PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Cameron Mackintosh

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL ON-LINE'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Cameron Mackintosh Producer Cameron Mackintosh, the most financially successful theatrical producer in history, still has a meal or two or three on his plate.
Cameron Mackintosh
Cameron Mackintosh Photo by Aubrey Reuben

This, despite the fact he said he retired from producing new projects. That announcement meant, he previously told Playbill On-Line, that he's still shepherding projects he started years ago and will continue to oversee his existing projects, such as the popular North American tour of Les Misérables, Broadway's The Phantom of the Opera (and its North American tour). Next on his agenda is the collaboration with Walt Disney on the stage musical, Mary Poppins, which has been in the works for many years. This fall, Mackintosh has had his eye on Denver (and indeed, has appeared in the Mile High City), the launch town for two non-Equity tours based on productions of his Oklahoma! (which played London and Broadway) and Oliver! (seen in London in 1994 under the direction of Sam Mendes). Mackintosh recently spoke to Playbill On-Line about Equity and non-Equity tours, the changing business of Broadway and the late composer-lyricist-librettist Lionel Bart's beloved musical based on "Oliver Twist." The national tour of Oklahoma! begins Dec. 16 at the Buell Theatre in Denver. Like the current Oliver! (which launched at the Buell Nov. 11 before traveling) the tour is produced by Ken Gentry and NETworks Presentations.

Playbill On-Line: Oliver! is one of the those shows I first saw as a kid, and it seemed a door opened and showed me you could tell stories on stage with songs. Many kids got their first exposure to musicals with it...
Cameron Mackintosh: I had exactly the same feeling when I saw it when I was 14, when it had just opened in London. It's still a terrific show with an extraordinary score and a great story.

PBOL: What took so long for your 1994 production to play in the U.S.?
CM: The problem with Oliver! in America and one of the reasons it hasn't been done professionally on tour for over 30 years — except in the odd regional theatre and the quick-lived revival in the early '80s in New York — is because of the size of it: It's basically got a double cast of the adults and the children. Unlike a lot of shows which have children in them, all the children are integral to the production. This has got a huge troupe of them. Under Equity, they are considered the same as grown up salaries, so it makes it uneconomic to tour the show because the overhead would be as big as Phantom or Miss Saigon. Plus, the original production that we did in England, with Sam Mendes and Matthew Bourne, on which this one is based, was a huge production, as big as Saigon. We looked at all the Broadway economics and I had many discussions with [Actors' Equity's] Alan Eisenberg about — who likes the show very much and wants to be helpful, but under the current rules and the way that they are it just makes no sense for the show to ever come to Broadway. Event though I think there would be a huge audience for it.

PBOL: This is a show that hasn't had a Broadway presence in 20 years.
CM: It's one of those famous titles which everyone's heard of but nobody's seen outside of seeing their son or daughter be delightful in their local school. But the dramatic sweep of it and the scale of it — it's taken me two years to work on a design that can absolutely give all of that and yet still move from city to city in a week. I've been working with [designer] Adrian Vaux on this for a long time; he also did the Saigon that's out there [on tour].

PBOL: Ken Gentry, the NETworks producer of the national tour, previously said he explored Equity options for this tour.
CM: This is Ken's production. Ken has good relationships with Equity and I know he certainly discussed it, but I was never party to that. My role on this one — it is my creative production, which I've adapted and helped devise with Adrian and everyone else, [to achieve] the physical look that allows us deliver the show. This is a Ken Gentry/NETworks production, which I'm trying to make as good as possible from an artistic standpoint, as with Saigon — that's Big League production. I didn't even license them because I had given those rights away to MTI... Obviously, I've been to see the show. Like with any show that I participate in from a rights point of view, whether amateur or professional or Equity or non-Equity, I want it to be as good as possible for the audience. Of course, I also am in the peculiar position of owning the rights to [Lionel Bart's] book. He lost his rights long before I had them, in the early '60s. When I ended up co-owning the show, my partner and I agreed to give something back to Lionel. So at the end of his life, he did both enjoy a huge personal success and get some money back from Oliver! PBOL: He had sold the rights to his songs...
CM: ... in the mid-60s, to finance some mad scheme of his, thinking, "Now I'll write another one," but you can never write another Oliver!

PBOL: You wanted your production of Oliver! to be populated with actors: You didn't want six kids...
CM: No, you couldn't do it, it wouldn't work. It's got about 24 adults and 16-18 children. The scenic effects are fantastic, just as effective as it was at the Palladium [in London]. In fact, it might be even better because of the way we've condensed the perspective of it.

PBOL: The new non-Equity national tour of Oklahoma! launches Dec. 16 in Denver.
CM: Ken [Gentry and NETworks is] also doing Oklahoma!, which is still basically the National [Theatre] production that I did in London and Broadway.

