John Walsh meets... Michael White, sultan of swingers
Will the impresario outrage Nineties audiences as he once shocked their parents? Photograph by Michael Chambatti Woodhead
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 06 July 1996
How must he feel now, only days before his new venture is due to open at the Whitehall Theatre? Like i, the new show has an off-putting title - Voyeurz - and is set in a mocked-up nightclub. But it's the Sultan of Brunei to a Euro 96 flag that Mr White will not pull out of this one. Not because of the money - a cool but modest pounds lm - that's riding on it, or from much concern for his American backers. White's own taste is going on trial here: that, and his ability to spot what the public will flock down Shaftesbury Avenue to see. "There's about 20 family-type musicals on in the West End," he says. "But I decided to try and do a musical that was specifically not for families. Specifically not."
Indeed. Voyeurz is to be a fleshy extravaganza featuring "explicit sex scenes" and "full nudity", and stars Fem 2 Fem, the frantically in-your- lap lesbian singing troupe. There's no dialogue, but the story - of, how did you guess, "a young girl's discovery of her own sexuality" - will be carried by dancing and long-distance emoting.
"What we have here," White assures me in his languid, fuck-you drawl, reminiscent of the late Jeremy Brett doing Sherlock Holmes on Mogadon, "are two serious, highly-thought-of choreographers, both women, who've never worked in the West End before but are very successful in the avant- garde field. They're very interesting. That's a big difference. There's a lot of dance in this show, and it's very beautiful."
You make it sound, I say, like An Evening With Darcey Bussell. Isn't the whole point of the show to be hot 'n' trashy? Why, the title alone, with that irritating "z", comes from the same dodgy back street as the Cozy Snax restaurant and the Posh Wosh launderette... White flaps his hand at the wall of his small office in the heart of Soho. The wall is lined with photos: Michael having the best fun with Liz Taylor, with Bono, with Naomi, with Jack. "You haven't seen it. I think people will be very surprised."
At all the sex?
"No, no - there's this implication going around that we're doing the show just to titillate. That's not true. We're doing it as an entertainment."
An entertainment, I point out, with Top Lesbo Action...
"Well, of course, I'll be disappointed if people don't get turned on by it. I'll think we've failed."
So it is directed at the punter's groin, then?
"It is erotic, yes. But it's not a strip-show kind of eroticism. One thing I will say, there has never been a better-looking cast on the London stage".
And there we leave it. Mr White is that comparatively rare thing, an intelligent man with the conversation and the descriptive range of a teenager. He moves through a contradictory sequence of predigested phrases and stories without appearing to have any organic mental connection to any of them. But then he's a man who appears to exist simultaneously in several time zones. Born before the war, he enjoys going to all-night raves. Sixty this year, the age at which the rest of mankind begins to eye with stoicism the approach of the final deadline, he parties every night like a dervish in a bouncy castle. His eldest son, Joshua, now 31, talks about the Saffron-and-Edina life the children led with their nighthawk papa. Rich enough to wear Nineties Valentino and Versace to work, he dresses in the classic Sixties anonymity of white T-shirt and faded jeans.
But while becoming the Eternal Groover, he seems to have lost the internal filter that comes with age and tells you when you're talking nonsense. One feels for him, one really does, as he writhes in a morass of unconscious Benny Hill-isms: "Certainly I've taken a much closer interest in this show from the point of view of what happens on stage than in most of the shows I've done recently... I've taken more of a hand in the way the show goes than before..." He scratches his retired-convict's barnet, his steel-framed spectacles bringing his apparent age up to around 45.
He rejects any comparison with Showgirls, the universally-trashed Paul Verhoeven skinflick about Las Vegas strippers and table-dancers. "It seems quite different to me, because I don't think anything in that film is erotic, because you're at such a remove. It's completely different if you're sitting in a theatre, seeing live people. And, let's be frank, Showgirls was a pretty awful film."
Indeed it was. But I remember a scene in it when the horrible director of an erotic cabaret tweaks the nipple of an auditioning soubrette and growls, "I'm aroused. Why aren't you?" The young lady's reply was not, " Because I'm being prodded by a sewage pipe", although it should have been; but the question could sum up the whole premise of Voyeurz.
It's time we mentioned Oh Calcutta!, Ken Tynan's unimaginably scandalous, sexually-explicit-and-tastefully-nude revue that Michael White produced in 1970. Younger readers should know that it was a weird gallimaufry of smut and excruciating dance numbers, punctuated by serious dramaticules, such as Beckett's 30-second play, Breath ("The Beckett piece was marvellous, but it had no dialogue," says White, sadly). So did he expect to outrage Nineties audiences, as Oh Calcutta! had shocked their parents? Did he think British society had reverted to a pre-Calcutta moral climate, a kind of PC puritanism about the sanctity of the body? At such questions, Mr White adopts his irritating ploy of saying, "Correct", like Magnus Magnusson, and refusing to elaborate.
