WC FIELDS once exclaimed: “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. So give up. It was a clean twist on the proverb, but in speaking with Sir Cameron Mackintosh, you realized that Fields’ gag is anathema to his very being.
The world‘s most successful theater producer returns to Glasgow this week to open Les Misérables, his theater classic which, to date, has been seen by 120 million people around the world.
But those who don’t know Cameron Mackintosh may wonder why. The impact of Covid over the past two years has left theaters darker than the Phantom Catacombs. And any normal 75-year-old billionaire who owns eight West End theaters surely would have decided that was enough and stayed home to watch Hairspray on Netflix.
However, this is far from the case. Indeed, Mack is back in town with a vengeance. “This is the most concentrated time of my life,” he says. “Les Mis is my seventh show that I open since July, all over the world. In fact, I’m supposed to be on a plane this weekend to open Miss Saigon in Vienna.
“But as we all know, Vienna has been closed for a month, so we won’t know for 10 days if we can open.”
He offers a hint of a sigh. “It would be a huge amount of work to do under normal circumstances. But with the Covid, it’s been a nightmare. I hope I never have to go through it all again.
The producer provides an overview of the current complexities of trying to make theater a reality. “The key creative staff there [in Vienna] is a core of people. And you only contracted them for a short time because they have to move on to another show. So you are worried about it. Then you worry about the actors catching Covid and you worry about the audience. But that said, the audience has been overwhelmingly supportive. They arrive.
Mackintosh’s Mis is selling so well that he doesn’t really need to promote the show. But you feel he wants to announce his return. And why not him? The director lives to do theater. He lives to attend rehearsals, check the smallest details, check the lighting and sound; ensure that his account of the French Revolution is an exercise in theatrical perfection. (He once described himself as “An interfering b ******.”)
“We have a wonderful cast for this six-week race,” he enthuses. “I wish we were here for 10 weeks because I’m sure we could sell it. ”
He adds: “One of the few perks of getting out of Covid is that audiences seem more aware of what’s going on in the creation of a theatrical performance. What seems effortless takes enormous effort. I think they like what we’re doing.
But what about the weight on his shoulders? It’s hard enough being a theater producer with shows around the world without having to deal with ongoing disasters.
“What I had to do was keep the business going. And it was very, very hard. I am unique in that I do not belong to a hedge fund. I have no outside investors. Basically, I’m my own boss and I have to employ people to run my theaters and shows. The truth is, all of my theaters and shows around the world were running amazingly well, and then we suddenly found out that many trains were suddenly rushing through brick walls, in the world.
Her voice grows darker. “The commercial theater in this country has virtually no government support other than rate relief or the holiday. But most of the people who work for us are freelancers, so they fell out of this net. It’s very different from America, Australia and Japan who recognized that theater is the heart and soul of the country, but also the economic engines.
How did he feel when Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries recently said that commercial theaters do not need cash infusions from the Commercial Relief Fund, and the fact that they are still standing is the proof? “Did she say that?” Well, nothing this government says would surprise me, even if we hope that the Chancellor will at least help us with a tax break to allow us to get through this winter, to relaunch these great shows. ”
He takes a moment to think. “I am proud of the people who work for me. So many actors have had to take on other jobs. My actor who plays Valjean in Les Mis drove a truck and toured Tesco. It was a lesson in humility. We have also lost about a third of the people who would normally work in the theater. Some have decided that the work they took to maintain their livelihood is more suitable for them now. ”
Mackintosh reveals that in addition to losing many creatives and people behind the scenes, he has lost a significant number of actors. “There are so many TV shows going on all over the place, with like Netflix, and we’re losing so many of our cast. Amazon currently has four or five major studios in Britain. And the ripple effect is that the theater is emptied of its talents.
However, true to his habits, the producer reverses the problem. “What’s so exciting about this [Les Mis] company is that there are three people who haven’t been to drama school, playing younger characters. Because I am involved with the Glasgow Conservatory, a lot of students do workshops with my company during the show.
For any young person considering a life in the theater, Cameron Mackintosh is an exercise in the power of passion and determination, to be a part of the great theater. Ever since an aunt took him to a production of the musical Salad Days in 1954, the seven-year-old has been fascinated by the stage and has wanted to create theater ever since.
At school, young Cameron (his father was Scottish) was nicknamed Darryl F Mackintosh, in a nod to the legendary Hollywood mogul. At 19, Mackintosh landed a job on Oliver! as assistant manager, while playing the role of a Pot Boy. Years later, he still has the poster for the show – “To Cameron, the man who makes it happen,” scribbled by an actor in the production.
However, the first attempts at producing shows were disastrous. One of its first, Anything Goes, in 1969, lost £ 40,000 in unsecured loans and another, Home with the Dales, lost £ 10,000 “because nobody wanted to see it”. He produced another turkey in After Shave, which he hoped was a Beyond the Fringe female.
Try, try again? Fortunately, he did. Mackintosh was still living in an apartment rented for £ 5 a week in 1980 when, at the age of 43, he met his boyfriend Andrew Lloyd Webber for lunch to discuss an idea. The composer felt that a musical could be written based on TS Eliot’s poems. “We went back to his apartment and he played some of his arrangements from the Old Possum Book of Practical Cats to me and I was like, ‘Oh, there’s something over there. “”
The resilience of the producer had won the day. But you also need the instinct to spot a great idea, to inherently know the building blocks of theater, or to be prepared to fight for years for the rights to direct Mary Poppins.
And it helps to have the momentum to hang on to Hamilton, who he hopes will come to Scotland in two or three years. Mackintosh, who has a home in Loch Nevis, laughs as he points out; “Of course Alexander Hamilton came from Nevis, before he was sent to America. So Hamilton is really a Scottish musical.
It’s fitting that Cameron Mackintosh is back in Glasgow with Les Mis, the ultimate challenge show. Mackintosh explains in detail how young people represent a great hope for the future of theater.
“When Andrew and I started doing Cats, we had to audition for months to find people at the level we needed. Now, 40 years later, London can present 30 musicals at once.
“Finding black artists was difficult when I first made Five Guys Named Moe. Now there are a lot of wonderful black and Asian performers out there. ”
He adds: “It takes work to attract people. And the more successful a show, the more you have to bring in new talent to nurture it. ”
A show like Les Mis? “Yes. It’s a great musical but it has such a social resonance, and it never dates. It reminds us that there are always people fighting for a better future.
Her smile alone suggests a forward momentum that is almost uncontrollable. “And luckily, this show proves that tomorrow always comes.”
Cameron Mackintosh’s, Les Misérables, Theater Royal, Glasgow, 23 November – 31 December