David King took a risk and decided the show must go on. Sarah Freeman meets the man on a mission to bring musicals to the masses.
At first glance, David King had the perfect springboard for a career in entertainment.
Born in Leeds to a father who was a music hall comedian and a mother who had danced professionally, while he was still in short trousers he was proficient enough on the piano to regularly perform in classical concerts.
“By the time I was growing up my parents had both retired from the stage and were running a shop, but music was always part of my life,” he says. “At weekends, my uncles and cousins would all come to my parent’s house and we’d play old time rag music. I’d be on the piano, someone else would get out a ukelele and there would be someone else on the clarinet. We’d basically put on an entire show.
“My sister Wendy was a cabaret star and as a teenager I would drive her to shows and stand at the side of the stage and watch. It was the highlight of my week.”
By the time he left Rounday School as a 15-year-old in the 1960s, music hall theatre had long since died a death and with few outlets for his talents, King set up his own stall in Kirkgate Market selling ladies’ clothing. He didn’t entirely give up on his dreams of being in the limelight and began acting as an agent to various different artists, a job which eventually took him to London. However, by the mid-1990s, with a wife and children to support he was still waiting for his big break. It came in the spring of 1996.
“A friend gave me a ticket to see a show called Riverdance. I really didn’t want to go. I was having a bad time of it. I was struggling to earn a living and nothing I did seemed to go right. He pretty much dragged me to the show and that night changed my life. By the time the curtain came down I had decided that I was going to put on a show just like Michael Flatley’s... only better.”
It was a grand claim. Riverdance, which had originated from an interval performance at the Eurovision Song Contest, had been an unprecedented box office success and its star, Flatley, had become a regular chatshow guest. However, there were few willing to risk their own cash on an unknown producer, even one with clearly big ideas.
“I knocked on so many doors that my knuckles were sore,” says David. “No-one had any confidence in me or my idea. They said the Irish dance craze was just a flash in the pan. I knew they were wrong. Besides this wasn’t about creating a copycat production, it was about taking the idea and running with it.”
Convinced success was just within his grasp, David ignored all the usual advice. He gave up his day job, mortgaged the family house, sold his car and ploughed everything he had into putting together a show from scratch. As he did, he knew that if it all went wrong he could end up living in a cardboard box.
Six months later Spirit of the Dance, which took its inspiration from salsa, flamenco, ballet and ballroom, opened at the Bristol Hippodrome. It was an instant hit and, while he didn’t know it, Flatley had given the production a helping hand.
“He had left Riverdance in a blaze of publicity announcing that he was going off to make his own show,” says David. “Three months later my show opened and everyone assumed it was Flatley’s latest venture. Ticket sales went through the roof.”
Within two years Spirit of the Dance had become the biggest show in the world and David’s gamble had paid off.
“Like any business it’s about finding an untapped market and giving people what they want. In the mid-90s serious theatregoers were well catered for, opera and ballet companies had a loyal following, but no-one was really providing popular entertainment.
“When music hall and cabaret disappeared, it left a real gap, and it took a while for anyone to realise. When Spirit of the Dance premiered I went from hardly being able to pay the mortgage to having 14 troupes of dancers performing my show in 14 different countries overnight. At one point I was the biggest employer of dancers in Europe.”
Fifteen years on, Spirit of the Dance is still running and in the intervening years has been joined in King’s portfolio by a dozen or so other productions. There’s Solid Gold Motown, Hooray for Hollywood and the latest to premiere is Man in the Mirror – featuring the music of Michael Jackson. The audition and rehearsal process was filmed for a series on the Discovery Channel and while none of his shows are likely to make it into the diary of the serious critic, they have made King a very rich man.
“For some people ‘popularity’ is almost a dirty word,” he says. “But I’m not one for snobbery. Every show we do is a lavish production, the work that goes on behind the scenes is frightening, but ultimately what we want to do is entertain.
“All the shows seem to have a life force of their own. We employ 500 dancers, singers and technical crew and these days my home has become a succession of hotel rooms, but when I think back to where I was 15 years ago I’m not about to complain.”
When we speak, David has just come back from Barcelona where Man in the Mirror has just premiered and it won’t be long before he’s off again.
“As each year passes I do say to myself I’m going to wind down a bit, but each year seems to be bigger than before,” he says. “My travels take me all over the world, but I’m still an old Yorkshire man at heart. I had a no-nonsense upbringing and that has stood me in good stead for being in this business. When things need doing, I just get on with it, there is no messing about.”
It’s not a philosophy everyone he works with shares and his job inevitably involves a little ego massaging. “We spend a lot of time on the audition process, but finding the right people can be difficult,” he says. “It’s not just about whether they can dance or sing, it’s about whether they have the right personality to be part of a large cast.
“In America you tend to find the dancers are all very deferential for the first few weeks. It’s all, ‘Thank you Mr King we’re so looking forward to being part of the project’. Then all of a sudden something changes and these ordinary kids turn into absolute divas.
“When you’re in rehearsals 12 hours a day everyone gets a bit ratty. It’s understandable, but in Britain people tend to be grateful for a job. They know how fickle the business is.”
While the recent Arts Council cuts have left many small theatre companies wondering if they have a future, David’s productions have not only ridden the economic storm, but have thrived in these uncertain times.
“We make entertainment for the Great British public and we actually tend to do well in a recession,” he says. “When times are tough people may cut back on some luxuries, but they are still prepared to set aside money for a night out they know they are going to enjoy. What we provide is escapism and that’s even more important when the outside world is grim.”
Much has changed for David and his family over the last decade and a half. Money is no longer a worry and if he ever had the time he could indulge in long foreign holidays and eat in only the very best restaurants. However, the reason he fell in love with the business in the first place is still the thing that keeps him going.
“My biggest thrill still comes from standing at the back of the theatre and watching audiences of different nationalities screaming and applauding. I am the luckiest man in the world.”
Having been the author of his own rags-to-riches story, David, now in his early 60s, regularly receives letters from those wanting advice and he always says the same thing.
“People often tell me about their dreams and ask whether they should give everything up to pursue them. I always tell them, ‘Not on your life’. I was lucky, but so many people aren’t.”
Spirit of the Dance, York Grand Opera House, June 6. 0844 847 2322. Rock Around the Clock, Hull New Theatre, July 11 and12. 01482 226655.