Cameron Mackintosh: I'm not interested in shows about the privileged
A successful musical starts with a great story, Phantom of the Opera producer Sir Cameron Mackintosh tells Laura Davis
JUST like the spectres for which he was named, the white-masked Phantom is doomed to relive his sorry tale night after night and twice on matinee days.
For 27 years this eternal optimist has been stalking a succession of beautiful young sopranos through theatres across the land, sculking around
candle lit stage sets with a tearing heart.
That’s 27 years without a break. Though the actor behind the mask may have changed, the character remains – bewitching new generations of audiences who return to watch his wretched story play out again and again.
“Normally with a new show you’d be bloody lucky to have had 10 years,” admits theatre impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh, who is bringing a revamped production of The Phantom of the Opera to the Liverpool Empire later this month starring Earl Carpenter and Katie Hall.
“I think it’s right that you let a new generation of artists get at the material. I’ve been very lucky that I’m able to do that myself within the lifetime of the first run,” he says.
“Most people revive shows after the original producer is dead or the production has been forgotten.”
Mackintosh, 66, is dismissive of those who ask why he would want to mess with the ingredients of a show that is so successful (“You’d never say that to a play producer”) and is resolutely unsentimental about reincarnating his beloved creations (“I don’t ever have a problem reimagining them”).
Other than Cats, which is still in its original form, he has revived his major productions of Miss Saigon, My Fair Lady and Oliver!. And then there is Les Miserables, of course, the film version of which opened in cinemas last month. Starring Hugh Jackman and Anne Hathaway, it has overtaken Moulin Rouge and High School Musical to become the second biggest musical in film history (Mamma Mia! remains the first) and has been nominated for seven Oscars.
“With musicals it is harder to recreate that magic because they’re the most difficult to get right in the first place,” says Mackintosh, “but to be honest I’ve absolutely thrived on making the changes and that’s what I’ve also done with the film of Les Mis.
“I’ve loved working with Alain (Boublil) and Claude-Michel (Schönberg) who wrote it and with Tom Hooper, the director, reinventing it yet again for the movies.”
Although the core material remains the same, the new Phantom has been given a completely new set, lighting, direction and choreography, so will be very different for audiences who recall the musical last time it played on a Liverpool stage some 10 years ago. It is this fearless reinventing that has been responsible for his shows’ lengthy runs, believes Mackintosh. That and their original source material, which usually comes in the form of a novel.
“I always start with the story,” he says. “I’ve got to like the story and I’ve got to like the characters. To be honest, if I don’t feel I can contribute anything tothose, it doesn’t matter how good the music is – I don’t want to do it.
“By and large the characters I’m interested in are ordinary people learning or teaching lessons of life. I’m not really interested in working on shows which are about sophisticated, privileged people who have problems.”
With a facially disfigured yet musically sensitive anti hero lurking in the opera house cellar, Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantôme de l’Opéra has story and bold characters aplenty, so when Andrew Lloyd Webber suggested they co-produce a new stage musical version together, Mackintosh’s agreement was “instantaneous”.
“Originally, Andrew had no intention of writing the score. We were going to use existing music,” he says. “But as we got into it, Andrew realised
what a wonderful opportunity it would be for him and it became one of his greatest scores.”
Despite his passion for a meaty plot, Mackintosh is not a big reader: “I read scripts, but that’s about it. I read trashy novels. Occasionally I read a good novel but only by chance.”
Given that as well as being busy reviving his existing musicals and looking out for new material he is the owner of a number of West End theatres, it is hard to imagine him finding the time for much serious reading.
He bought the theatres back when he was coming up to his 50th birthday and liked the idea of having a way of staying involved in the industry if his good fortune ran out.
“I didn’t know I would end up with my shows being busier now than they’ve ever been,” he says. “It is lovely to have the theatres because I particularly love old buildings and I’ve loved restoring them and making them better than they ever have been in their life and knowing they’ll be there in 100 years time.”
The first time Mackintosh stepped backstage, he was aged just eight and was invited there by Julian Slade after seeing his 1954 hit musical Salad Days about a piano that compels listeners to dance.
“I remember looking around the stage going ‘hmmm, yep, this is what I’d like to do when I grow up’,” he recalls.
“A few months later I’d worked out that the person who was in charge of all this was called the producer.”
He started low-key, selling tickets to productions at home at the age of nine and 10 before landing his first job was as a stagehand in his late-teens. At no point did Mackintosh consider the role of producer would be denied him.
“It didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t become one,” he says. “I didn’t have any money. It was after the war and times were very tough and therefore my parents looked after us and managed to send us to junior public school but there was never much money.
“You had to live on one’s wits and one’s charm and what modicum of talent had been handed down to you. It didn’t occur to me that there was any other way to do it other than to have a go.”
Liverpool Post, February 7, 2013