He was born in Edinburgh, to a Russian Jewish mother and an Irish father, but declines to speak about his childhood. A victim of asthma, he was sent away to the therapeutic air of Switzerland, to a school where nobody spoke English and he was chronically lonely. This has led many commentators to see his love of razzmatazz, parties and glamorous girlfriends as a re-running of his bleak youth. Whatever drove him, it worked. He is the man who brought the world The Rocky Horror Show, and A Chorus Line and Sleuth and Annie and the not-Sadlers-Wells version of The Pirates of Penzance and Crazy For You. He has picked up fistfuls of awards, both British and Tonys. He started The Comic Strip after meeting Peter Richardson in 1980, at a time when his West End strike rate was dwindling a little. And he discovered John Cleese. "I saw his Footlights show, Cambridge Circus, on its last day and thought they were terrific and brought them to London. Cleese was phenomenal. He did a sketch - so brilliant, I don't think I ever saw a better one - in which he was the prosecuting barrister in a courtroom, and Bill Oddie played a dwarf whom John Cleese abused from beginning to end in the most hysterical fashion. But I don't believe in the idea of 'discovering' people," he modestly concludes.
Did he believe in the concept of West End stars? White is mildly exasperated by the lack of stellar names who are prepared to take a plunge. "People who could be stars don't want to do theatre, on the whole." Isn't there a cyclical phenomenon of Hollywood types wanting to check out their dramatic roots in Shakespeare revivals? Dustin Hoffman as Shylock? "Oh, for 20 years I've discussed with Jack Nicholson about doing a lunch time play, somewhere here in Soho. He's yet to do it, and I doubt he ever will."
Which above-the-title actress would he like to put on at the Fortune Theatre for a limited run? "Meryl Streep," he says, with the air of a man who has dreamed of such an eventuality. "She could do anything she wanted, from Ibsen to Shaw." His eyes grow dreamy. "Or maybe Jodie Foster..."
So we chat on, about where he goes with Jack Nicholson when he's in town; how he (White) comes to be co-producing the film of Robert Harris's Enigma with his old chum Mick Jagger; the dearth of ideas for new musicals; and his dislike of allowing the press into his lavish first-night parties ("I'm amazed how it goes on even at private parties. I've been to a lot recently where all the paparazzi are there as guests"). Nothing rouses White from his sleek torpor, until, out of the blue, he begins to radiate a certain heat.
"It's a very odd thing about critics and musicals," he says. " I mean, Company, for instance, this new production which got the greatest reception of the year, I thought was very lacklustre compared to the original in New York. But then - there are some people who get pats on the back whatever they do..." Yeah, right, I say. Of course, Sondheim...
"Don't get me wrong, I'm not knocking Sondheim. It's just - some people are lucky. They get praised for everything they do". Mr White is turning decidedly pink. "All the critics went on about it as if it was the Second Coming."
Ghastly, I agree. Moving along, however...
"As it's closing this week," White continues with the makings of a snarl, "I don't feel I'm knocking it by saying all this. Do you follow what I mean?" Yes, I think I do, though some might say he was being wise after the event...
"No!" says White with what appears to be momentary fury. "It's not a matter of being wise or not wise, I'm just saying that, having read John Peter and Sheridan Morley saying it was the greatest thing ever seen on the London stage... well, when I went as a paying customer, I thought it wasn't a patch on the original New York production."
I'm sure he's right. But it is gratifying to have elicited a moment of real feeling - of real professional jealousy, real concern that the taste that is one's livelihood could be slipping - from a man so fatally attracted to youth in its worst incarnation of listless, seen-it-all enervation.
The last question is about a nasty Scarfe cartoon that appeared at the time of Oh Calcutta! It showed Ken Tynan, the former peacock of jewelled criticism, the intellectual popinjay of Fifties theatre, reduced to a dirty old man in a Soho doorway, muttering to passers-by, "Come and see the lovely titties and bums." Does Michael White, the transatlantic award winner, the boy wonder impresario who listens to Wagner, and chose A La Recherche du Temps Perdu as his favourite book on Desert Island Discs, wonder if Voyeurz was a bit beneath him? "No no, don't prejudge it. You'll have to wait, and after you've seen the show you can ring me up and say, 'You are just an old, washed-up guy in a mac', or, 'This is a rather wonderful show.' You can't go out to bat on what you did in the past."
I'm standing by, 20p at the ready
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