Obituary: Mike Ockrent

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MIKE OCKRENT was the British director of two joyous, long-running musicals, Me and My Girl and Crazy For You, which were smash hits both in London and New York. Both productions were heavily revised versions of long-ago hits, and established Ockrent as an expert in giving old material fresh appeal, though he had directed with equal success such new plays as Once a Catholic and Educating Rita. A genial, soft-spoken man, he had settled in the United States, where his work included the direction of a musical version of Dickens's A Christmas Carol which is currently making its sixth seasonal appearance at Radio City Music Hall.

Born in June 1946, Ockrent began his career in Scotland, where he attended Edinburgh University and trained to be a physicist, but during his college days he developed a passion for the theatre. He made his professional directing debut at the small Perth Theatre, where he attracted attention with an award- winning production of Hedda Gabler.

At the age of 27 he became the artistic director of the famous Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. Moving to London in 1976, Ockrent almost immediately had a smash hit with his direction of Mary O'Malley's comedy set in a convent school, Once a Catholic, which ran for over two years at Wyndham's Theatre. It was the first of several hit comedies he directed, including Willy Russell's Educating Rita (1980) starring Julie Walters, and Peter Nicholls's Passion Play (1984).

In 1985 Ockrent was asked by Richard Armitage, the son of the composer Noel Gay, to direct a revival of the 1937 musical comedy Me and My Girl. Even in 1937, the show had been considered old-fashioned and its star, Lupino Lane, had risked all his savings to produce it himself after the project had been rejected by the powerful Stoll organisation. Armitage and Ockrent faced the same scepticism from some, who suggested that the story of a cockney lad, Bill Snibson, who inherits a title and finds himself among the landed gentry was hopelessly out of date.

Ockrent worked with Stephen Fry revising the show's libretto, and in what turned out to be an inspired piece of casting, chose the classically trained actor Robert Lindsay for the leading role. The show opened first in Leicester ("We just did it because we thought it would be fun as a Christmas show at the Leicester Haymarket," said Ockrent later), then moved to London.

What detractors considered old-fashioned proved a welcome relief for theatre-goers sated with portentousness and significance in the musical, and the sheer escapism of Me and My Girl made it a smash hit in London, where it ran for seven years, and on Broadway, where Lindsay won the Tony for his performance, and Ockrent received three nominations (for his direction and his contributions to the score and the book).

One of the highlights was the infectious number written when Lupino Lane had asked Gay for "a sort of jaunty coster walk". When Gay played him a few bars of a possible melody, Lane responded, "It's almost right, but it should go down at the end of the first line, not up." Gay suggested that it would then become a slow march, to which Lane replied, "That's it. A slow, cocky sort of march, a cockney walk!" Thus "The Lambeth Walk" was born, and in the revival Ockrent and his choreographer Gillian Gregory had the cast spilling out into the audience as they performed the show- stopper.

Throughout the show Ockrent's eye for detail and inspired sense of comedy (such as his suggestion that the ancestral portraits in the earl's castle come to life during the song "Men of Hareford", plus innumerable bits of comic business for his leading player) delighted audiences, along with the irrepressibly corny dialogue. "Aperitif?" enquires the butler, to which Snibson replies, "No thanks, I've got my own."

When the show opened on Broadway in 1986, Ockrent told an interviewer, "My job is to find something that makes a unified evening with a shape that goes somewhere, and with characters the audience believes in", and his success in that respect was confirmed by the reviewer of The New York Times who stated that the show "uncorked the innocence of the old-fashioned musical comedy so ingeniously that for once a theatregoer is actually sucked directly into that sunny past".

In 1987 Ockrent returned to London to stage the first West End production of Stephen Sondheim's 1971 musical Follies. Despite its brilliant score, the show, telling of the disillusionment of former musical performers who meet at a reunion, had been too mordant to find popular favour in New York, and the book was considerably revised for London, where it was admired but failed to achieve the sort of mass popularity as Me and My Girl.

But in 1992 Ockrent again had an enormous hit when he teamed with playwright Ken Ludwig to fashion a virtually new show out of the old Gershwin musical Girl Crazy. Now called Crazy For You, it was another blatantly old-fashioned musical which had no other purpose than to give its audience a good time, and like Me and My Girl it had its score bolstered by hits from other shows. It won the Tony for Best Musical, and once again Ockrent was nominated for his direction.

The show was crammed with imaginative dance routines, the work of the choreographer Susan Stroman, who on New Year's Day 1996 became Ockrent's second wife (after a somewhat acrimonious divorce from his first wife Sue). The previous year Ockrent had written a satirical novel, Running Down Broadway, its main protagonists a musical director and the musical theatre critic of The Independent, which conveyed some of his feelings for the American theatre. "I do love Broadway," he told Mark Steyn (former musical theatre critic of The Independent!) "It's consummately professional, it's enthusiastic. When you cast the chorus in London, you say, `We'd love you to be in the show' and they nod quietly and go `Uh-huh', 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."

Ockrent's subsequent shows on Broadway included Rowan Atkinson at the Atkinson, a musical version of the Tom Hanks film Big, a concert version of King David by Elton John and Tim Rice, and a musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol which is an annual production at Madison Square Garden.

Earlier this year he directed a well-received French comedy, La Terrasse, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, and at the time of his death was preparing a musical version of the film The Night They Raided Minsky's with a score by Susan Birkenhead and Charles Strouse. Birkenhead said, "Mike was one of the nicest men in the whole business. He was extraordinary with writers. He guided us with such great humour and affection that we never minded going back to the well 27 times. We would have crawled through China on our knees for him."

Michael Robert Ockrent, film and theatre director: born 18 June 1946; twice married (one son, one daughter); died New York 2 December 1999.

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