AS A new touring version of The Phantom of the Opera, the most successful musical ever, opens in Edinburgh, Chitra Ramaswamy talks to its producer, Sir Cameron Mackintosh
On 27 September, 1986, a new musical opened at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. The story, based on an obscure 1909 French novel that had spent much of the century out of print, was all high drama and high drapery: a gothic tale of a disfigured musical genius skulking around the Paris Opera House. It was created by the powerhouse duo behind the biggest West End hits of the decade, Cats and, just six months earlier, Les Miserables: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh. The stars were Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman. The reviews? Mixed. Still, it was a spectacle the likes of which the West End had never seen before. More than 200 costumes, a chandelier weighing a tonne, a hero obscured by prosthetics, 281 candles, and enough dry ice to power the rest of the 1980s. It was, of course, The Phantom of the Opera.
It’s still running in the same theatre today. Phantom is now in its 26th year and way past its 10,000th performance. And that’s just London. On Broadway, it’s the longest running show in history. The figures, as is always the case when it comes to Sir Cameron Mackintosh (worth a reported £635 million), are staggering. It has won more than 60 major theatre awards and been seen by an estimated 130 million people in 27 countries. Its box-office revenues are higher than any other stage play or film in the world, and that includes Avatar, Star Wars, and the Harry Potter franchise. It is the most successful piece of entertainment of all time.
“It’s one of the highlights of my life,” Sir Cameron tells me. “Of all my shows, it has a special alchemy, which comes down to Andrew’s marvellous score, the extraordinary staging, and the heightened mood of the piece. Did you know that we were originally going to use existing music? Thank god Andrew decided to write his own score.”
Now a new version of Phantom, five years in the making and with updated choreography and set design, is coming to Edinburgh. Sir Cameron describes it to me as “a more visceral, gritty” version and is careful to add that “it isn’t better or worse than the original, just different”. Fans (and Phantom lovers are a notoriously fanatical bunch) need fear not. Webber’s music, Charles Hart’s lyrics, and Maria Bjornson’s costumes remain unchanged.
“We had been talking about a new version for years,” Sir Cameron explains. “We knew that all the trappings of Phantom, the huge backstage costs of the original production, would only allow for it to go on so long. Eventually economics would catch up with it because it is so expensive to move and tour. You have to close Phantom for ten whole days before you can open it again. And also it’s been 25 years. However good the original production, it deserves a new cycle of life.” Is this version on a smaller scale then? “I don’t think you would ask me that if you had seen it,” is his chirpy reply.
Did he know he had a hit on his hands in 1986? “The dress rehearsal was very depressing. It was like a clock that had only been half wound, a soufflé with the oven door opened on it. I remember a couple of great friends who had put money in to it saying to me, ‘Well we wouldn’t have minded losing the money if it was a good show.’” He laughs heartily. “The next night, with the first paying audience, it all came together miraculously. And then of course it went through the roof.”
Describing Sir Cameron as an exuberant man is like calling Phantom a popular show. He is a one-off, a showman, a supremo, an impresario, or, as the New York Times put it, the most powerful theatre producer in the world. He has seven West End theatres, a Highland estate, a medieval priory in Somerset that he shares with his partner of decades, Michael La Poer Trench, and a blue plaque in his Bloomsbury headquarters stating “Cameron Mackintosh flourishes here, 1988-”.
He has singlehandedly transformed the face of modern musical theatre, and not everyone would say for the better. Still, whatever you may think of them, his portfolio of shows is mind-boggling. It includes Mary Poppins (he charmed the famously cantankerous author PL Travers into selling him the rights), My Fair Lady, Oklahoma!, Oliver!, and the big four of Cats, Les Mis, Phantom, and Miss Saigon.
What does he make of the fact that his four most popular shows are routinely panned by the critics? “Well, Phantom got mixed reviews but they were certainly better than the reviews for Les Mis,” he says impatiently. “Look, I was experienced enough by then. And think of how many classic shows got short shrift when they opened. Porgy and Bess, West Side Story, Chicago, Oklahoma!…”
In the next three years alone 40 new Mackintosh productions will open around the world. At the age of 65 he is showing no signs of slowing down.
