The Producer’s Brain: Sir Cameron Mackintosh and His Midas Touch

“Don’t bring up Midas,” chides Sir Cameron Mackintosh with a twinkle in his eye, sipping from a cup of tea at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “We know what happened to Midas.” (His drink, food and even his daughter turned to gold.) Mackintosh is in town to oversee the previews of the touring musical Mary Poppins, which opened at the Ahmanson on Sunday (see New Reviews).

“I’ve never put on a show for money,” Mackintosh insists. “I’ve always wanted them to make money. I’ve never done it because I thought, ‘This one can’t fail.’ ”

A few but not many of Mackintosh’s shows have failed (Martin Guerre, Moby Dick and The Witches of Eastwick), but when one lines up the string of hits that have the Mackintosh brand attached, it’s hard not to conjure old Midas: Cats (the longest-running show on both sides of the Atlantic), Les Misérables, The Phantom of the Opera (which outgrossed films such as Titanic and E.T.), Miss Saigon (drawing the then-largest advance ticket sales for any Broadway show in history), Side By Side By Sondheim, plus National Theatre revivals (Carousel, Oklahoma! and My Fair Lady) he helped to transfer to various of his seven Delfont Mackintosh Theatres on London’s West End.

With thick, silver hair, a stocky build and animated energy, the gregarious and personable producer, who turned 63 in October, has been creating theater spectacles since his early 20s. Mackintosh sums up the meaning of success with one word: survival, and he describes as “miraculous” the fact that he’s still a producer after 40 years in a business that’s as brutal as it is capricious.

Mackintosh was born in Enfield, London, in 1946. His Maltese mother was of French descent and reared Cameron and his younger brother Robert (also a theater producer) as Roman Catholics. He also says that his family was fully aware, fairly early, that he was gay, and that it was never an issue.

“Nobody could care less, as long as I didn’t frighten the horses.”

His father was a timber merchant and a “brilliant trumpet player. There was always music in the family.” His sisters were all mad about the theater. “They came to see all the puppet shows I would write and insist on performing for a dragooned audience of my parents’ friends and relatives.

“I was 7,” he recalls, “when my aunty took me to see the musical, Salad Days.”

On that occasion, he understood that he wanted to be a theatrical producer. Three weeks later, on his 8th birthday, he returned for a second visit to the play. After the show, the precocious birthday boy marched to the front of the theater, peered into the orchestra pit and introduced himself to the pianist, Julian Slade. During the conversation, Mackintosh learned that Slade was also the composer, who explained to the child the mechanics of putting on a musical, “in a clear and very nice way.”

Years later, Slade advised Mackintosh to get a college degree, but the producer says that his A-Levels (university preparatory exams) “weren’t good enough to get into the universities at Manchester or Bristol,” which offered a degree in drama. So he settled for a stage-management course of study at the University of London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. Mackintosh says he couldn’t or didn’t concentrate on his studies, and that after one year, “I was asked to leave.”

“How do I become a producer? I wondered.” He landed a job as a stagehand for Camelot, at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane, while also taking employment as a cleaner in the theater. “My job was to hoover [vacuum] the Grand Circle in the morning, but I usually overslept. Nobody said anything, so I imagined I was pulling the wool over their eyes. .When I finally left to take the assistant stage manager position on Oliver!, the theater manager from the Theatre Royal congratulated me and said, “By the way, I always knew you weren’t here in the mornings.”

Barely out of his teens in 1967, Mackintosh began producing his own small-scale tours before becoming a London-based producer in the 1970s. His early London productions included Anything Goes (which closed after only two weeks), Side By Side By Sondheim, The Card, My Fair Lady and Tom Foolery (a compilation of songs by Harvard professor and satirist Tom Lehrer).

He describes Anything Goes as a “searing experience” that started at a theater outside London, with the aim of bringing it in to the West End. “I thought I had the money from the backer, who had commited to 80 percent of the funding. I realized he was a Walter Mitty, and nothing came through. I had to go down to the guy who was running the theater, and say, ‘Look, my backer has fallen out.’

“Actually I did manage to raise some money to get it out of there [and into London],” he adds. “Then the leading lady left. The musical director left. I was raising money from a friend, a West Indian greengrocer, who made jumpsuits in the rag trade. He offered me something like £5 to £10 million. This was huge. But he said he would do it if in one scene somebody could wear one of his jumpsuits. I thought, ‘Oh God!,’ but I had no choice.

“Of course, the show wasn’t good enough, we were in too big of a theater. The 16 Cole Porter songs are attached to a pretty ropey book. I said never again will I do a show without a strong story.”

Mackintosh also recalls a misfire in the late ’70s called After Shave— an all-female musical revue by Stephen Wyatt and Nic Rowley — that had a highly successful run at the Haymarket Theatre in Leicester before dying a quick death at the Apollo Theatre in the West End.

“The leap from a black room to a full-blown proscenium theater is a hazardous one,” Mackintosh reflects. “I knew during previews that this was going to be a disaster. The opening-night party was marked by the dazed expressions of long-suffering friends and backers, and me walking around with a blank face, saying, ‘Would you like a piece of quiche?’ ”

Speaking with Mackintosh, one quickly understands how producing is a creative art: hiring the best teams of creators for a particular project, then working, often for years, with playwrights in order to tease out the strongest story from a concept. Only then, he says, does he turn the project over to a director.

He does not believe in the two practices that are now mainstays of contemporary American and British theater: commissioning playwrights and developmental workshops.

“You rarely get a good piece of material out of commissions. Writers write because they want to.”

He’s not opposed to developmental workshops on principle; he just feels that they’re of little practical use.

“Andrew [Lloyd Weber] and I did not workshop Cats. One-third of Les Misérables was written in rehearsal. With Mary Poppins, Disney and I didn’t do a workshop. When we got the material, we hired some actors and friends and read to see if it hung together.”

Mackintosh says his role as a producer is to be catalyst and soul mate with artists.

“When I was lucky enough to [sponsor] Sondheim [as the] first professor of musical drama at Oxford, he was saying we needed to have 12 sets of collaborators. He was very catholic in his tastes. He’d put his own taste to one side and discuss the honesty and integrity of the writer’s original intent. ‘It’s terribly important,’ he said, ‘that you respect that other people have the right to write the shows they want. If you can understand that there is nothing useful in snobbery, you can walk away from here with something valuable.’ ”

Mary Poppins is performing at the Ahmanson Theatre through Feb. 7. (213) 628-2772

 

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