Note: This article originally ran in the opening night Playbill of Les Misérables, March 12, 1987.
Seated in his Manhattan office a week before the opening of his London megahit Les Misérables, producer Cameron Mackintosh, who is 40 years old, but looks like a 30-year-old grad student, told PLAYBILL about the remarkable chain of events that led to his production of the musical version of Victor Hugo's masterpiece.
"I had vaguely heard about a Paris musical in 1980 based on the Hugo classic," he says, "but I paid little attention to it. A French musical sounded like an impossible idea to me, because the French, since Offenbach, have not created anything except Irma La Douce — which was part English. However, I realized that the idea of doing a musical version of 'Les Misérables' was obviously most extraordinary."
Fortunately, a friend, who was familiar with Mackintosh's legendary production of Cats, came to his office one day in 1981 with an album of Les Misérables. "About three days later," Mackintosh recalls, "I took the album home and played it. I still remember that it was eleven, o'clock in the morning and after I listened to it, I rang up my dear friend Alan Jay Lerner. (I had done a revival of My Fair Lady in 1978 with Liz Robertson and that's how he and Liz — whom, he later married — met. He directed the show.) I knew that Alan was a great Anglophile and Francophile and I thought he might be interested in doing the English version of Les Misérables."
Mackintosh brought the album to Lerner that evening and played it for him. "Alan thought it was a remarkable piece of work," Mackintosh remembers, "and he said that I must do it. But he felt that his style was too sophisticated for this libretto. I recall that he came to our second preview at the Barbican and he cried and thought it wonderful." The irony of these events is that Mackintosh's knowledge of French is minuscule and that the album he played for Lerner was sung in French. Also, he had never been able to read all of the huge 'Les Misérables.'" I've dipped into it and read different sections of it, but it's so heavy that I mainly used it for weight lifting. I did see the 1935 film of it with Fredric March and Charles Laughton which I vaguely remembered."
The producer's next move was to track down the French writer Alain Boublil, who created the musical in Paris with composer Claude-Michel Schönberg. That took several weeks. Eventually, in February of 1982, Mackintosh went to Paris and at the famous restaurant, Le Bernadin, he first met the author and composer of the hugely successful French musical version of Les Misérables. "That was where Alain and Claude-Michel decided that I was the fit person to do their musical in London," he states. At that meeting Mackintosh told the collaborators that he thought that Trevor Nunn, who had done Cats with him the previous year, would be ideal as director of the London production.
When Mackintosh finally contacted Nunn, ("It took months and months to get hold of him.") the famed director told him he was extremely busy and could not take on another show. But after listening to the album, he, too, capitulated, saying that he could not get the music out of his mind. He then suggested that they do the musical with the Royal Shakespeare Company. "I thought that was a terrific idea," Mackintosh reports. Nunn also expressed a desire to do the show with John Caird, his co-director on Nicholas Nickleby. "I liked that idea because I had worked with Caird on the original London production of Song & Dance. It was also immediately agreed that the designers should be John Napier and David Hersey who had worked on Cats and Nicholas Nickleby."
Mackintosh recalls that a number of meetings were held at which these decisions were made. "But because we were all involved with different projects, we saw each other only sporadically."
Meanwhile, Mackintosh went to see Jonathan Miller's innovative production of Rigoletto with a libretto by James Fenton, a critic for the London Sunday Times. "Fenton had turned Verdi's opera into a Mafia show and I was struck by the fact that there were so many young people in an opera audience. I realized they were there because this was more musical theatre than opera." Mackintosh was also so impressed with James Fenton's work — "he's also a fine poet" — that he phoned him and arranged a meeting. "I told him about Les Misérables and he said he thought it was a very interesting idea."
Shortly afterwards, Fenton embarked on a trip to inner Borneo which would yield a highly acclaimed book on the expedition. "He took a copy of 'Les Misérables' with him," Mackintosh states, "in preparation for our musical. Because of the book's weight, he hacked off chapters with his machete as he read them and dropped them into the river for the alligators to eat."
During 1984, Trevor and the RSC started to discuss seriously producing the show at the Barbican Theatre. "We finally settled on an October 1985 opening," says Mackintosh. "In the beginning of 1985, it became apparent that the project needed a last vital collaborator to complete the team and I suggested Herbert Kretzmer — the critic and lyricist who had written several musicals in England during the 1960's and was the author of some of Charles Aznavour's greatest songs. Working flat out for six months he managed to prepare a rehearsal draft by August 1985. Kretzmer also did all the lyrics in English, working hand in glove with Alain, Claude-Michel, Trevor and John."
Mr. Mackintosh credits Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel with much of the success of Les Misérables. "Without their original brilliant creation, the English team would have had nothing to work with."
From Paris, by phone, Alain Boublil had equally high praise for Cameron Mackintosh. "To tell you the truth," he says, "Cameron changed the lives of Claude-Michel and me. He really understood what we were trying to do, despite the fact that we were writing in French and living in a country where the musical theatre does not exist. He did not try to buy us out. He stipulated, from the start, that the only condition on which he would do this show with us would be if we would participate in the creation of the English production. I had no idea when we created Les Misérables that it would be done someday in London and New York. And now, it's scheduled for eight other countries this year! This only became possible the day we first met Cameron."
In 1983, when Trevor Nunn suggested that they do the show with the RSC, Mackintosh said he would only consider it if it could be a real co-production. "Other shows, have transferred from the RSC," he explains, "but what has never happened before is that a commercial producer has owned something and gone there and co-produced it with the RSC as I did. The RSC's creative working process was invaluable for a work of this scope. Les Misérables is both a highly professional musical as well as a classic piece of ensemble theatre."
Because Mackintosh's production office obviously had more expertise in the musical theatre than the RSC, the burden of casting the show fell primarily on its shoulders, drawing on performers from all branches of the profession. After six months of extensive auditions, in fact, only three of the leading performers came from within the ranks of the RSC — the actress playing Cosette came from the Glyndbourne Opera and Frances Ruffelle skated over from Trevor Nunn's Starlight Express.
Tim Rice suggested the Irish singer Colm Wilkinson to play the lead role of Jean Valjean and Mackintosh, one week after the show went into rehearsal, came up with the idea of casting Patti LuPone as Fantine.
Mackintosh admits that he and his investors ran a financial risk co-producing the musical with the RSC. "We were risking three hundred thousand pounds (about $450,000) on an eight-week run," he says, "which we had no part of. The RSC could never have mounted a production the size of Les Misérables without outside help. I also had to raise another three hundred thousand pounds and take an option on London's Palace Theatre in the event that we did transfer the show after its run at RSC.
"I must say that when the show opened in London, it got very mixed reviews and I had a terrible time deciding whether it would work or not if we transferred it," the producer says. "It was only because of great word-of-mouth that we sold out within ten days of the opening.
"Then we had another problem. We opened at the Barbican in October and had to move to the Palace in December — a very bad time of the year with an advance sale that was not spectacular. Miraculously, the public came and we were an immediate huge success.
"Trevor Nunn and John Caird did terrific work," Mackintosh explains, "in achieving clarity of story telling, which is what they're both brilliant at. That element of their work from the RSC is part and parcel of the show's success."
For the New York production very minor changes have been made, according to the producer. "But we've tightened it," he adds. "Now, we all feel that we have the definitive version of our musical and hope audiences, all over the world will agree with us."