē So we did a revival and, I have to say, I had no problem with it artistically, it was terrific, but nobody came. It crashed on the road six weeks later and we lost half a million pounds. I learnt then that it doesnít always work. That was the one thatís hurt the most so far.
What shows do you wish youíd been able to get your hands on?
I wish I was the genius called Cameron Mackintosh who thought Les Mis and Miss Saigon were good ideas Ė two of my favourite shows. I wasnít producing then, I was auditioning for those two. These days, well, jealousy is the wrong word, but I think Mary Poppins is going to be huge. For years, I have thought the stories would make a fantastic musical so Iím glad Cameron and Disney have got together, sorted out the rights issues and got the show on. I would love to be involved in that one.
Why do you prefer to produce musicals rather than plays?
Because I was in musical theatre myself. I didnít really train as an actor. I was in pop groups and then I went to an audition for The Rocky Horror Show, I got the part of Rocky and then carried on along a musical theatre track career-wise. So musicals are in my blood. I love going to see plays, but I havenít any experience of doing them. And, I think itís fair to say, with a few rare exceptions, itís the musicals that are the big hits. Theyíre the shows that are rolled out all over the world and that are big business. Itís the Lion Kingís and The Producersí, the Chicagoís and the Phantomís of theatre that get my pulse racing.
What do you think of industry awards?
I think theyíre great fun, theyíre a good idea. But I wish that the industry awards here got the same sort of coverage TV-wise and therefore had the same impact that they have in the States. If you win a Tony Award for Best Musical, it has a monstrous effect on your business. It almost guarantees you a long run, recoupment and lots of touring thereafter. Thatís because it has a huge telecast thatís watched by millions on network television into every home. Itís massive. Here, the Olivier Awards are shown at 11 oíclock at night, if at all now, they have a viewing figure of less than a million people and, I can honestly say, they donít make a tuppence haípenny worth of difference to the box office. Iíve got one up there (points to trophy in office), itís very nice to win one, it feels great and I want to win them, but it doesnít have the impact because it doesnít get the television coverage.
Why did you want to transfer The Producers to the West End?
Oh, I think 12 Tony Awards in New York made me think it was a relatively good idea! The most successful show on Broadway ever. And I personally think itís fantastic. I adore Mel BrooksÖ Susan Stroman direction and choreographyÖ Tom Meehan book. Itís real A-team stuff creatively. Clear Channel were one of the co-producers in America so we had an option here, and Tom Viertel wanted me to be involved. So there was never a doubt. Within six months of it opening on Broadway (in April 2001), we were talking about it coming to London. Since then, itís really been a question of theatre availability because itís a big show, an expensive show, and it needed a 2,000-seat theatre.
Also, we wanted a couple of stars. On Broadway, they had Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, who werenít available to come to London, at the time. I wanted two stars here, and we got Richard Dreyfuss and Lee Evans.
And what exactly happened with Richard Dreyfuss?
Yes, of course, since then, Richard has had to pull out because of a recurring injury which started to be a problem for us. The part is very demanding from a singing and dancing perspective, and it's just unfortunate that he had to leave when he did. I have to say, however, that we are incredibly fortunate in managing to get Nathan Lane at such short notice. He created the role on Broadway and won one of those 12 Tony Awards and, since he arrived, he has been absolutely fantastic. Through the preview period, we have had standing ovations every night - Nathan is putting on one of the best performances I think I have ever seen on a West End stage. Nathan is going to be with us until early January and we are currently meeting actors about taking over the role from there.
So, as you see, it has taken awhile for all the right things to come together, with a hiccup or two, for this show to happen. Now they have, in terms of the actors, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, Susan Stroman and Mel Brooks all being available.
What qualities do you think are most crucial to be a successful producer?
Thereís a two-part answer. If success is measured in terms of reviews, ie artistic success, I would say obviously one needs to have the taste to choose good writing and then have the ability to put together the right creative team Ė director, designer, choreographer, cast Ė in order to execute that well on the stage. The caveat to that is that, in order to have commercial success as well, one also has to have oneís finger on the pulse of popular taste at the time. Thatís what makes a successful commercial producer. Itís tapping into peopleís tastebuds.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Obviously, funding is an issue, itís something thatís constantly needed for new work. But there are more specific problems in the West End: coaches not being able to get to the theatres because of parking restrictions up until 8.30pm, that isnít helpful to our cause. But thereís another thing, the biggest thing which would help in one fell swoop. My personal opinion is that VAT should be taken off of theatre tickets. Thatís 17.5%. What we constantly get criticised for is the cost of going to the theatre. Well, the day they put VAT on tickets wasnít a good day.
Why do you think theatre is important in modern Britain?
Itís one of the very very few things that you canít download. You just canít download a live performance. And we need that. People still get a sense of community when viewing something together live as opposed to watching it on a screen.
How would you describe the current state of the West End?
I know itís been tough for plays and playhouses but, from a musical perspective, this autumn is the most exciting weíve had in years. In addition to The Woman in White, The Producers and then Mary Poppins, thereís Bat Boy, Simply Heavenly, then in the new year Billy Elliot, Guys and Dolls, The Far Pavilions and others. So many major musicals opening in a matter of months, and genuinely new stuff coming into the West End is exciting. So I think musical-wise, itís very buoyant. Through Clear Channel, I also run three musical houses Ė Iíve got a revival of Saturday Night Fever doing great business at the Victoria Apollo, Iíve got We Will Rock You selling out at the Dominion and The Lion King in its sixth year at the Lyceum. And Iím about to do The Producers at Drury Lane, where Iíve just had a huge hit with Anything Goes which I co-produced. So Iím feeling very bullish. I think the West Endís in great shape.
I donít tend to produce plays, though I invest in them sometimes to help. Without a doubt, if you tot up the play successes in recent years, there arenít many big ones. You know, Stones in His Pockets, Art Ö. You can probably count on one hand plays that recouped and returned proper financial rewards. At the end of the day, itís commerce that drives the theatre business. There will always be plays, but itís getting harder to produce one on Shaftesbury Avenue commercially as opposed to on a subsidised basis at the National or elsewhere.
What are the most important issues facing commercial theatre?
I donít know if itís going to change hugely. I think theatre goes through cycles. Awhile ago, we had a raft a retro musicals Ė Boogie Nights, Oh What a Night!, Fame, Grease, Saturday Night Fever, even one could argue, Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You Ė and they were very successful. Now weíre getting into a raft of musicals derived from films Ė The Producers, Mary Poppins, The Lion King, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I think it will continue to go in cycles like that. The things we as an industry need to focus on are making our theatres as comfortable as we can, getting tax breaks for investors so that third parties still find it attractive to invest in theatre and, of course, the quality of the product we provide. A lot of people ask, ďcan all these big shows survive at the same time?Ē Well, if theyíre all good, I think they will. Itís all down to the product. If the qualityís there, people will go.
What are your plans for the future?
Iím doing the first-ever UK tour of Starlight Express, which kicks off this November. Weíve got three-D screens, weíve got the actors skating out into the auditorium, itís very exciting. Andrew Lloyd Webber and I are doing a big revival of The Sound of Music in the West End which, subject to a theatre being available, we hope to open in 2005. And Iím in discussions at the moment with the Bob Marley Estate about doing a musical using his songs. We havenít had a reggae musical yet and Marleyís songbook is hugely popular so Iím talking to various writers at the moment about that. Thatís more likely to be 2006.
- David Ian was speaking to Terri Paddock
The Producers opens at the West Endís Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 9 November 2004, following previews from 22 October.