David Ian: Why Mr Showbiz will find his Maria

With a string of top shows behind him, David Ian, casting The Sound of Music now, has a track record for spotting a winner. And his singing nun is out there, he tells Liz Hoggard
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"The only thing I told myself is, 'You're going to be the truthful one.' At the end of the day, I'm a theatre producer. I don't really want to have this fake TV persona." David Ian is the most powerful man in British theatre. It's remarkable that he agreed to be in the BBC reality show, How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, to find a new talent to play Maria in the West End production of The Sound of Music.

While fellow judge Andrew Lloyd Webber comes across as the pantomime villain (they play creepy Phantom music every time he's on screen) Ian is straight-talking Essex Man. It is difficult to imagine anything ruffling his well-coiffed hair.

At his Mayfair office, Ian, a boyish 45, is bright and unaffected. And he has a brilliant eye, having produced the West End hits, Guys and Dolls, Mary Poppins and The Producers. He may deny he wants to be another Simon Cowell. But Ian is a smooth operator - imagine the negotiating skills of Max Clifford combined with the charm of Adam Faith.

As chairman of Global Theatre, owned by American media giant, Clear Channel, he oversees the programming of more than 58 theatres worldwide. It was his job to love-bomb Ewan McGregor into a nine-month stint in Guys and Dolls, and wave Richard Dreyfuss goodbye, when the Hollywood actor found rehearsals for The Producers too strenuous.

In the TV show, Ian and Lord Lloyd-Webber, theatre's oddest couple, bicker and spat. Of the rivalry, he says: "I don't know if it's being built up, or whether it's naturally there. Andrew and I have an equal amount of personal money in this show; we're proper co-producers of The Sound of Music. We both have an equal vote. I don't think it's rivalry so much as equality. Andrew is very strong and passionate about things he believes in, but I don't work for Andrew. I'm my own man; I don't roll over if I disagree with him."

It can't have helped that Ian was recently named the most powerful person in British theatre by The Stage newspaper, knocking Lloyd Webber off the top spot. Ian says he finds the whole fame thing rather funny. "It just sort of crept up on me."

He and his fellow judges give their comments on the Marias' singing, but the public cast the final vote. Either a new star will be born or the producers' £4m investment will be swallowed up. Are they all mad? "As a commercial musical theatre producer, being able to combine it with a light entertainment-style, Saturday night programme that's viewed by six million people, makes great commercial sense. And it takes away the, for want of a much better word, the 'poshness' there's deemed to be about the theatre."

The smart money is on Connie Fisher, 23, who has sung professionally in the West End. "She's the one I would cast," Ian says. "But we said at the very beginning, this person can be black, white, yellow. Catherine Zeta- Jones could audition for this programme if she wants," he adds, a tad unconvincingly.

In episode two, he uttered the immortal words: "I'm thinking with my wallet and I'm thinking with something a little lower." He's no fan of Simona, the passionate wild-eyed Romanian. "She's got a strong accent. I'll have somebody from Timbuktu, but I need to understand what they're saying."

One 17-year-old lost his vote because she was too young to play opposite Baron von Trapp. Because it would make him look like a dusty old paedophile? "Frankly, yes."

Scarlett Johansson was initially in talks with Lloyd Webber to play Maria, but the dates didn't work. Ian insists it's more fun to discover an unknown actress. "The last person made famous by a role in musical theatre was Elaine Paige. If you think about it, pop and TV and film have created our Martine McCutcheons, our Denise Van Outens, our Amanda Holdens: those girls who sometimes do theatre, but they've been created as TV animals."

In fact, Ian has been both sides of the spotlight. Born in Essex, his father a railway fitter, he was taken to the theatre on his 13th birthday. "I thought it was the most phenomenal thing I had ever seen." He told his mother he wanted to become an actor. She burst into tears. "I told her, 'I have to do this otherwise I'm going to be a very, very unhappy man.'"

He sang in a group called First Division that nearly represented Britain at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1983. Later, he took over from David Essex in Time. Then, while in The Pirates of Penzance at the London Palladium he met Paul Nicholas and together they began producing shows. In 1993, Ian had his biggest gamble, taking out a second mortgage to finance the West End production of Grease. "I thought the trick was to do the movie live on stage." Thirteen years later, it's still playing to sell-out houses across the world.

Was he a good actor? "I think I was OK. But as an actor you sit around waiting for the phone to ring. I've always been entrepreneurial. So going into production was an obvious move. I like the idea of going, 'Why don't we do Harry Potter: The Musical? Right, who do I ring?'"

Ian also understands the political zeitgeist. London, rocked by threats of global terrorism, wants to be taken out of itself. "Les Misérables proved there was a place for dark and despairing, but after 9/11 I got the chance to put on The Producers and it came along at a time when we needed to laugh again.'

He met his wife, Tracey, when they were in Goldilocks and The Three Bears in Eastbourne with Wayne Sleep and Patrick Mower. The couple live in a big house in Buckinghamshire, next to Robert Lindsay and over the road from Sir John Mills's old house. Their two children are at private school. They have homes in south-west France and Mallorca.

Ian is convinced his telly fame will pass. "With the exception of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who, I would argue, is known for his writing, the paparazzi don't care about producers. Even Cameron Mackintosh probably wouldn't be spotted in the street. Once this show is finished I'll be going back to my day job, but this little blast is fun.'

I ask about a rumour that the most important person for theatre producers is the 38-year-old woman. "Yes, she's what we call the 'key buyer'. Get her, you get the husband, the children; she communicates with the most people the next day." And he adds, with raised eyebrow: "If you meet her, could you let me know? I'd like to ask her a lot of questions."

Synopsis: The limelit road to the West End

1961 Born in Essex

1985 Plays Rocky in production of The Rocky Horror Show

1987 Takes over from David Cassidy in Time at the Dominion

1990 Joins Paul Nicholas to co-produce Jesus Christ Superstar at the Palace, then national tour

1993 Co-produces stage version of Grease

1995-97 Produces tours of Evita and Singin' in the Rain

1998 Co-produces Saturday Night Fever

1999 Co-produces Defending the Caveman at the Apollo

2000 Co-produces King and I

2001 Merges with Clear Channel to run theatre division

2003 Co-produces transfer of Anything Goes to Drury Lane

2004 Produces transfer of The Producers to Drury Lane. Appointed managing director of Clear Channel Europe

'How Do You Solve a Problem like Maria?' is on Saturday, BBC1 at 6.50pm