David has been credited with bringing musicals to the masses and explains here how he made the leap from the unemployment line to becoming executive producer of his own vast global entertainment operation. Also how a man who has made thousands of stage stars, became the celebrity himself when the cameras turned their attention to him...
The camera crew followed my creative team and I during the making of my stage show 'Man in the Mirror', a Michael Jackson tribute and global sell-out. We were filmed auditioning cast members in London and New York. Some of the people auditioning were amazing - some terrible! And while I'm happy to speak my mind, I've got a heart too so I tried not to be too brutal. The cameras then followed me as I made the show, with all the dramas, the hirings and the firings. The cameras were there for the opening night in Monte Carlo too. "Man in the Mirror" has gone on to be a huge international hit for me.
I ended up the victim of a terrifying car-jacking while filming undercover in my home city of Leeds! I feared I was about to die at the hands of this maniac who jumped in a production team car I was sitting in. I screamed to be let out and he said he'd stab me if I didn't shut up. He screeched off at speed around the backstreets with no lights on the car and I was thinking, 'This is it, I'm going to die.' When he suddenly slammed the brakes on I saw my opportunity and I dived for my life. I managed to get to my feet but was very shaken. Even so I did a piece to camera as soon as the crew caught up with me. I vowed not to be beaten and stayed on to donate over £50,000 in total. Appearing on the show and helping three deserving causes was a wonderful experience. It made me kinder, more patient and reflective. The episode was so full of emotion, humour and drama it was picked to kick off the 2012 series and is one of the most popular episodes ever.
Simon Cowell is a very clever man and I have total respect for everything he has achieved. He too had a rocky start, but fought his way to the top. He is an inspiration to me, and I applaud his massive success. People ask if I am the next Simon Cowell. My answer is 'No. But watch out, there is room for the two of us!'
It was the scariest night of my life. I thought we were going to die. A violent storm ripped through the mid west of America and my theatre in Branson, Missouri, took a direct hit hours after a glittering first night production. I was sleeping in a hotel across the road and woke up in the early hours to the sound of sirens and loud bangs like bombs going off. My fiance and I were shepherded to the safety of the basement by staff. The front of my theatre looked like it had been ripped off while the tornado had missed our hotel by feet. We felt like we'd had a very lucky escape but the theatre had to be rebuilt from scratch. I'm delighted to say we were back to business as usual within just eight months and we've renamed it the King's Castle Theatre in honour of my British heritage.
I have two distinct sides to my personality. The first is the musical and creative side which stems from me being a classical pianist when I was a young boy. The second is the business acumen I have acquired over the years, starting out working on my own market stall and building up from there. A radio interviewer recently described me as all the Dragons from Dragons' Den with a little Lord Alan Sugar and a dollop of Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber. I'll go with that!
I love it. He is one of my idols and if I'm connected with him in any way it can only be a good thing. But we work very differently. I bring musicals to the masses. I don't take my shows to Broadway, or the West End of London. Instead, I go to all points north and south. My shows tour the provinces, in the UK, the US and around the world. I take my shows to the smaller regions, where the major shows don't go and where the audiences are excited to get a taste of big city glamour on their doorstep.
I taught Michael Jackson how to do Irish dance, I sacked Jennifer Hudson just before she hit the big time, I count Sir Elton John and Lionel Richie as my close friends. I had afternoon tea with Debbie Reynolds at the Ritz in London, and helped Liza Minnelli climb onto the stage when she appeared for me at an outside concert in Marbella, Spain.
I do it because I love it - not because I need the money. I enjoy being immersed in whatever music my shows cover. One day I can be working on Frank Sinatra music, and the next I am working out the show content for a new musical about Michael Jackson. Then there is my new Queen musical, my show about Abba, and so much more. I feel so fortunate that my work and my hobbies are one and the same.
My parents were both entertainers in their younger years and they brought myself and my two sisters up in a house full of music. At weekends we'd put on shows in the house and perform on the piano, clarinet, drums, ukuleles, and a host of other instruments. My sister Wendy was a cabaret star and in my teenage years, I'd stand at the side of the stage and watch her perform. It was the highlight of my week, just to be able to stand there and be involved. I was born into a musical family, and that’s why it is in my blood now. When I was 21, I even spent a year as a Butlin's 'Redcoat', playing the ukulele and entertaining holiday makers.
It was the spring of 1996, a friend gave me a ticket to see 'Riverdance' starring Michael Flatley. I really didn’t want to go. I was struggling at the time, trying to make a living in the entertainment business, and couldn't get anything right. Unemployment was staring me in the face. But my friend wanted company and I went along reluctantly. At the end of the show, the audience went wild and I thought, 'I can do this'. I left the theatre determined I was going to make a new show, inspired by what I had just seen. I went home and drew up a poster for a new show which I called 'Spirit of the Dance.' With my last £100 I had copies of the poster printed and sent them to theatres around the country. The phone in my kitchen started ringing with people saying, 'Get me this show!' I'd had the right idea at the right time. All the balls were in a row. All I had to do now, was make the show. When I was summoned to see the managing director of Apollo theatres, I feared I was going to be sued. In fact he wanted to book the show for a 16 week tour, opening at the Bristol Hippodrome theatre just three months later.
I'd had a major tour offered to me for a show that didn't exist. I tried to raise the money needed to put the show on but everyone turned me away. No-one had any faith in me to invest. I knocked on so many doors my knuckles were sore. But despite all the refusals and all the doors being slammed in my face, I kept going regardless. Nothing was going to stop me, and nothing did. I was focused and I knew what I wanted. I'd done some wheeling and dealing in my time but this was a first and I was not going to take 'no' for an answer. I did the only thing I could do. I sold everything I had, including my car and the family silver. It was time to sink or swim and I jumped in with both feet. My luck changed for the better when Michael Flatley announced he was leaving Riverdance to set up his own show. Everyone assumed 'Spirit of the Dance' was his new show and the opening night sold out in hours. The gamble looked like it was paying off. I was on a roll!
Spirit of the Dance was inspired by Riverdance but there was absolutely no point in copying it. I gave my show its own identity by including all forms of international dance such as Irish, salsa, flamenco, ballet, ballroom, tap, street dance, and more.
It wasn't until the end of the opening night at the Bristol Hippodrome theatre in September 1996, when I watched the audience go wild that I knew that Spirit of the Dance was an instant hit. Calls from all round the world started flooding in for the show and within two years, 14 different troupes of Spirit of the Dance were performing around the world in 14 different countries on the same night. I'd never dreamt that sitting in the audience at Riverdance one night would have changed my life so incredibly. Spirit of the Dance is still running to this day and has been seen by 20 million people worldwide. Every year I update the show, to include the latest and most fashionable dance style and that's why audiences keep coming back time and time again.
I'm involved in the creative process of every single show I've ever produced and that is more than 25 now. Every year I say I'll stop but there is no sign of that happening. Every show starts out with the same aim - to give the audience a happy, exciting entertainment experience and put a smile on their faces.
I seem to be getting it right!
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