PBOL: We're at an interesting time in American theatre history in terms of skyrocketing costs for producing Broadway shows and tours. You said in an interview there's an opportunity for non-Equity shows to be an amazing training ground for actors to graduate from to enter Equity.
CM: Look, when I started people I knew in the theatre used to tell me their training was in summer stock and lots of regional theatres. Over the last 4-5 years I've noticed...how the American scene was changing, that the standards of non-Equity have shot up and often they're now better than some Equity productions. There's a huge majority of this cast in Oliver! that I would be only too thrilled to have if I was doing it on the West End of London or on Broadway. When I started producing in America myself, with Les Misérables, really — Cats had just been on and then I decided I would do it myself here — "bus and truck" was considered the end of the commercial line: You didn't get much scenery and you got as few a cast as you needed. I refused to do that with Les Miz and my shows, like Phantom, and I'm very proud of the fact that my legacy is that I raised the bar, hugely. That's what has made the road — which was not very strong before then; it had gone through a bad period — suddenly become as important as Broadway. I'd make sure the lighting and the sound and the performances were as good, if not better, than what they read about. I think that's what's happening now with the best of non-Equity: That is the quantum leap that's taking place. I hope Equity doesn't get themselves into a corner — to realize this is an opportunity, not a problem.

PBOL: An opportunity how? What can Equity do?
CM: I'm sure there are ways of doing it. Look, in the subsidized theatre — non-commercial theatre — they have many different scales for different types of theatre, don't they? Why should the commercial theatre, where it's even more expensive, be any different? The talent that is learning to hone their skills at a very high level in these kind of productions [non-Equity tours] are the stars of Broadway of tomorrow. Surely, that in the end is good for the membership of Equity. All anyone cares about is talent. It's putting the best possible talent in the best possible material that stands the best chance of getting audiences to want to come to the theatre again. Every part of our profession needs to help each other. We've all got the same aim: To keep employed and have a job, as well as to entertain. At the same time, they've got to get rid of this archaic chorus contract, which is, frankly, insulting. It's also terribly counterproductive, in these cost-conscious times, for artistic excellence. Under a chorus contract, actors can give two weeks' notice at any time. [Without] having a term contract, as you do with principals, you can't organize yourself to do a proper rehearsal period. Consequently, it's an ever-evolving thing, where people just get "put in" by the stage manager. So you never get that coherent sense of possession, which we get in other countries, where the cast "possesses" the show. It doesn't matter that it's been done by other casts. It becomes their interpretation for the length of run they're in it.

PBOL: When the long-running Equity tour of Les Miz went on hiatus earlier this year and was reconstituted in the fall, some people were surprised it remained an Equity production. It had lived a rich, long Equity life on the road. Why didn't you go non union?
CM: Well, I will do, at one point, but at this point, I was still able to keep it Equity and I'm still producing it. I have not produced myself — and I'm not intending to produce at this current time — a non-Equity production. There are people out there who know how to do that better than I do. I will work with the best people here that I can find in the appropriate arena. At the moment, Les Misérables and indeed Phantom are still working under their Equity contracts [on tour]. I want the piece to have the longest life at the highest level of artistic standard that I can.

PBOL: Is there a circumstance where you can see your production of Oliver! on Broadway, or do you think the current tour will be its American life?
CM: The next few months will tell, but when people are exposed to the full-blooded show as opposed to what they think it is... I think if this show ends up doing very well on the road, I'll be very surprised that some theatre owner doesn't say to me, "Cameron, we'd love to do it [on Broadway]." But it can't be done on Broadway unless there is an economic way of actually making it work.

PBOL: It's about reinventing the business mechanism of producing?
CM: Yeah, and the fact that someone has to take a proper view that is not exploitive about: Why should children who are employed for that moment in their life, a lot of which will never become professional actors, treated on the same level as people whose ambition is to be a professional actor? With kids, you want them to be themselves [on stage] most of the time. Occasionally, you will get a lead role like [the Artful Dodger] or something, which is different, because you're looking for someone very special, but it's just the same as when you're looking for someone very special in professional theatre: You play an in demand principal the going rate, not the minimum. It's common sense.

PBOL: Can you give me a sense of what the end of Lionel Bart's life was like when you were working on the Oliver! revival back in 1994? Was he elated?
CM: He was completely elated. He had the most wonderful time. He was very active in the rewrites that we did: extending numbers, writing new lyrics and — the biggest one — working with [orchestrator] Bill Brohn on the massive reorchestration. There's not a note of the original score there; the [melody's] there but it's been created as if it's a brand new musical. That's why it sounds so fresh and marvelous.

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