Theatre: The Music(al) Man - impresario David King
Theatre producer and self-made millionaire David King talks to Eamon Sweeney about stage, success and showbusiness
David King is a self-made millionaire who brings music to the masses via one of the biggest self-styled brands in light entertainment. His global company, Spirit Productions, churns out shows that do the kind of brisk box office business that a Hollywood blockbuster would crave. To cite just one single example, his debut production, Spirit of the Dance, has been seen by over 30 million people worldwide.
Charismatic and chatty, King is a bit like Louis Walsh, Simon Cowell and Andrew Lloyd Webber all rolled into one, yet the Leeds-born impresario is very much his own man. His methodology is simple. "I don't do stories and I don't do plays," King insists.
"I don't do anything other than great music from whatever era it is. We'll do the hits from whatever era – whether it is Fred Astaire or the Beatles, or Michael Jackson or Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons."
Soul sensation Frankie Valli is King's latest subject in his current show New Jersey Nights, which opens tonight in the Olympia after a sold-out run in the Gaiety in February. "I've been all over the world and staged shows that have sold out everywhere, but nothing on earth prepared for that opening night in Dublin," King enthuses.
"The entire audience came out at the end and sang most of the show in the street. It was the most amazing and wonderful sight. There must have been 500 people out on the street singing and demanding that the cast come out, and they did! It was absolutely sensational. I've never seen anything like it."
King treasures such a reaction as he is a firm believer in sending them home happy. Another unique feature of his business model is to bypass the bright lights of Broadway and the West End. "I could open three of my shows tonight in the West End of London or on Broadway, but it would probably lose me a fortune," King maintains. "Although you hear about the big successes, 85 to 90 per cent of the shows in the West End and Broadway actually lose money.
"People do that because they feel they want the aura of being on Broadway, but I don't care. I'd rather be in a nice town, selling 1,500 tickets, making money and enjoying the whole situation."
King adopts the old showbiz maxim of bringing your show to the people rather than waiting for them to come to you. "We tour all the secondary towns," he explains. "We don't go to Chicago or New York or Dallas, but we'll go to San Diego and Springfield. People appreciate the shows more and they're always delighted that we bring the shows to them."
David left school at 15 to become a salesman, flogging ladies clothing and jewellery, until he returned to his lifelong passion for music.
King was a child prodigy on the piano and moonlighted as a stand-up comedian in Butlin's. "I really wasn't very funny," he notes, chuckling. He eventually struck gold with his debut venture Spirit of the Dance. "It was like a miracle happened," he beams. "Riverdance had set the world on fire. It created a demand, but it wasn't going to the secondary venues or cities. I came along with my concept and created a show that didn't go to London, but went to all the regional areas, but I knew from the start that it had to be different."
While King agrees that hard-work, steely determination, good ideas, a thick skin and Herculean perseverance are all essential ingredients in being successful in the entertainment industry, he also views his achievements as being down to sheer good luck.
"It is always a gamble," he says. "You do some research and you think you know what you're doing, but you genuinely don't know if audiences are going to like it. Apart from being a producer you have to be a businessman and a clairvoyant."
King's profile rose dramatically when the Discovery Channel aired a six-part series based on his shows entitled Dancing King: Man in the Mirror. King was also invited to participate in the global television hit Secret Millionaire, which was eventful to say the least, seeing as he nearly died.
"It was a big honour because they look at a lot of different people to do those shows," King says. "Secret Millionaire was fascinating. It reminded me that it isn't all about showbiz and glamour. There are always people out there with real needs and you should never, ever forget that." Filming nearly took a tragic twist when King fell victim to a carjacking.
"I'd just finished doing some filming in a working man's club in south Leeds," he recalls.
"I came out and sat in the car while the driver nipped in to pick something up. He'd left the keys in the ignition, so a drunken gentleman who was walking past jumped in and stole the car with me in it. He drove through the back streets of Leeds at 60mph, swerving and bashing against the kerb as I'm screaming at him to let me out. I won't repeat exactly what he said, but it was along the lines of 'shut up or I'll stab you'. I really thought I was going to die. I thought it was the end right there and then.
"I told him to let me out and take the car, but he just kept telling me to shut up. I remember it like it was a minute ago. A white van backed out so he had to slam on the breaks. I took that as an opportunity to open the door and get the hell out of there.
"The story doesn't have a happy ending. About four months later, he stole another car when he was blind drunk, smashed it into a taxi and killed the driver." This episode wasn't King's only near miss. "I've a theatre in Branson, Missouri," he explains. "New Jersey Nights is actually playing there now. We were putting in a new show and staying in the hotel across the street. We'd just left the theatre and a tornado struck, so we rushed into a shelter in the basement of the hotel. The tornado struck the theatre and slashed it in two. That night in Branson about 20 people died. People were extremely shaken.
"The theatre couldn't operate for nearly a year. It's been two near misses for me. I hope there isn't a third coming, but it's all part of life. You never know what's around the corner."
While most people in the entertainment industry aspire to be in the limelight rather than behind the scenes, what attributes are necessary to be a successful producer?
"Unless you have the right product on the right day, it really is like banging your head against a wall," King answers.
"Nobody works harder than me. I'd sweep bloody floors if I have to, but until the right show came along I was nothing. It's like winning the lottery. Unless those numbers get picked out, you're not going to win."
New Jersey Nights opens tonight in the Olympia, and runs until August 2.
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent