David Ian: ‘I had no prospects. I had nothing to lose, so I went for it’
In a sense we have Michael Crawford to thank for David Ian. Had he not been so good in the long-forgotten 1974 musical Billy, based on the novel Billy Liar, 13-year-old audience member David Ian would never have decided there and then to work in the theatre.
“Billy blew me away,” Ian tells me in his unpretentious fifth-floor office across the road from Holborn tube station. “The next day I asked my drama teacher at Ilford County High Grammar School if I could be in the next school play. So my stage debut was as Widow Twankey in Aladdin at 14. I couldn’t have been happier.”
On leaving school, he was front man for a band that toured working men’s clubs, doing covers of songs from the hit parade. After an assortment of dead-end jobs, including working in a print factory (“nobody can get a cheeky quote past me on a poster”), he answered an ad in The Stage in 1983 for young singers to join a group to enter the Eurovision Song Contest. The name First Division turned out to be a misnomer, but it did enable him to apply for an Equity card.
A year later The Stage also drew his attention to a year-long UK tour of The Rocky Horror Show and this time he hit the jackpot, landing the role of Rocky, the blond bombshell created by Frank N Furter. “I’d had no training, and I had no prospects. I had nothing to lose, so I went for it. I lived in the gym during the day, and did the show at night. Back in the 1980s, to be touring in The Rocky Horror Show was like being in a rock band. We were mobbed at the stage door every night.”
Despite his inexperience, David Ian evidently cut the mustard because he was invited by Dave Clark, one of the creators of the West End musical Time, to understudy the lead role, played at the time by David Cassidy, one of Ian’s childhood heroes. When Cassidy left the show, Ian took over the lead for six months.
I couldn’t quite believe I was earning a good living doing something I loved. I still can’t
The rollercoaster ride continued with a nine-month engagement as Joseph in Bill Kenwright’s tour of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. “There isn’t a big regional theatre I haven’t played a leading role in,” says Ian, adding more modestly: “The truth is, Joseph as played by David Ian was pretty much me. I got those early roles because I looked the part and I was in the right place at the right time. I couldn’t quite believe I was earning a good living doing something I loved. I still can’t.”
Behind the glamour of it all, Ian felt increasingly insecure about his future in the footlights. “I didn’t have the confidence or the ability to go off and do a great play at the Almeida. I had no grounding for anything broader than musical theatre. Basically I didn’t have any real technique. I remember auditioning for a part in Les Mis for the director John Caird and he asked me where I’d trained, and I felt really stupid telling him I hadn’t had any training, but that I played in a band at the weekends.”
Ian’s last performance was as Frederic in Joseph Papp’s revamp of The Pirates of Penzance at the London Palladium and on tour in 1989-90, with Paul Nicholas playing the Pirate King.
“I was in my late 20s and by that time I didn’t know where my career was going. I wasn’t really cut out for sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. I’m more entrepreneurial by instinct. My interest was always in the whole production, not just my performance. Paul Nicholas must have spotted that because he suggested we should collaborate on a producing project that turned out to be a revival of Jesus Christ Superstar.”
They met with David Land, who owned the rights to Jesus Christ Superstar at that time, and he agreed to license it to them for a Sunday concert performance at the Palace Theatre. It was 20 years since Superstar had opened at the Palace, with the young Nicholas as Jesus, and Ian thought it made sense to do a one-off anniversary performance at the Palace.
“We sold out within hours. Paul said we should do it again, so we booked Blackpool Opera House, which seats 3,000, and it sold out within two days. Then Paul said, ‘Let’s put in an extra matinee.’ Later, I remember going to collect the takings from the Blackpool box office in a briefcase – it was £57,000 for two shows.”
A sell-out tour of number one venues followed. “I went from nothing to managing a full-size London show, forging great relationships with theatres, as well as with David Land, who was something of a mentor to me. I’d already got to know the touring circuit as a performer and now I got to know them even better as a producer, which has been crucial to my success as a producer of big musicals.”
But it was Ian’s next project with Paul Nicholas that put him on the map.
“I went to see a live performance of Grease at Hammersmith Odeon, as it then was, and it was missing the four biggest numbers from the film, so I suggested to Paul that we should meet up with Robert Stigwood, who produced the film, and see if we could reach an agreement to use those songs in a stage version.
“It was Robert’s willingness to support and endorse someone who had never done a West End show before that changed my life.”
Grease ran in the West End for seven years, and has continued to tour ever since, its latest incarnation wowing audiences in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan in 2013.
