Life & Culture

The man who made An American in Paris

Stuart Oken is the producer of the West End's latest must-see musical. John Nathan talked to him about Gershwin, The Lion King and the grandfather who inspired him.


Producer Stuart Oken — an American in London — watches the dancers in his show — An American In Paris — limber up.

“You’re going to get to watch the company take a class. They’re not required to. It’s voluntary,” he says, proud of their dedication.

We are sitting in the stalls of the Dominion Theatre where Oken’s production — the first stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning 1951 film starring Gene Kelly — is now installed. He’s relaxed. The show, which appropriately enough was was first seen in Paris, won four Tony Awards during its run in New York. There is no sign yet of designer Bob Crowley’s stunning set of post-war Paris, whose buildings and boulevards land like giant space ships when the show is in full sail. A solitary pianist plays As Time Goes By to which an array of lean, muscular bodies extend and flex.

“That’s Leanne Cope,” says Oken nodding towards a figure who is effortlessly raising a foot higher than most people can raise a hand. Cope plays Lise, the role Leslie Caron played opposite Gene Kelly’s Jerry. Here Jerry is played by American ballet dancer Robert Fairchild.

It is almost impossible to overstate the brilliance of Fairchild even if you said that to watch him dance is to have some idea of what might come out of a test tube crammed with the genes of Kelly and Fred Astaire — because it is. But it is Cope’s character that best illustrates the lengths to which Oken and his team have gone to make the Oscar-winning film’s story fit for modern audiences. Whereas in the movie Lise is a two-dimensional character, Oken’s book writer, Craig Lucas, has given her a third dimension — being Jewish.

“When I sat down to watch it I thought ‘Hmmmm! It’s a Hollywood movie about a soldier who had been in the war.’ But there was nothing about the war in the movie. We had to find a different approach. The people had to look like they had just gone through the war, which meant making them much younger and in the case of Lise, we decided that she had been in hiding.”

This was one of a series of make or break decisions behind the critical and commercial success of the show. However, it did close earlier than intended on Broadway.

“It’s an expensive show. Listen, if it cost 20 per cent less, if the same number of human beings had gone into a 1,200-seat theatre [instead of Broadway’s 1,700-seat Palace Theatre] maybe we’d still be running.”

There have been several plans to adapt the film for the stage, among them by Nicholas Hytner. But they never made it past the workshop stage. In the case of Oken’s production it was the Gershwin estate that got the ball rolling.

Although Ira lived until 1983, his younger brother George died of a brain tumour at 38 and without making a will.

“So the estate went to his mother, who had four children,” explains Oken. “The heirs of George are two entities and the heirs of Ira another.”

Dealing with the estate of dead creators adds a whole different dimension to producing a show. They have to be kept happy. It helps to have a track record like Oken’s. He was the backbone of Disney’s all-conquering theatre division for 10 years and the man behind The Lion King. Before that he worked in Hollywood where his movies included About Last Night, which was based on David Mamet’s play Sexual Perversity in Chicago, which premiered at the Apollo, the Chicago theatre that Oken actually built in 1978.

But with this show the Gershwin estate still took a lot of convincing to go with Oken’s biggest hunch — to give Christopher Wheeldon the job of not only choreographing, but directing it too. Even Wheeldon took some convincing that he was ready to make his directorial debut. This is where producing gets creative. It’s not just about the money, although Oken and his business partner sank a million dollars into the show before the estate gave the green light.

Yet the impressive CV doesn’t reveal the hard knocks. Mention of them induces a wry smile from the man who, despite all the success, may not quite have had all the rewards his endeavours deserved. For instance, he was founder of the American Musical Theatre Project for Illinois’ Northwestern University. It was a way of nurturing new and risky musicals outside the pressures of commercial theatre. Everyone benefited, especially the students who, thanks to Oken’s contacts, got to work with some of the finest theatre professionals in the country. But then, according to reports, the university decided that Oken — the producer whose life in the theatre began working in a box office — wasn’t educated enough.

“If I were a PhD they would have made me a professor and built the whole institute around me,” he says. “But I wasn’t.” And as bruising as any experience was the Broadway production of The Addams Family. Based on the TV series, it starred Nathan Lane as Gomez. Out of town tryouts are always difficult but this one was up there with toughest. With a chuckle Oken quotes Larry Gelbart’s line about such experiences, said in 1961: “If Hitler’s still alive, 
I hope he’s out of town with a musical.”

Thanks partly to the touring versions of the show The Addams Family is making money but the production, initially directed and designed by the British creative team Phelim McDermott and Julian Crouch, just didn’t work the way Oken had hoped. “Today I’m very proud of it, but its not the thing I started,” he says.

Then there is the decision to leave Disney. It wasn’t his choice.

“I did 10 years in the theatre business in Chicago, 10 in the movie business, and 23 back on Broadway, and without Disney I never would have had that opportunity. You can’t have regrets,” he says when I ask if he has any. “My life would probably on some level have been much more successful had I stayed with Disney but this is where my path went,” he adds with a hint of Zen.

Oken, 65, was started on that path by his maternal grandfather. An executive in the very un-Jewish world of the steel industry (unlike Oken’s father “who worked in the schmutter trade”) he loved the theatre and twice a year would travel from Chicago, where Oken was raised, to New York, where he would take in eight shows in 
a week.

“He brought back all the programmes and albums, which he’d keep in alphabetical order next to his phonograph. And on Saturday and Sunday mornings I’d go to his house and listen to the albums with him. All I knew about the shows was what I could read on the back of the records. But I memorised the songs.”

If there was a moment that sealed Oken’s future it was when his grandfather took him to his first musical. “It was My Fair Lady. I remember it still. I sat there with my mouth open.”

I hadn’t yet seen An American in Paris and so it was too early for me to tell him that his show had exactly the same effect on me as that production of My Fair Lady on him.

The amended story is still thin, but that’s not a criticism that holds with a show that melds dance, design and music like no other currently on the London stage. (One tip, get to it before Fairchild leaves the production in about three months time.) But the show’s reputation is strong enough for me to suggest that things have turned out pretty well for a life that hasn’t always gone to plan. Oken nods.

“This is the proudest thing of my life,” he says, looking at his dancers. “I may make myself sound smart by saying, ‘This is what I wanted.’

“I can only tell you the number of projects where I thought I knew what I wanted and it didn’t turn out that way. The reason we’re here is that I guessed right this time.”

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