If the considerable clout of Cameron Mackintosh extends to heaven, then you can mark it down now with certainty: It will snow on March 12, 1997.
A decade ago on that day, just such an unseasonable, unreasonable occurrence greeted the official Broadway arrival of his production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's Les Misérables, blanketing the night with a kind of white magic. Now, the kinetic producer is moving heaven and earth well, earth anyway to mark that momentous date by premiering this March 12 a brand-new 10th Anniversary Company. So, you readily see, snow is not out of the question.
"We thought the best birthday present we could give the show after 10 marvelous years on Broadway was, basically, a new production," Mackintosh explains. "I don't think it's ever been done before for a Broadway show a production completely closing down so it can be substantially recast and go through a new rehearsal period." Until the anniversary troupe could take over on March 6, the acclaimed national touring company did the Broadway edition.
Taking it from the top again was, admits the producer, "quite an emotional experience for as much the production team as I'm sure it was the performers. It was the first time despite the myriad of productions of Les Miz around the world that the authors and myself and Trevor Nunn and John Caird [the co-directors and co-adapters] had all been together since the original Broadway show. Finally, the whole production team was back, reunited and reexamining the show. I mean, of course, we wouldn't want to change much, but there are small sections of the show for which Claude-Michel is writing some little bits of new music, certain links in the show which we are reexamining as a part of the new creative process. So, for all of us, it's going to be taking a great piece of musical-theatre work and starting it off as a completely new show."
Les Misérables bowed on Broadway at the Broadway, eventually shifting operations to the Imperial so its original home could house another Boublil-Schönberg-Mackintosh opus: Miss Saigon, their Vietnamesed Madame Butterfly. Both of the French authors and the singular British producer recall, rather dreamily, that bizarre spring blizzard of 1987 when the first-night flurries mixed strangely with their Les Miz jitters but, after that, their memories fragment. Schönberg remembers a skyscraper starting to grow next door to the Broadway Theatre, while Boublil recalls the opening-night party at The Armory where somebody smuggled in a New York Times rave which, unlike the London notices, would be followed by a fairly universal chorus of critical cheers.
As for Mackintosh, he was still shell-shocked from the final press preview the night before when his French Revolution musical had trouble getting off a single revolution because the electronic board that governed the constant swirls of scenes and scenery completely broke down. "I had to make my Broadway debut in front of the curtain all the way through from eight till a quarter to nine, telling the audience what was happening and what wasn't happening."
Eventually, the turntable kicked in, and the producer took his place at the back of the house, reportedly a visible blur. If you had told him at the moment that the reviewers would come away raving in spite of the mishap that ten years later the show would still be running, the fourth longest-runner in Broadway history "it's something I never believed could possibly happen."
The success of Les Miz and Cats and The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon pretty much confirms Mackintosh's place as the preeminent theatrical producer of his time, a show-shaping, hands-on artisan in the old-fashioned David O. Selznick sense of the word. "It is a rare art," he allows. "Most people produce checkbooks. They don't understand what you have to be is a catalyst. The producer's job is to get the best out of the people you're working with. One of the things that I can do is talk to the various collaborators the musical arranger, the composer, the writer, et cetera and discuss their particular area, be a good audience and sometimes pop a good idea out of them. What I know I can't do is do any of their jobs. I need them to create something for me to react to and it's a bit tricky, having a strong point of view but not to the point of trying to do somebody else's job."
What Mackintosh reacted to with regard to Les Miz was a concept album based on the original 1980 Paris version of the show. He tracked the authors down and told them that, no, he wasn't interested in buying what they had done he was interested in rethinking the project for an English speaking presentation.
What he didn't know until about three years into the run when he actually asked Boublil what had prompted him to musicalize Les Misérables was that the flash of inspiration came from an existing Mackintosh show. After all these years of success, the lyricist still remembers that gray January day when, void of a doable musical idea and fearful for his future, he caught a London revival of Oliver! There was something about the desperate plight of The Artful Dodger that put Victor Hugo's great novel within his musical reach.
Far from a massive ego, Boublil contends, this idea represented a complete absence of ego. "There is a moment," he says, "when you believe you can tackle anything when it seemed obvious this was what I wanted to do. I didn't realize it was such a huge subject. I only saw the scenes I wanted to use for the musical. Only afterward, when we were finished, did it seem enormous."
His partner, Schönberg, seconds that notion. "We frankly didn't take this on for the greater glory of Victor Hugo," he readily admits. "We just thought it was a terrific story to musicalize. Georges Bizet used have to story ideas pinned to his office wall. There aren't that many great ones going around."
Initially, the idea of Hugo-harmonizing didn't seem like a winning ticket, but the two Frenchmen trudged on determinedly against an army of nay-sayers and ridiculers. It has taken a decade, and then some, to be proven profoundly right but they've finally made it into the clearing. And how bright it is!
-- By Monty Arnold