The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - JOHN NATHAN

PRO­DUCER STUART Oken — an Amer­i­can in Lon­don — watches the dancers in his show — An Amer­i­can In Paris — lim­ber up. “You’re go­ing to get to watch the com­pany take a class. They’re not re­quired to. It’s voluntary,” he says, proud of their ded­i­ca­tion.

We are sit­ting in the stalls of the Do­min­ion Theatre where Oken’s pro­duc­tion — the first stage adap­ta­tion of the Os­car-win­ning 1951 film star­ring Gene Kelly — is now in­stalled. He’s re­laxed. The show, which ap­pro­pri­ately enough was was first seen in Paris, won four Tony Awards dur­ing its run in New York. There is no sign yet of de­signer Bob Crow­ley’s stun­ning set of post-war Paris, whose build­ings and boule­vards land like gi­ant space ships when the show is in full sail. A soli­tary pi­anist plays As Time Goes By to which an ar­ray of lean, mus­cu­lar bod­ies ex­tend and flex.

“That’s Leanne Cope,” says Oken nod­ding to­wards a fig­ure who is ef­fort­lessly rais­ing a foot higher than most peo­ple can raise a hand. Cope plays Lise, the role Les­lie Caron played op­po­site Gene Kelly’s Jerry. Here Jerry is played by Amer­i­can bal­let dancer Robert Fairchild.

It is al­most im­pos­si­ble to over­state the bril­liance of Fairchild even if you said that to watch him dance is to have some idea of what might come out of a test tube crammed with the genes of Kelly and Fred As­taire — be­cause it is. But it is Cope’s char­ac­ter that best illustrates the lengths to which Oken and his team have gone to make the Os­car-win­ning film’s story fit for mod­ern au­di­ences. Whereas in the movie Lise is a twodi­men­sional char­ac­ter, Oken’s book writer, Craig Lu­cas, has given her a third di­men­sion — be­ing Jewish.

“When I sat down to watch it I thought ‘Hm­mmm! It’s a Hol­ly­wood movie about a sol­dier who had been in the war.’ But there was noth­ing about the war in the movie. We had to find a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. The peo­ple had to look like they had just gone through the war, which meant mak­ing them much younger and in the case of Lise, we de­cided that she had been in hid­ing.”

This was one of a se­ries of make or break de­ci­sions be­hind the crit­i­cal and com­mer­cial suc­cess of the show. How­ever, it did close ear­lier than in­tended on Broad­way.

“It’s an ex­pen­sive show. Lis­ten, if it cost 20 per cent less, if the same num­ber of hu­man be­ings had gone into a 1,200-seat theatre [in­stead of Broad­way’s 1,700-seat Palace Theatre] maybe we’d still be run­ning.”

There have been sev­eral plans to adapt the film for the stage, among them by Ni­cholas Hyt­ner. But they never made it past the work­shop stage. In the case of Oken’s pro­duc­tion it was the Gersh­win es­tate that got the ball rolling.

Al­though Ira lived un­til 1983, his younger brother Ge­orge died of a brain tu­mour at 38 and with­out mak­ing a will.

“So the es­tate went to his mother, who had four chil­dren,” ex­plains Oken. “The heirs of Ge­orge are two en­ti­ties and the heirs of Ira an­other.”

Deal­ing with the es­tate of dead cre­ators adds a whole dif­fer­ent di­men­sion to pro­duc­ing a show. They have to be kept happy. It helps to have a track record like Oken’s. He was the back­bone of Dis­ney’s all-con­quer­ing theatre di­vi­sion for 10 years and the man be­hind The Lion King. Be­fore that he worked in Hol­ly­wood where his movies in­cluded About Last Night, which was based on David Mamet’s play Sex­ual Per­ver­sity in Chicago, which pre­miered at the Apollo, the Chicago theatre that Oken ac­tu­ally built in 1978.

But with this show the

Gersh­win es­tate still took a lot of con­vinc­ing to go with Oken’s big­gest hunch — to give Christo­pher Wheel­don the job of not only chore­ograph­ing, but di­rect­ing it too. Even Wheel­don took some con­vinc­ing that he was ready to make his di­rec­to­rial de­but. This is where pro­duc­ing gets cre­ative. It’s not just about the money, al­though Oken and his busi­ness part­ner sank a mil­lion dol­lars into the show be­fore the es­tate gave the green light.