Tours of Evita, again with Stigwood, and Singin’ in the Rain, again with Nicholas, followed in the mid-1990s, and then another massive screen-to- stage hit with Saturday Night Fever in 1998.
As if Ian’s career wasn’t already soaring to the heights, the biggest challenge was still ahead of him. His co-producer on Singin’ in the Rain, Apollo Leisure, had been bought up by the American giant Clear Channel, and the man in charge of its European operation, Paul Gregg, invited Ian to run its touring theatre side, later branded as Live Nation.
“For six years I toured shows all over the US so I got to know the American touring circuit as well as the UK’s. It was full on, and I spent a lot of time jet-lagged, but I thoroughly enjoyed that time and it was a massive learning curve for me. You had this Goliath of a company eager to put on shows, which gave me the confidence and the resources to take risks.
“It taught me responsibility to numbers, getting the right balance between art and commerce to a level I never would have achieved just by doing my own productions. If you’d told me an ex-chorus boy from The Rocky Horror Show was going to be running a Top Fortune 500 company and reporting to corporate America and getting away with it, I’d never have believed it in a million years!”
Ian’s roster of hits as an independent producer, or co-producer, whether in the West End or on tour at home or abroad, reads like a recent history of musical theatre: The Producers, Jersey Boys, The Bodyguard, The Sound of Music, Annie, Chicago, Love Never Dies, Priscilla Queen of the Desert – the list goes on.
“We pride ourselves in replicating West End or Broadway shows to the highest standards and taking them on the road,” he says. “We don’t put them on cheaply, and we don’t sell them cheaply. If you do a good job, you’re more likely to be granted a licence to do other things in the future. You’re dealing with people who demand the absolute best you can give. With Chicago, which I’m touring next year, I have to send a video of every principal artist I want to engage to the original producer Barry Weissler for his approval.”
So jolly and hospitable is Ian that it’s quite hard to imagine him cracking the whip. There has to be a streak of steel behind all the congeniality, I suggest?
“Well it varies,” he smiles. “If I’m replicating someone else’s show I tend to favour suggestions rather than insistences. If I’m originating or co-producing an original show, I can call the shots more.”
As a producer, if you’ve got strong content, you’re in the driving seat
Would he ever be tempted to produce a non-musical?
“Musicals are in my blood, it’s what I understand. I love going to see plays but I’m pigeonholed as a producer of musicals and the bottom line is I don’t get offered plays to produce or co-produce. It’s true I don’t proactively seek out plays because I have my work cut out with musicals. However, if someone had come to me with a co-producing pitch for War Horse or Curious Incident, I probably would have leapt at it.”
Though it is still a musical, one of his current projects is decidedly unexpected – the first UK production of the 2007 Broadway musical Xanadu, based on the 1980 film of the same name, which he is producing at the 200-seat Southwark Playhouse, near Elephant and Castle in south London.
“It’s my guilty pleasure,” he tells me, grinning broadly. “The first time I’ve ever done anything you might describe as a fringe show. Somebody took me to see it in New York and I laughed my head off for 90 minutes. It was a great night out. Fast-forward a few years to a chance meeting with Rob Ahrens, who produced it in New York, and he asked me if I fancied doing it in London. I wanted to try it out somewhere and Southwark Playhouse seemed like the perfect place. If people like it and it has a further life, I’d be delighted.”
What are the biggest changes he has seen since he started producing 25 years ago?
“So many producers are now theatre owners as well – Really Useful, Cameron [Mackintosh], Ambassador Theatre Group, Nica Burns. On the road I guess the big change is the extent to which one group pretty much controls the circuit. You make one phone call and about three-quarters of your UK tour is sorted. Is it a positive or a negative? As a producer, if you’ve got strong content, you’re in the driving seat. They need to work with independents like me. The more theatres they’ve got, the more shows they’re going to need. In most respects, yes, it makes life easier.
“The other big change for producers of tours is that you don’t have to wait for a show to close in the West End before you take it on the road. I toured Chicago for 10 years while it was still on in London.”
The next five years are mapped out for David Ian Productions, involving productions from Jakarta to Cologne, and taking in many new dates in the ever-expanding Chinese market.
“The Chinese are very brand-orientated,” he says. “A West End or Broadway imprimatur is very important to them. The fact that it’s the London Palladium production of The Sound of Music counts for a lot in terms of marketing. They don’t want cheap copies, they want the real thing. And of course, it’s great for our expanding footprint. It makes a change from Sunderland and Eastbourne.”