British-born director Mike Ockrent, one of the creators of Crazy for You and the husband of choreographer Susan Stroman, died on the morning of Dec. 2 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering in Manhattan. The cause of death was not immediately known, but Mr. Ockrent had been battling acute leukemia for some time. He was 53.
Although his colleagues were aware of his illness, many believed his condition was somewhat manageable and said they were stunned by the sudden downturn in his health immediately prior to his death.
Mr. Ockrent was born in London on June 18, 1946. After graduating from Edinburgh University with a degree in physics, he became a trainee director at the Perth Theatre in Scotland. Eventually, he became an associate director to Joan Knight in the late '60s and early '70s. In 1973, he was appointed artistic director of Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre.
Among the award-winning director's many London productions were Once a Catholic, Educating Rita, Passion Play, Follies and Zenobia for the RSC. Ockrent also directed several productions of Me and My Girl, which earned him Olivier, Ivor Novello and Drama Magazine awards. On Broadway, Ockrent's Me and My Girl was nominated for 13 Tonys and earned him the Drama Desk Award for Best Director.
Mike Ockrent's Broadway productions included Crazy for You, King David, Big, Once a Catholic, Atkinson at the Atkinson, and the annual production of A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden. The executive producer on Warner Bros.' "Metal God," Mr. Ockrent also directed the BBC films "Dancin' Thru the Dark" and "Money for Nothing," and wrote a theatrical novel, "Running Down Broadway" (Random Century).
Over the past three years Mr. Ockrent had been developing The Night They Raided Minsky's (which he co-conceived) for Broadway. Composer Charles Strouse, who worked closely with Ockrent in the three years since the director joined that project, told Playbill On-Line that he and his colleagues were stunned by the loss and that Ockrent's wife, Susan, was distraught.
Radio City Entertainment's Tim Hawkins, the executive producer of A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden told Playbill On-Line that Mr. Ockrent was a terrific guy and a great collaborator who brought a special context to his work.
"Mike was really the driving creative force behind the show," Hawkins said. "It terms of what the show became creatively, it was really him and Charles Dickens. He came in seven years ago and he had a vision of what the show should be. He thought of it in terms of the English Pantomime, the tradition of doing shows, at the holidays, that are two-tierd. These "pantos" were generally based on fairy tales so that the through line would be a fairy tale story. But within that would be some sophisticated reference for the adults, so it works on two levels. It's a great old tradition, and while it's not quite as strong as it used to be 45 or 50 years ago, these pantos would run 8-12 weeks and that was traditionally how British kids would be introduced to theatre. Our show is not a panto, but Mike saw what a great opportunity this was for American kids to be introduced to the theatre and that's what it became."
Ironically, Mr. Ockrent watched the Nov. 30 opening of A Christmas Carol from his hospital bed in Manhattan over a live video feed that was arranged quietly and with the unanimous support of the various unions and production staff involved. Though very sick, he watched the entire show and was said to have enjoyed it thoroughly.
-- By Murdoch McBride