Impresario" is not a word you attach to any old producer. It applies to a certain breed of theatre man who has passion, guts, and a sense of what an audience wants. Britain's Cameron Mackintosh has become the richest and most successful producer of all time, and has spread his shows around the globe. There isn't a major city that hasn't welcomed the Big Four works Mackintosh produced: Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, Miss Saigon. He is so associated with smash hits that his shows that do less than boffo (think Martin Guerre or The Witches of Eastwick) are unfairly viewed as major disasters, when a less high profile producer might be praised for taking risks. Mackintosh's latest hit is a West End revival of My Fair Lady, and in 1999 he mounted a critically-embraced Oklahoma! that begins Broadway performances Feb. 23. His 1994 large-scale London revival of Oliver! will get an Australian production this year and a rethought tour in the U.S. in 2003. Attached to the idea of "impresario" is the idea of a monomaniac with a mission who brings all his taste, intelligence and perspective into a venture. Mackintosh is known in the industry for being hands-on. In summer 2001, Mackintosh famously said he would no longer produce new shows, choosing instead to maintain his current works or develop revivals. On the occasion of Broadway's Les Miserables hitting its 6,138th performance Jan. 25, Mackintosh spoke to Playbill On-Line about his so called "retirement," the activity of which would kill an average man.
Playbill On-Line: The Jan. 25 date of Les Miserables surpassing A Chorus Line comes a couple months shy of another milestone — the 15th anniversary of the Broadway opening of Les Miz, March 12.
Cameron Mackintosh: Yes. And we have a major celebration in London because next month is the 200th anniversary of Victor Hugo, and for the first time ever they've published some stamps with all the characters of the show, which are coming out on Victor Hugo's birthday. It's done through Guernsey, which is part of the British Isles, but is slightly self governing. And of course, that's where Victor Hugo wrote Les Miz, over a 16-year period when he was banished from France. They're doing a major celebration. This is the first time the Queen's ever allowed this to happen.
PBOL: Les Miz has been such a part of your life. You've seen it countless times. Is there a specific part of the show that you can point to after all these years that still gets you, maybe a point that people wouldn't expect?
CM: The lovely thing about the show is that it still does get me. I go there thinking I'm only going to watch 15 or 30 minutes and I find myself there an hour later. One of the smaller bits that I always found haunting is at the end of "Stars," Gavroche is sitting up on one part of the set, saying "it's me that runs this town," and you get this complete silence, and just the creaking of the set and Eponine comes 'round, hunched all alone, thinking of Marius. I've always found that a fantastically simple, poetic image.
PBOL: I still marvel at the simplicity of some of Trevor Nunn and John Caird's choices in Les Miz and how the show is always wrongly viewed as a spectacle — so much of it happens in blank space.
CM: I know, this is one of the peculiar things: If you take a stopwatch, other than tables and chairs and the odd pair of gates, there is [nothing] except the actors on the stage for two of the three hours of the show. That's one of the reasons it works: Your imagination is so stimulated by the staging that you think you're seeing a lot more than you actually are.
PBOL: For years, I was used to seeing Les Miz in its touring companies in larger houses, but when I finally got to see it at the Imperial Theatre in New York, I noticed the actors were making eye contact with the audience in the soliloquy moments, "I Dreamed a Dream," "Who Am I?" and so on.
CM: I think that is one of the great strengths of the show: The key emotional soliloquies of the evening are something that completely pull the audience in. I think you're more aware of it in a theatre the size of the Imperial. The show has the ability to be a grand opera, and you can play it that way and it still has its power — I've played it in big stadiums and the show works jut as well. But when you put it into a playhouse, you are sucked into the drama in a different way. I think that marks a great piece, when it can do that. We've just had the same thing happen to us over this last year when everybody used to say, "Well, Miss Saigon is only a spectacle." I've always known that was absolute nonsense! In the last year we've had the proof of it in that we've been licensing it to places — 400 seat theatres, 900 seat theatres. It's just had an incredible run in Chicago, at the Marriott Theatre. It's the biggest success they've ever had. And the reviews from all the Chicago critics, who have always loved the original, said, "My God, this is even better than ever because you're right there in the middle of the storytelling." PBOL: I read somewhere that you would love to see original Jean Valjean, Colm Wilkinson, do the role again.
