THEATRE / Love, Lennie da Vinci and me: Financed by a Pacific island, created by a maverick businessman, scored by the singer of 'Concrete & Clay', Leonardo is an unlikely addition to musical showbiz history. Sabine Durrant reports

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
LEONARDO - A Portrait of Love may be the first musical to be financed by seagull droppings. The show, about a love affair between Leonardo da Vinci and the Mona Lisa, previewed in Oxford last year before a small group of invited dignitaries - Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cameron Mackintosh's brother, Robert, a party of 10 from Debenhams, and a delegation from the Pacific island of Nauru. The President of Nauru, the Minister for Finance, the President's Special Adviser and their wives were particularly enthusiastic. Many were moved to tears. The Naurean President liked it, but then he'd already bought the company.

Nauru, a country of 21 square kilometres and a population of 8,000, is rich in guano, the excrement of seafowl. Guano contains phosphate and is highly valued as fertiliser; export of it raked in an average of dollars 75m per year throughout the Eighties. The droppings are on the verge of running out, but careful investment has, according to sources close to the government, created 'a billion-odd-dollar portfolio'. Nauru owns office buildings and hotels in Australia and Hawaii and share investments in Japan and the USA, and now, for an outlay of just pounds 2m, it owns a musical.

It is perhaps an unusual direction for expansion. For which, thank one Duke Minks. Minks, who acts as financial adviser to the Naurean government, co-wrote and produced the musical and dropped them in it. He hails from Liverpool, lives in Australia ('I've been there 20 years and I still feel I'm on holiday'), and owns more offshore companies than you could shake a tax return at.

He's a businessman by name (though come to think of it none of his concerns actually take his name), an impresario by nature. He used to be a vice president at Citibank ('looking after a quarter of the world'), once owned an airline in Australia ('with 600 people working for me') and normally deals in aeroplanes - 'I'm working on a financing deal for two new 737 400s at the moment'. But back in the Sixties, he was the roadie / manager of the group Unit 4 + 2, who had the hit 'Concrete & Clay' (as in ' . . . beneath my feet begin to crumble'), and his interest in the arts has never died. When Minks says 'we have a lot of record companies in Australia', you know his 'we' isn't so much nationalistic as royal.

The musical came out of his continued friendship with Tommy Moeller (the lead singer of Unit 4 + 2). In 1981, Moeller played him a couple of songs and Minks wanted to do something with them. 'We'd done various things together over the years, me and Tommy,' he says, 'there was an advertising agency, for one thing . . . Anyway, I thought basically we should make an album. And then the concept of a musical came up and we decided to turn the songs into a musical about Leonardo, or Lennie as I call him.'

'So Moeller's songs were about Lennie . . . Leonardo, were they?'

'Well, no, they weren't specifically as such . . . they were more love songs, really. In the end we had quite a few songs, we threw some out, threw others in, nothing that fixed about any of them. But once we'd thought of the subject and come up with the title, we started mapping out the story, and massaged it. Tom wrote some more lyrics and his brother, Greg, did the compositions. There's a song about his hands called 'Left Hand, Right Hand', another called 'Genius', another called 'My Heart Beats for Leonardo'.'

The concept came from nowhere and it might have stayed there, if it hadn't been for Nauru's seagull money. 'We got the songs down on tape,' continues Minks, 'and were showing it to record companies, but were only getting nibbles. And then one day Kelly Emu, the President of Nauru's Special Adviser, was over on business and I played it to him. He's a great collector of music - Scottish and Irish music actually - and he said 'what's that?' So I gave him a tape, a script and a financial feasibility plan to take back to Nauru and he convinced the cabinet to invest in the show. And at the end of the day, that was that . . .'

Minks is now in London to polish and promote 'the project' - which rests, incidentally, under the umbrella of a new company, Leonardo Productions Limited. The destination was always going to be the West End: 'The runs in Australia are too short and there'd be no point putting it on in Nauru - it'd be easier to fly the 8,000 citizens over here.'

While he's in Britain (and he's not here for long: 'I wrote the script on planes; I spend 80 per cent of my time travelling'), he's taken over two pastel-and-chintz executive flats in Knightsbridge. The heating's up high and the businessman / producer, less of a stuffed shirt than a cuddly toy, is dressed in 'fun' beach clothes with extra jumpers. He sprawls on a squishy armchair while his assistant, Helen, whom he calls 'Hel' (though 'Lennie' is conceivably an option here too) taps away at a notebook computer in the corner.

There's a air of recreation about the place. Minks, who admits his interest is primarily financial, is enjoying himself. The script has been handed over to the writer John Kane 'to give the dialogue some oomph', the casting is in the hands of professional casting directors ('Still wanted,' says Minks, 'a genius who can sing'), and Rob Bettinson (who directed Buddy) has been recruited as director. On the coffee table, under his feet, is some press material couched in such corporate terms as 'History of Development of the Musical' or 'Leonardo Briefing Paper', but Minks' head is full of romance.

'It's a love story basically,' he says. 'We've done a lot of research on Leonardo's life - we've all been down to Florence. But there are great gaps, so we've had to use some journalistic licence. We deal with Leonardo's friendship with Giovanni Melzi - most people accept that he was homosexual. But in the show, he falls madly in love with the Mona Lisa, or Lisa Gherhardini as she was called, and vice versa, and it leads to tragedy. Basically, we ask why he kept the painting of her until he died; it was the only painting he always kept. The answer can of course be found in our song, 'She Lives With Me'. What we wanted was a contemporary story, not a heavy Renaissance Hamlet situation. People might come to the musical thinking it's going to be a painting lesson, but they'll find it's very moving, very subtle.

'We started off with the supposition, for example, that Leonardo's face is painted underneath the Mona Lisa. Did you know that? . . . Aw heck, you know how it is when you're working on a thing. Did we make that up?'

'Leonardo - A Portrait of Love' previews at the Strand Theatre, London, from 21 May and opens on 3 June.

(Photograph omitted)