MUSICALS / A tale of boy, meats, girl: Mark Steyn talks to Mike Ockrent about cooking up a solid meal for the West End audience

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IN Mike Ockrent's novel Running Down Broadway, the theatre correspondent of the Independent goes to interview the director of a big American musical and throws up over his carpet. Two years later, life imitates art - up to a point: Mike Ockrent is now the director of a big Broadway musical, though, sadly, despite three vindaloos and 14 pints of lager, I find myself unable to disgorge on his carpet. But, in Ockrent's home, it's not only the rugs that remain untainted. The whole apartment looks like the way you dream of doing your pad if you ever make it big in showbiz - except that, if you ever do make it big in showbiz, you're usually too jaded and cynical to go in for such wholesome memorabilia as Ockrent displays. There's a large photograph of some black kids breakdancing under the marquee of Me and My Girl (his first New York smash), while yellow cabs and neon billboards and burger joints scream across the background - the sort of sweetly nave acceptance of the hip-hooray and ballyhoo of Broadway that hard-boiled Main Stem wiseacres would scoff at.

Something of the same quality colours his novel. As a study of an arts writer on the Independent, it's uncannily accurate: the musical theatre critic is a total loser, a bedsit deadbeat, a sexual inadequate with suicidal tendencies - 'though, unlike you, he lives in Willesden,' added Ockrent, reassuringly. But, as a portrait of Broadway, it's slightly quaint - you can sort of tell it was written by an Englishman whose introduction to this world was backstage movies: for example, producers still scream 'You schmuck]' at their directors as opposed to 'You cocksucker]'

Yet here he is: the toast of New York, the slick superstager of Crazy for You, the show that brought the Gershwins back to Broadway and, according to the New York Times, heralded the exhilarating triumphant re-birth of the American musical. 'Frank Rich's piece was basically, 'Thank God, it isn't British.' But he does another review the next day on WBJR . . .'

You mean WQXR?

'Is it? If it's not called Melody Radio or BBC2, it's a mystery to me. But he did mention then, almost apologetically, that I was British.' Ockrent had had hits before - Passion Play, Educating Rita - but it was his re-tread of Me and My Girl that first brought him to the attention of the Americans. In the 1930s, it had been a strictly local hit that, like most British musicals of the period, never travelled. Half a century later, Ockrent and Stephen Fry exhumed the piece. At the West End press call, the director overheard a photographer say, 'I don't give this six weeks.' Ockrent bet him a cheeseburger it would run at least seven; it did: seven years (though he's still owed the burger). 'We just did it because we thought it would be fun as a Christmas show at the Leicester Haymarket . . .' But it played Broadway, Tokyo, is still touring Britain, and made Ockrent the obvious choice when the producer Roger Horchow decided he wanted to revive another Thirties property, the Gershwins' Girl Crazy.

In their original forms, these musicals were harmless pieces of fluff for the tired businessman audience. Today, they come riddled with subtext. I mentioned to Ockrent that, a few years ago, when I'd described Me and My Girl as a musical comedy about a Cockney who inherited an earldom, he'd pointed out that, in fact, he'd taken a neo-Brechtian line on the material. 'That's right,' he said.

'Er, just remind me: what was the neo-Brechtian line again?' Like most of the audience, I found the Brechtian line less easy to recall than the line about 'Aperitif?' 'No, thanks, I've brought my own.'

'Well, it's all sorts of notions about class, British imperialism . . .' He recalled how he'd been very taken by some Prince interviewed by Robert Lacey on a TV series about European aristocracy and how he'd wanted to raise the subject of ancestor worship, which is what gave the Prince an advantage over a fellow like himself who could only trace his family one and a half generations back to somewhere in Mittel Europe, and how he carefully selected the ancestors of the Cockney Earl to represent different stages in Imperial history since the 12th century . . . 'And out of that sprang the number 'Men Of Hareford' where the ancestors come out of their paintings and start tapping . . .'

But it's the tapping you remember . . .

'Yes, but I think it was Hal (Ockrent is one of the few Britons who can plausibly first-name drop Hal Prince) or maybe it was Steve (and Stephen Sondheim) who said whenever you're working on a musical that appears to be light and fluffy, it's crucial to have a really important thought that underpins the thing. It's not just Fred meets Sally, Sally loses Fred, then they get together. That isn't enough today. That's the big difference between what we're doing in the Nineties and the way it used to be. We've all come out of university . . .'

