An Interview with legendary producer Cameron Macintosh


Sir Cameron Mackintosh
Sir Cameron Mackintosh

By KYLE LAWSON, The Arizona Republic, Jan. 23, 1999

Miss Saigon has taken its sweet time coming to Phoenix. Nine years and 31/2 months after its London premiere, to be exact. Don’t blame the folks at Gammage Auditorium, though; for several seasons, the folks who run the Valley Broadway Series have attempted to bring Alain Boublil’s and Claude-Michel Schonberg’s spectacular musical to town. This year, Gammage’s availability finally coincided with the show’s tour schedule.

The helicopters land Wednesday.

Loosely based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly, and set during the waning days of the Southeast Asian conflict, this effects-laden tale of an American soldier’s affair with a Saigon bar girl is a case of giving the people what they want.

The box-office pot is boiling, thanks in part to the fame of those copters that evacuate the American embassy during Act II. Only The Phantom of the Opera’s crashing chandelier exceeds them in reputation. Courtesy of his designers’ penchant for scenic overkill, producer Cameron Mackintosh can look forward to pouring another million or so into his bank account.

Don’t begrudge it. There were times when the man didn’t have a penny to pinch. The road to Arizona was littered with theatrical land mines, many of which exploded. The story is not in Miss Saigon’s coming to Phoenix but in the fact there is a Miss Saigon at all. Thirty years ago, about the only thing Cameron Mackintosh seemed capable of producing was a sad story.

Of all the bleak years, 1969 was the bleakest, he says, during a phone interview from his home near London. He was stranded in Blackpool, England, dead broke, with a flop show on his hands and a payroll to meet.

He had wanted to be a theatrical producer more than anything, and it had come to this. The only sound in the stalls was the flapping of the vultures’ wings. He could declare bankruptcy but it meant his cast wouldn’t be paid.

Under British Equity rules, it also meant he would never produce again.

It was a bitter tonic for a 23-year-old who had been besotted with the stage since he was 8 and seen a production of Julian Slade’s Salad Days, a show about a magic piano that set all of London dancing. After the curtain, young Cameron slipped out of his surprised parents’ grasp and raced down to the front of the theater where Slade, playing pit piano at the time, was packing up his sheet music.

“The magic piano – tell me how it works,” the boy demanded.

Slade, who became a great friend of the inquisitive youth in later years, couldn’t help laughing when he told that story. Who knew the brat would galvanize musical theater and become the fantastically rich producer of Cats, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon, the most successful musicals in stage history?

It certainly was a great secret in 1969 as Mackintosh scuttled to patch up his failing tour of Mrs. Dale’s Diary, which followed hard on the heels of a disastrous revival of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes.

Mackintosh fought hard to get to the bottom, he jokes now. He earned his stripes as a backstage “go-fer” during the West End production of Camelot and on the road with Oliver! He made his producing debut with a series of “tatty tours” of hoary comedies and equally ancient Agatha Christie thrillers.

Anything Goes and Mrs. Dale’s Diary (based on a radio show that audiences were happy to listen to, but apparently not willing to see) were his tickets to the big time, financed on borrowed money. And jewelry.

“Most Thursdays, we had to pawn my partner’s wife’s jewelry so we could pay the actors on Friday and then pay her back with the check that came on Saturday from the theater,” Mackintosh says in the book, Hey, Mr. Producer: The Musical World of Cameron Mackintosh.

“She would reclaim the jewelry on Monday and hope that people asked her out to dinner on only Tuesdays and Wednesdays.”

Why would the woman do that? Probably because she was among the first of many in the theatrical world to succumb to the legendary Mackintosh charm. The product of a Scottish father and a Maltese mother, he possesses, at 52, such an infectious, impish grin and such buoyant, overspilling confidence that writers are forced against their will to fall back on the cliched term “boyish.”

He always has believed the stars are within his reach and his greatest gift is that he can make others believe they are his for the taking. How else to explain the bank manager who, in spite of the young man’s non-existent credit, loaned Mackintosh the necessary pounds to pay the Blackpool cast and save him from bankruptcy?

It was the proverbial turning point. Shortly thereafter, Mackintosh scraped together the funds to produce Trelawny, a Julian Slade musical based on Pinero’s Trelawny of the Wells. It was his first genuine hit, though its 177 performances pale beside the years racked up by Cats, Phantom, Les Miz and Miss Saigon, all of which are still running. (Cats, which premiered in London in 1981, has for a long time adorned its posters with the tagline, “Now and Forever.”)

There have been many hits, a goodly number of them small and decidedly not lavish: Tomfoolery, The Little Shop of Horrors, Five Guys Named Moe and the Stephen Sondheim revues, Putting It Together and Side By Side By Sondheim.

Some have been larger in scope, medium lavish in scale (compared to Phantom, at least): choreographer Matthew Bourne’s all-male Swan Lake, which opened in New York earlier this fall; the celebrated revivals of My Fair Lady, The Boy Friend, Follies, Oliver!, Carousel (which played Gammage a couple of seasons back) and Oklahoma! (which opened in London in late 1998 and which Mackintosh hopes will play Gammage in the future).

There also have been flops: Bloundel, Cafe Picasso, The Fix and Martin Guerre – though only a fool would count those last two out of the hit game.

Mackintosh just opened the third reincarnation of Martin Guerre in London and he’s working on fixing The Fix, a satirical look at Washington politics.