Yet the im­pres­sive CV doesn’t re­veal the hard knocks. Men­tion of them in­duces a wry smile from the man who, de­spite all the suc­cess, may not quite have had all the re­wards his en­deav­ours de­served. For in­stance, he was founder of the Amer­i­can Mu­si­cal Theatre Project for Illi­nois’ North­west­ern Univer­sity. It was a way of nur­tur­ing new and risky mu­si­cals out­side the pres­sures of com­mer­cial theatre. Ev­ery­one ben­e­fited, es­pe­cially the stu­dents who, thanks

If I were a PhD they would have made me a pro­fes­sor

to Oken’s con­tacts, got to work with some of the finest theatre pro­fes­sion­als in the coun­try. But then, ac­cord­ing to re­ports, the univer­sity de­cided that Oken — the pro­ducer whose life in the theatre be­gan work­ing in a box of­fice — wasn’t ed­u­cated enough.

“If I were a PhD they would have made me a pro­fes­sor and built the whole in­sti­tute around me,” he says. “But I wasn’t.” And as bruis­ing as any ex­pe­ri­ence was the Broad­way pro­duc­tion of The Ad­dams Fam­ily. Based on the TV se­ries, it starred Nathan Lane as Gomez. Out of town try­outs are al­ways dif­fi­cult but this one was up there with tough­est. With a chuckle Oken quotes Larry Gel­bart’s line about such ex­pe­ri­ences, said in 1961: “If Hitler’s still alive, I hope he’s out of town with a mu­si­cal.”

Thanks partly to the tour­ing ver­sions of the show The Ad­dams Fam­ily is mak­ing money but the pro­duc­tion, ini­tially di­rected and de­signed by the Bri­tish cre­ative team Phe­lim McDer­mott and Ju­lian Crouch, just didn’t work the way Oken had hoped. “To­day I’m very proud of it, but its not the thing I started,” he says.

Then there is the de­ci­sion to leave Dis­ney. It wasn’t his choice.

“I did 10 years in the theatre busi­ness in Chicago, 10 in the movie busi­ness, and 23 back on Broad­way, and with­out Dis­ney I never would have had that op­por­tu­nity. You can’t have re­grets,” he says when I ask if he has any. “My life would prob­a­bly on some level have been much more suc­cess­ful had I stayed with Dis­ney but this is where my path went,” he adds with a hint of Zen.

Oken, 65, was started on that path by his maternal grand­fa­ther. An ex­ec­u­tive in the very un-Jewish world of the steel in­dus­try (un­like Oken’s fa­ther “who worked in the schmut­ter trade”) he loved the theatre and twice a year would travel from Chicago, where Oken was raised, to New York, where he would take in eight shows in a week.

“He brought back all the pro­grammes and al­bums, which he’d keep in al­pha­bet­i­cal or­der next to his phono­graph. And on Satur­day and Sun­day morn­ings I’d go to his house and lis­ten to the al­bums with him. All I knew about the shows was what I could read on the back of the records. But I mem­o­rised the songs.”

If there was a mo­ment that sealed Oken’s fu­ture it was when his grand­fa­ther took him to his first mu­si­cal. “It was My Fair Lady.

I re­mem­ber it still. I sat there with my mouth open.”

I hadn’t yet seen An Amer­i­can in Paris and so it was too early for me to tell him that his show had ex­actly the same ef­fect on me as that pro­duc­tion of My Fair Lady on him.

The amended story is still thin, but that’s not a crit­i­cism that holds with a show that melds dance, de­sign and mu­sic like no other cur­rently on the Lon­don stage. (One tip, get to it be­fore Fairchild leaves the pro­duc­tion in about three months time.) But the show’s rep­u­ta­tion is strong enough for me to sug­gest that things have turned out pretty well for a life that hasn’t al­ways gone to plan. Oken nods.

“This is the proud­est thing of my life,” he says, look­ing at his dancers. “I may make my­self sound smart by say­ing, ‘This is what I wanted.’

“I can only tell you the num­ber of projects where I thought I knew what I wanted and it didn’t turn out that way. The rea­son we’re here is that I guessed right this time.”

We de­cided Lise was Jewish and had been in hid­ing


Stuart Oken


The cast of

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