“God no, I’m accelerating,” he says with great satisfaction. “I’ve never been busier. I’ve got more ahead of me than I did at the height of Phantom and Les Mis.” Doesn’t he ever get tired of plate-spinning? “I don’t commit to things unless I have my A-team to do it. And I’m not trying to be cocky but that shows in my productions. They are top notch! So no, I only get stressed if I drop the ball.”
Interviewing Sir Cameron is like winding up a toy and letting it go. Most of his sentences cry out for exclamation marks. He is a great talker and a great interrupter; a man with a big heart and a bigger ego. The only time I get a hint of the hard-nosed businessman is when I bring up his 12-year battle with a tenant crofter over disputed land on his 14,000 acre Nevis estate. It came to a head last year after a court ruled Sir Cameron should be granted ownership. “We have a great time up there,” he says breezily. “I’m very pleased with the new marina that we’ve helped get going. It’s proving a terrific attraction. Mallaig is adapting itself in these hard times for fishing and I’m very happy to be part of that.”
Are the local community more supportive of him now? “The local community have been my greatest friends and protectors for the last six years,” is his curt reply.
His connections to Scotland go back through generations. His grandfather came from the east coast, his great-grandfather from Raasay, and his great-grandmother from Skye. His father was Scottish: a brilliant jazz trumpeter who put aside his instrument to take over the family timber yard.
“His heart was in jazz. He played with Louis Armstrong, who gave him one of his trumpets. The great clarinet player Ian Christie said that ‘between drinks three and nine Spike Mackintosh was a genius’.” He roars with laughter. “After that, beware…”
His Maltese mother was the pragmatist to his father’s dreamer. “I inherited her drive and his dreaming,” Sir Cameron says. “We had very little money. A chicken on a Sunday was a treat. My mother was amazing at keeping the family together.”
Did that make him feel uncomfortable about his wealth when it came? “I think the worst thing that could have happened to me would have been having a hit at 20. I don’t know what that would have done to me. But instead I had to scrape a living for years. And my first show, which opened in 1969, lost over £45,000, an absolute fortune then. I had debts in tens of thousands and it wasn’t until Cats that I was able to pay them off. So though I can afford to take the odd private jet, on the whole I don’t. I get rather cross with my assistant when I’m put in business class when I could just as easily go in economy. What’s the point?”
More than canniness, his family gave him the freedom to be who he wanted. “I’ve always appreciated how much being brought up in a loving family has contributed to the stability of my life. My father had to give up the life he adored so he always wanted us to do what we wanted. That was wonderful.”
And what Sir Cameron wanted, above all, was to be a theatre producer. “My aunt took me to see Salad Days when I was seven. This story of a magic piano that infects everyone who hears it infected me too. It was a Road to Damascus moment in my life.”
He insisted on being taken back on his eighth birthday. After the show he marched down the aisle and introduced himself to Julian Slade, the composer in the pit. “He took me backstage and I remember seeing how it all worked and thinking, ‘This is it.’ By the time I was ten everyone knew I wanted to be a producer. I was a very precocious little boy.”
Time is money and Sir Cameron has to go. He is flying to Los Angeles moments after our interview to show a rough cut of the upcoming film of Les Misérables (Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe and Anne Hathaway, directed by Tom Hooper) to Universal Studios.
“It’s a total departure for me,” he says. “If we finish it right, it could be extraordinary. It’s completely groundbreaking no matter what, in that it’s the first film in history to be made live. The actors are rehearsing and then performing in front of the camera to the live score. Nothing is prerecorded. We had to really fight Universal to do it this way.” Another battle won, and another first for the history books.
So is film the next frontier? “Oh, I’ve hated lots of it,” he sighs theatrically. “Five months where I just had to sit there and be quiet.” He groans. Did he manage it? He laughs loudly. “No, of course not!”
• The Phantom of the Opera, Edinburgh Playhouse, tonight to October 20, box office 0844 871 3014 atgtickets.com/edinburgh
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Monday 20 May 2013
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