Last year, a British newspaper reported that the producer (now Sir Cameron Mackintosh, courtesy of Queen Elizabeth II) was worth in the neighborhood of 350 million pounds. It says a lot about the man that he still banks with that institution that rescued him from bankruptcy. It says even more about him that he is in London shepherding Martin Guerre.

The show, which features music by the composers of Miss Saigon, has bombed twice, but Mackintosh believes in Boublil and Schonberg. When no other producer would touch their adaption of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, he took it on, worried over it, threw money at it and eventually turned it into an international bonanza.

It was the same with Miss Saigon, with one difference: After Les Miserables, any producer in the world would have written the Frenchmen a blank check.

“After all the millions I have made from their work, it would be wrong of me not to do everything I can to give this show a chance to get it right – unless I hated it, which I certainly do not,” Mackintosh says.

“Boublil and Schonberg are remarkable talents, and Martin Guerre is a remarkable show. We just need to be patient. It will find its public.”

Patient. Affectionate. Intensely loyal. Funny and generous. Those are adjectives almost never used in conjunction with the title of producer. It explains why the best and the brightest clamor to work with him. It’s why Boublil and Schonberg refused to cash any check but his.

His reward? Sometimes perseverance pays. Mackintosh can’t keep the excitement out of his voice as he relates how the London reviews for the new Martin Guerre are the best it has yet received.

“We didn’t get it right the first time, or the second,” he admits. “At the end of the London run, we all felt that, somehow, we could have done it better. This time, I think we did get it right. It is a terrific piece of writing and, if I may brag a little, it has four or five really cracking tunes, including How Many Times, which I think is one of the finest pieces of music these guys have composed.”

Now, he’s anxious to get back to work on The Fix, which features a score by two young Americans, John Dempsey and Dana P. Rowe. It’s an audacious bit of flim-flammery that opens with the death of a presidential candidate and falls somewhere between those “paranoid Washington conspiracy thrillers such as The Manchurian Candidate and . . . the sleazy tabloid life of the Kennedys and Clintons,” according to one critic.

Oh, did we mention Marilyn Monroe, the kid from The Omen and the Mafia?

It’s quite a show.

“I was very upset with the reaction of the British critics,” Mackintosh says. “I didn’t mind that they didn’t like it, but I did mind that they didn’t realize it was talented.”

Any work on The Fix will have to wait until the duo completes the score for Mackintosh’s next project, a musical based on the Jack Nicholson movie-John Updike novel, The Witches of Eastwick.

“It is so rare to hear an original voice in the musical theater – and John and Dana are original. That’s why I’m going with them.” Mackintosh says.

“If I listened to the critics, I’d have left them to rot. They’d probably never write another musical and that would be such a waste. You’ve got to go with what you believe in. I’ve never forgotten something that Charles Blake Cochran wrote, under the heading of advice to aspiring young producers: ‘Never put on a show for audiences; always put it on for yourself, and do it as best you can. Only then, maybe, will an audience come to see it.’

“If I have a motto, I guess you could say that is it.”

When scouting for new material, Mackintosh looks first at the characters and the story.

“I have to like the characters,” he says, “and the story has to have strength and purpose and a reason for being told. Then I listen to the music. It has to smell theatrical. I need to smell the story coming out of the songs. Most music I hear doesn’t belong on the stage. On the radio, maybe. Just a hook repeated over and over. The great writers, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Larry Hart, could tell a life story in a song. There have never been that many people who could do that. It’s hard to write great dramatic music.”

There are those who would argue that, of all his shows, Miss Saigon least fits his personal criteria. The London Daily Telegraph called the musical a “a cynically concocted product.” It isn’t that. Even his enemies wouldn’t call Mackintosh cynical. He is too passionately concerned with theater to deliberately manipulate the form for commercial reasons.

It’s possible that, as with the first two attempts at Martin Guerre, Mackintosh, Boublil and Schonberg didn’t get it quite right. Miss Saigon’s libretto is clumsily crafted; too much of the action surrounding the main characters seems grafted on rather than organic. And the scenic effects, especially the helicopters, can be overwhelming.

The helicopters arrive on the Gammage stage.
The helicopters arrive on the Gammage stage.

That scene, in fact, was grafted. Although the city of Saigon falls to the Viet Cong in Act I, the embassy evacuation takes place in Act II, staged as a flashback. It’s there because director Nicholas Hytner and Mackintosh recognized the need for a dramatic climax. It is only marginally important to the plot but it’s certainly memorable.

Mackintosh defends the scale of Miss Saigon, pointing out that John Napier originally designed the settings for the historic Drury Lane Theatre, which had a reputation for spectacle. Then there is the story, which has the “terrible sweep of history.” Playing the central love triangle against the epic settings emphasizes the plight of individuals caught up in events beyond their control, he says.

“I don’t think theater should be harnessed to machinery. You use it where it’s useful but it’s never the reason. I didn’t do Miss Saigon because I wanted to create some visually exciting set pieces, although some nice things did result. I loved the characters, I loved their story, I thought it was worth telling. It’s a simple as that.

“There will come a time when they will be doing this show in theaters all over the world and very few of them will be able to match John’s settings. I’ve been to that place already. During rehearsals, all we had was a man who stood beside the piano and did a kind of thudding noise with his mouth when it came time for the helicopters to approach.

“It worked. Our imaginations took the necessary leap, and audiences’ imaginations will take the leap as long as we stir things up properly. All that always has mattered on the stage is a rattling good story.”