So it's just to salve your conscience?

'Well, the people working on it have to get some satisfaction. And, in the end, it isn't satisfying to whip up a souffle if you haven't cooked the venison just before it.'

In the old non-red meat days of 1930, Girl Crazy was about a Jewish cabbie who goes West and becomes a mayor, or maybe it was a Jewish mayor who goes West and becomes a cabbie. Venison-wise, what's Crazy for You about?

'Well, the venison is about cultural renewal. The souffle is 'Let's put on a show, let's do up the theatre and everybody lives happily ever after.' But the meat of it is that this is a town, Deadrock, that has died; the culture is dead; everybody's asleep, nobody does anything. Then in comes this guy with enormous energy who wants to be a dancer, who wants to have rhythm and he enthuses this town with a whole new life: he gives them rhythm, he gives them their culture back.'

In other words, it's a metaphor for the state of American showbiz?

Ockrent looked at me scornfully: I'd mistaken his haunch of venison for a soggy quarter-pounder. 'It's a metaphor for the state the world is in. Look at us here: we're cutting back on our grants and our subsidies, we never believe culture is important, we never support it, and, if you don't have a culture, you have no life . . .'

'So this glossy sappy-happy song'n' dance bonanza is, in fact, an argument for increased state subsidy of the arts?'

'Absolutely. Philip Hedley (of the Theatre Royal, Stratford East) would be happy with it.'

As it happens, Crazy for You is the first of Ockrent's hits not to originate in the subsidised theatre, while his productions for commercial managements have proved considerably less commercial: Look] Look] was a short-lived play about the audience that never found one of its own; Follies was a textbook definition of a succes d'estime - a success that runs out of steam. 'Follies said a lot about marriage and hopes dashed, and that's an important topic. But if it's something called Follies at the Shaftesbury, you expect to see a traditional follies. If it had been called Middle-Aged Spread . . .' You'd expect Ray Cooney? 'OK, Middle-Aged Dread. But the point is you'd know not to take Gran'ma for an undemanding night out.'

He doesn't accept the easy precis of his career, as a division between splashy hits and more ambitious but less lucrative works. There are, he reckons, just as many important intellectual threads running through Crazy for You. Moreover, his approach to this show is no different from his early productions at the Traverse in Edinburgh, when he was heavily influenced by Peter Stein of Berlin's Schaubuhne Theatre and worried, in his dramaturge C P Taylor's phrase, about 'the paucity of modern philosophy'.

Today, there's no paucity of philosophy about Ockrent. Indeed, whenever you enquire about a specific lyric or even a throwaway joke, he inevitably expands it into a discussion on geo-political socio-economic trends post-Thatcher. In his novel, the Independent's musical theatre loser schmucko plans his suicide while listening to Streisand singing Sondheim: 'Jesus, I love musicals]' he moans. Ockrent loves 'em, too, but, a physicist by training, he needs to know why.

'I do love Broadway, it's consummately professional, it's enthusiastic. When you cast the chorus here, you say 'We'd love you to be in the show' and they nod quietly and go 'Uh-huh'. 'We're going to start rehearsals on September 21st.' 'Uh-huh.' 'So we'll see you then.' 'OK.' And off they go: all very cool, very English. You do the same thing in America and they go, 'Wow] Yo]' There's no pretending that it doesn't mean much. On Crazy for You here, we've been working on the accents and I've been trying to explain that it's more than the accents: it's the way sentences are structured, even the body language is different, you come forward to talk. We hate display, we believe children should be seen and not heard - and where's it got us? It's got us in the worst recession, we're a third-rate power . . .'

Like the 14th chorus of an Ockrent first-act finale, the sheer exuberance is infectious. 'So what you're saying,' I asked, 'is that Britain wouldn't be such a depraved hellhole if we all went around as if we were auditioning for a musical comedy on Broadway?'

But even Ockrent knows when to stop. 'Er, no, Mark. I wouldn't say that. I wouldn't agree with that at all.'

(Photograph omitted)