Mark Shenton profiles the world’s most successful theater producer, Cameron Mackintosh, whose productions of Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera are the longest running shows in the history of the West End and Broadway, respectively. Now Les Mis is back on Broadway too, and Miss Saigon is heading back to the West End in May.
Theater producers typically have their names above the title of the show, but they work below the radar: It is their money (or the money they have raised from investors) that finances the show, but their own profiles are usually lower than the titles of those shows. Though Sir Cameron Mackintosh would still go unrecognised by most of the theatergoing public, his name is well known globally as a brand in itself. And he’s achieved it not by doing anything for his shows, but by doing everything for them. He’s the man who makes them happen.
Andrew Lloyd Webber may have become the most public face of musical theater in Britain, but it is Mackintosh, the private face behind the mask — literally so in the case of their most successful collaboration, The Phantom of the Opera, as well as the famous dancing eyes of Cats — who helped put Lloyd Webber where he is now.
Their first show together was Cats, which premiered in London in 1981. By the time it closed on its 21st birthday in 2002, it had become the longest running musical in West End history — only to have that record eclipsed four years later by Les Misérables, which is now in its 29th London year. Meanwhile, the after premiering in New York in 1982, Cats also became the longest running musical in Broadway history, until that record was in turn broken by The Phantom of the Opera in 2006, a record it continues to hold today.
Les Mis is now back on Broadway in a new production, originally created in Britain to celebrate its 25th anniversary, while Miss Saigon — a show written by the same team behind Les Mis — returns to the West End in a new production this May that has been breaking box office records before it even opens. The day bookings began last September, it more than doubled the previous West End record for a single day’s sales, selling some $7.3 million worth of tickets.
All of these shows have one man in common: Mackintosh. He has produced them all. Talking of the advance sales for Miss Saigon last year, he commented at the time, “I had a feeling a lot of people would want to see it because I’ve probably had more letters in this country saying ‘When are you going to bring Miss Saigon back?’ than any of my other shows.” (The original Broadway production is 11th on the list of Broadway’s longest running musicals of all time.)
Together these shows have made him into the world’s most commercially successful theatrical impresario ever. He has done it by inventing a new model for their global rollout. As he tells Broadway Direct, “The way that Cats was reproduced around the world wasn’t something we did wittingly. We were surprised that so many people wanted to do this version of the show. Before Cats, foreign territories would either do their own thing, or at the most pay an extra $5,000 and get the prompt script, the ground plan, pictures of the sets and costumes, and then would go off and do it themselves. One of the reasons that it took off so quickly, though, I believe, was that it coincided with the fact of cheap airfares taking off and people traveling the world more easily. Word of mouth literally flew around the world, and I think that the two things are closely interconnected.”
The Phantom of the Opera has been produced in 151 cities and counting and 13 languages. It is now officially the most commercially successful piece of entertainment of all time, with worldwide audiences of more than 130 million people and earning revenues of more than $9.2 billion. That’s a higher income than other film or stage plays in history, including Titanic, ET, and Star Wars.
Les Misérables, meanwhile, has so far played in some 319 cities in 42 countries and been translated into 22 languages. “These shows are just carrying on and on,” Mackintosh tells me. “It’s extraordinary. We know that they are going to be produced long after we are all dead. What is totally extraordinary is that we’re now in the third decade and these shows are powering on and are still relevant, and that’s never happened before, ever, in the history of the musical theater.” Earlier this year, he became the first British producer to be elected to Broadway’s Theatre Hall of Fame at the Gershwin Theatre.
And thanks to these and other successes, which include a stage version of Mary Poppins that he coproduced and cocreated with Disney, Mackintosh has also become one of the most powerful theatrical operators in the West End: not just as a producer, but also now a prominent theatre owner, with seven prestigious (and beautifully appointed) theatres under his control.
At 67, he is also showing no signs of slowing down. In 2012, he made his film producing debut with the Oscar-winning film version of Les Misérables, and has now brought the show back to Broadway in triumph. Last year he oversaw a new production of the Broadway show Barnum in the U.K., and he is now coproducing a British tour of it.
There is, he insists, no cause for worry about the state of the theater: “People sometimes say that the West End is dying, but it isn’t true. I’m not just talking about my shows — there are actually a number of very healthy shows, and people wanting to go out to see them. They won’t go out and see just anything, but quite frankly, they never have.” It has always been his job to make sure that he gives the public something they want to see. And sometimes see again and again. That’s also part of the secret behind the success of shows such as Les Mis and Phantom. Once is never enough.
So if you’ve never seen Les Mis or Phantom, now’s the time to start acquiring the habit. And if you have, it’s time to go back and revisit an old friend.
Mark Shenton is a London-based theater critic who writes regularly for The Stage in the U.K. (including a daily online column, www.thestage.co.uk/shenton) and other publications.