CultureCritic interviews Cameron Mackintosh...
Perhaps the most successful musical producer of all time, Cameron Mackintosh's career has spanned five decades and produced global hits including Oliver!, Les Misérables and Cats. After celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Phantom of the Opera in October, and with a new production of Oliver! about to tour the world, Mackintosh's success and influence show no sign of letting up. We spoke to him about his remarkable career, how he spots a hit and the 'musicals renaissance'...
Can you tell us about your journey in theatre, and have you found the secret to a successful musical?
Anyone who says they know what makes a successful musical is an idiot. After 45 years, I've learnt never to try and second-guess what the audience wants. The only piece of advise I ever read when I started was this: When you want to do something, produce it for yourself – do it as well as you can and then hopefully other people will enjoy it too. That has always been my mantra.
Les Misérables has broken many records, has run for almost 26 years, and arguably eclipsed its source material in the national consciousness. What, in your eyes, makes the production so popular?
It is very easy to talk about success in hindsight. If anybody at the time had said to me Les Mis is going to be as successful, or even more so, than The Sound of Music, I would have thought they were insane and called the police. I never had any idea that a story as complex and serious as this, and something without your normal ‘Broadway' score, could ever take the public imagination in the way it has. Victor Hugo's novel is one of the great masterpieces of literature, and his observations about his characters and what they go through have nothing really to do the French counter-revolution against which it is set, but everything to do with humanity. It's about people fighting for what they believe in and so it will never date.
The Phantom of the Opera is also one of the most commercially successful musicals ever, although it is very different. Why do you think it endures so well?
Andrew Lloyd Webber first rang me about Phantom as something he thought we would have fun producing. He didn't originally intend to write the score. But as we saw the original movies and found copies of the novel (which were out of print at the time), we realised there was a wonderful romance in there. The brilliant thing Andrew did was to add a genuine romantic triangle into it. If you read the book or see any of the films, the roles of Raoul and Christine are very sketchily written; it's the Phantom you remember – this extraordinary grotesque performance. But the last 45 minutes of our Phantom are one of the most emotional things one's ever seen in theatre. And, of course, its simple story is ‘beauty and the beast', and we can all empathise with the idea of someone we dream about finding us attractive, or not.
How excited are you about the forthcoming Oliver! tour and how important is it to you?
Oliver! has always been part of my life. It was the second show in which I ever worked, when I was 18, and I took part in the original national tour in 1965 - the only time I was ever an actor as well as a stage manager. I've always loved it. I tried out the bones of this new production in America a few years ago, and we've fine-tuned it. We have a marvellous cast. It will tour here, then go to Holland, then Mexico – all over the world. People will be considering themselves at home for a long time to come.
Could you tell us more about adapting source material such as books, and at what point you realise the potential something has to make a good show?
I never have a good idea about what should become a musical. That's the writer's job. What I'm good at is spotting the inspiration of the writers. I would never have thought of Cats; it was Andrew Lloyd Webber who fell in love with TS Eliot's poems. He had no idea what the show would be so he played me his settings to the poems and Cats came to life out of that conversation. I asked the author five years into the run of Les Mis what made him think of turning the novel into a musical (even Puccini turned it down) and he said, "didn't I tell you? It was when watching Oliver! for the first time. The idea of Gavroche as a character came to me when seeing the Artful Dodger singing ‘Consider Yourself'".
Musicals have enjoyed something of a renaissance in the last few years. Do you think there's a reason for that?
Good musicals have always enjoyed a renaissance! You forget that Andrew Lloyd Webber and I are quite old. He even started before me, he's so precocious. The moment he and Tim Rice got together to do Joseph and Superstar, the British musical hasn't looked back. There was of course the great Lionel Bart before that, after the golden age of Broadway, which we were influenced by.
What do you think your new generation of musicals gave to people?
In the 1990s, after a period of about 20 years during which most of the best musicals were sung through (including Saigon, Aspects of Love, Sweeney Todd, Sometimes Wonderful, Abba and Rice's Chess), suddenly people decided they wanted to go back to musicals with books and songs, like The Producers. Young people also suddenly got interested in musicals. I never thought I would see the day people would say to me I'm in a ‘cool' industry.
All theatre evolves, but there is no doubt in this age where everybody stares into a screen, either for pleasure or for a living, live entertainment is something that cannot be crammed into your living room – sport, music and theatre are things you go out and enjoy with other people. That's why theatre survives.
What are the particular challenges involved in creating a musical from scratch?
Only 10% of musicals that get put on actually have any real life. Musicals sound as good as they look; seamless choreography of cast and scenery is a real craft. They involve more crafts than any other discipline. What I love to see, and take a great deal of pride from being instrumental in doing, is that kids as young as six now dream of being in the theatre, and the most influential shows in recent years were Cats, which inspired youngsters who can dance and sing, and Les Mis, attracting those who can sing and act. Interestingly, both were directed by Trevor Nunn and came out of the Royal Shakespeare Company's way of creating shows as an ensemble piece of theatre.
To book tickets to Cameron's shows and all West End theatre call Ticketmaster on 0844 847 1718
Click here for the chance to win 'The Phantom of The Opera at the Royal Albert Hall' on DVD and CD.
Read our 'Guest Guide to Musicals' here.
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- Opera & Dance