Who is Michael White?
Who is Michael White?
Michael Simon White (Chalky) was born in 1936 in Glasgow Scotland of an Irish father and Russian mother.Childhood asthma led to his being educated in boarding schools in Europe where he quickly learned French, German and Italian. He attended Pisa University and the Sorbonne before embarking on a career as a novelist in New York. He worked as a runner on Wall Street and later was introduced to the theatre working with Lucille Lortel at the White Barn Theatre in Connecticut.
Returning to England in the mid 50s he applied for a job with producer Peter Daubeny who brought foreign theatre companies including the Comedie Francaise, Moscow Art Theatre and Berliner Ensemble to London.
In 1961 he embarked on a career as an independent producer although his first production, The Connection, was not well received by audiences or critics. The swinging 60s established Michael White as a serious producer. He uncovered comedy stars John Cleese, Bill Oddie and Tim Brooke-Taylor when he successfully transferred their university revue Cambridge Circus to the West End. Spike Milligan was another given the opportunity to unleash his talents in Son of Oblomov and he produced Yoko Ono’s Music of the Mind. He also presented the first Happening in London. It was a huge hit but was closed by the police after one performance. He was in constant dispute with the censorship restrictions of the Lord Chamberlain’s office presenting avant-garde shows such as The Beard, Joe Orton’s Loot, America Hurrah, Fortune And Mens Eyes and the controversial Soldiers.
A great lover of dance from childhood when his mother took him to see Margot Fonteyn, Michael introduced British audiences in the 1960s to celebrated dance companies including Merce Cunningham (and his collaborators John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg), Gracelia Martinez and Yvonne Rainer. Later in the early 80s he brought Pina Bausch’s influential Tanztheater Wuppertal to Sadlers Wells.
In the early 70s he teamed up with Kenneth Tynan to devise and produce Oh! Calcutta which was billed as an evening of elegant erotica and full frontal nudity with sketches by Samuel Beckett, John Lennon and Sam Shepard. It broke down the last walls of censorship and was at its time the longest running show in the history of the West End and Broadway.
Other notable productions of this period include the hugely successful, award winning production of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth which he said he read over breakfast and bought before lunchtime; The Dirtiest Show In Town, The Threepenny Opera and Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s first major show Joseph & The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat.
In 1973 Michael was approached by writer Richard O’Brien and director Jim Sharman with 6 songs and the outline for a musical that would become The Rocky Horror Show. Michael agreed to present it at the Upstairs Theatre of the Royal Court. It was a smash hit, transferred and ran for years at a disused theatre on the Kings Road. The film version The Rocky Horror Picture Show went on to become a cult hit worldwide. Unfortunately his propensity for casual agreements led to a disastrous financial deal with LA based producer Lou Adler.
Chorus Line directed by Michael Bennett was another unprecedented box office and critical success, winning the Olivier Award for Best Musical, and its theme song <em>One</em> hit the top of the charts.
Michael White gambled on talent and as a result had his share of flops including Barry Humphries as Edna Everage in Housewife Superstar - a triumph in London but a disaster in New York. Another mega-disaster was “I” which cost 6 million pounds and closed before it opened! He produced over 300 shows of which he said only 10 were truly successful. But these successes enabled him to take risks on the other shows he wanted to produce.
Raising finance for West End productions became increasingly difficult in the late 70s and 80s, and, after the success of the film Monty Python & The Holy Grail which reunited him with John Cleese, he began to concentrate on film production. His tastes he said ran from “the silly to the serious” and included Paul Morrissey directing Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in The Hound of the Baskervilles; Rude Boy with The Clash; Urgh A Music War, an ambitious musical with 50 bands including The Police and Human League; Polyester by John Waters featuring a 300lb transvestite Divine; Shock Treatment, the sequel to Rocky; Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre when he wrote a cheque for the entire budget at the pitch meeting with Wally Shawn and Andre Gregory; Moonlighting with Jeremy Irons; the awarded Ploughman’s Lunch with Jeremy Irons; and White Mischief with Greta Scacchi. Michael also backed The Comic Strip Presents for Channel 4 featuring a new group of British comedians including Rik Mayall, Jennifer Saunders, Dawn French, Ade Edmondson, Nigel Planer and Robbie Coltrane.
In the 90s and into the new century Michael focused his energies back on the stage with Crazy For You, She Loves Me, Fame, Voyeurz, Beauty & The Beast, Notre Dame De Paris and Contact enjoying success without being hugely profitable. He also co-produced the film Enigma with Mick Jagger and Lorne Michaels, and one of the first scripted reality television series – Shoot Me starring Alexa Chung.
However in 2005, ironically when staging a play called Double Cross, he was conned and bankrupted. The stress contributed to him having a near fatal heart attack in Los Angeles. It was said he had a 1 in a 100 chance of survival. He required extensive rehabilitation that prevented him from re-entering his old business.
Well known as a charismatic playboy since the 1960s Michael White has been married twice, to model Sarah Hillsdon (dates) with whom he has three children, Joshua, Liberty and Sasha; and to Louise Moores (dates) with whom he has a son Benji. He also had a defacto relationship with Australian television personality and director Lyndall Hobbs (dates).
A legendary party giver since the 60s, he is credited as having been responsible for the term “swinging London” and as having introduced the concept of the celebrity party – the party after his opening nights was just as important as the show itself. He has obsessively chronicled his world of celebrities at play in 40 albums of over 30,000 photos, mostly taken on cheap disposable cameras.
In 2010 Sotheby’s auctioned his memorabilia, a remarkable record of English theatrical history and popular culture. He remains a central figure in the international social scene, attending a regular calendar of festivals and celebrity events around the world. As one of his ex-girlfriends said “The thing about Michael was that he was brilliant at work and play and made everything fun.”