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At the Revolution's Fore

THEATER

Cameron Mackintosh made a name for himself producing four of the biggest musicals of our time. The secret? It starts with a good story and luck, as the returning 'Les Miz' attests.

December 12, 1999|BARBARA ISENBERG | Barbara Isenberg is the author of "Making It Big: The Diary of a Broadway Musical" and a frequent contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — Producer Cameron Mackintosh is planted smack in front of a set model for "The Witches of Eastwick," his new musical set to open in London next summer. On either side of him stand members of the show's creative team, and he has plenty of questions for them: How much will all those fancy lights cost? Where will the dancers dance in that diner scene? What's the emotional beat of that big production number, and how will they get the audience to settle down afterward?

Perhaps the most successful theater producer in the world, Mackintosh is the man who launched "Cats" and three more of the most popular musicals of our time--"The Phantom of the Opera," "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon." Currently between 30 and 40 productions of his shows are running worldwide.

Perched on the edge of his seat, talking about his shows as others might talk about their children, the British impresario looks considerably younger than his 53 years.

You need sensible shoes to keep up with Mackintosh. The busy producer, who was knighted in 1996, has his "Witches of Eastwick" team meeting in one office, a reporter in another and a photographer set to snap pictures of him in the conference room. Within five minutes of the last photograph, Mackintosh is out the door, an assistant at his elbow giving him the address for his next stop, a rehearsal for his newest Broadway show. It is Stephen Sondheim's "Putting It Together," with Carol Burnett, seen last season at the Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum.

CTG head Gordon Davidson has two more Mackintosh musicals on the Ahmanson Theatre roster this season. Opening tonight is "Les Miserables," the 1987 Tony Award-winning musical based on Victor Hugo's classic tale of a good-hearted fugitive and his relentless pursuer. And the producer's third version of "Martin Guerre" recently opened at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theatre, heading for Los Angeles for a Feb. 23 opening, en route to Broadway.

Davidson calls Mackintosh "a tough but fair--and maybe even generous--businessman" and says he is already talking with him about future shows. Calendar talked with Mackintosh at his New York office:

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Question: How did you get into this producing business in the first place? Were you hooked by the stage as a child?

Mackintosh: I'd been dragged to see the musical "Salad Days" just before my eighth birthday. People singing and dancing seemed sissy to me, but of course I was captivated. So on my eighth birthday, I wanted to go back and see it again. At that point, I had also discovered that the composer was Julian Slade, who was actually playing the piano in the pit. At the end of the show, I just marched down the aisle and introduced myself, my mother and aunt trailing behind me. He then took me backstage and showed me how everything worked.

I've always called it my "road to Damascus moment," when I suddenly realized that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I saw how scenery came in and out, and I wanted to put things like that together. By the time I was 10, I'd worked out that the person in charge was called a producer.

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Q: What's the best part of being a producer?

Mackintosh: One of the best parts is finding an original piece of material which is mostly right or you know it will be, and it sounds different. You go, "Oh my God," and it's still not disappointing you on the sixth or seventh number. Even if you hit a bum one, you know it's going to come back. And you go, "This is something special," which I absolutely remember were my feelings with "Les Miserables."

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Q: According to your press release, "Les Miserables" has already played in Los Angeles several times and been seen by more than 1 million people here. Why bring it back?

Mackintosh: Throughout the country, it's gone back to cities several times with no diminishing of power. We haven't been to Los Angeles in quite a long time. [It was last seen here in Long Beach in 1996.] Gordon Davidson and I were chatting, and he said one place it hasn't gone is the Ahmanson. It just worked out perfectly that the millennium slot was the right one for him and for us.

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Q: With 40 million tickets sold worldwide, and a global box office of more than $1.8 billion, "Les Miserables" is clearly doing something right. How do you explain its popularity?

Mackintosh: Look, there are several reasons. The first is it's actually a terrific musical. [Co-creators] Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg have gone to the heart of the story, and it's based on a rattling good tale, probably the best source material that a musical ever had. It's about the supremacy of the human spirit, and because it's written by someone as brilliant as Hugo, contemporary audiences of all ages have empathy with the characters. They're timeless. In any society, you recognize a Javert or Thenardier or Eponine.

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