CM: I would. We're taking Les Miz to Shanghai this year, in June, and it's possible Colm will come back and do that. This will be the first time that any Broadway or London musical's ever played China in its full production. They've done other western musicals but they've never had the full production come. I think it's gonna be a terrific experience.
PBOL: I still come across many of my friends and colleagues from the New York City area who go to the theatre and have not yet seen Les Miz....
CM: I'm delighted!
PBOL: But how do you tap into that market?
CM: We have been doing a huge amount of our advertising in that area. I think one of the things that is going to help get the message out is that we're going to release in America a specially- abridged version for schools. We've been trying it out during the last year. It's had a phenomenal reception. Literally thousands of schools across America have wanted to do it. Bringing a show to a new audience that isn't necessarily aware of Broadway is going to, I think, make people want to come see the show in its professional version. It seems to me so appropriate that the show is going to get into the hands of a new generation who are gasping to do new shows, and this is a particularly good one for students to do.
PBOL: When you announced last year that you weren't going to produce anymore, did you hear the cry of a thousand composers and lyricists?
CM: I had quite a number of people. I'm producing a hell of a lot at the moment. They are shows that already existed. What I actually said is that I wasn't going to take on any new projects. There are one or two projects that I've had the rights to for sometime, which may or may not come to fruition, in which case I would do those. At this time, to be honest, I've got so much on my plate and I'm wanting to enjoy myself as well, I just could not face taking on anything new for the moment. There's no question that I will do some new shows in the future.
PBOL: Your plate is full.
CM: Yes, absolutely. I'm still thoroughly enjoying it. After this week, I go to Chicago to see the national company [of Les Miz] which we're taking to China and Korea, and then I shall go on to finish the casting of Oliver! and The Witches of Eastwick in Australia, and then I come back here and then they're doing a production of Witches in Moscow this year, Martin Guerre is opening in Madrid in September.
PBOL: Do you still have hopes for Martin Guerre in the United States?
CM: We're letting another producer do it, a Spanish producer, and they're doing their own version of the show [in Spain] which we're advising on. My belief with that show is that sooner or later the right production will have the life that it's meant to have. I'm sure it will get done again in America, but not necessarily by me.
PBOL: It's interesting that your shows at the moment include Oklahoma!, which is where modern musicals came from; the West End's My Fair Lady, considered by many to be the height of the Rodgers and Hammerstein era; and contemporary shows like Phantom and Les Miz, which showed us what musical theatre could be. Do you look at your career in big pictures and arcs like that?
CM: In the '70s, I'd done a few original musicals and nearly bankrupted myself — like The Card and Trelawney,, which got quite good reviews but were not big enough hits. I knew, having done them, that I just didn't know enough. The three shows that I went to back in the '70s to learn more about the art of constructing musicals were Oliver!, My Fair Lady and Oklahoma!. Those are the same three I revisit every couple of decades. [Laughs.] I reckon I've got one more crack at all three of them before I drop dead!
PBOL: Will Broadway see your smash London revival of My Fair Lady?
CM: Yeah. I can't see it coming before the end of 2003, though. We're really thrilled in London that we've got Alex Jennings at the National, taking over for Jonathan Pryce [as Henry Higgins]. A second cast is coming into the show.
PBOL: Are musical theatre writers sending you scripts still?
CM: Some, yes, they are. There are a few, and I just write back and say, "I'm sorry, at this time, I'm afraid..." I do firmly believe that I can't see myself at this moment creating the next range of new musicals in the same way as I did with Andrew [Lloyd Webber] in the 1980s, because I'm that much older now, it's 20 years on. I think the shows will come from a younger generation, which doesn't mean that I won't be able to put on terrific shows; I hope I still will be able to. If you get involved with a [new] show it takes a huge amount of time. Look, my production schedule this year — I've got eight productions that I am in involved in putting on this year.
PBOL: Say, I thought you were retiring.
CM: I know! Well, I didn't say I was retiring, no, I didn't. I just said I wasn't going to take on any new musical projects. People turned that into "retiring." I'm in the business of rethinking what I'm going to do with seven of my West End theatres that I own, which is taking a lot of time. I've already got five productions lined up for 2003. It's a hell of a lot of work.