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Interview with Cameron Mackintosh: Why 'Phantom' needed to change

Cameron Mackintosh, pictured at Prince Edward Theatre in London, has produced many of the world’s biggest musicals, from Miss Saigon and Les Misérables to Cats, during his 50 years in theater. Photo by Tolga Akmen/TNS (2013)
Published Dec. 10, 2014

FORT LAUDERDALE

The most successful theater producer in the world could have been anyone, smiling and avuncular in a khaki vest. He mazed through the Broward Center for the Performing Arts with fingers clasped around a Starbucks cup.

He was days from escaping to a mountain vacation. But Cameron Mackintosh did not get to be Sir Cameron Mackintosh by ignoring details, and the results speak for themselves.

Without Mackintosh's contributions, we would not have Les Misérables, Cats or Miss Saigon, to name a few. And we would not have The Phantom of the Opera, which was the business of the day in Fort Lauderdale.

The three leads in his new tour of Phantom were changing, making debuts there before heading to Orlando and then Tampa, where the show will open at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts on Wednesday. And the reshaped tour is already different from what fans are used to.

So the magnate who at 68 is celebrating 50 years in theater, who has been knighted by the Queen of England, who opened seven shows around the world this year alone, flew to Florida to supervise.

In his words he's "meddling." In the eyes of others, he's incredibly attuned.

"I can't always do it," said Mackintosh, who slipped away to a conference room for a rare face-to-face chat about his tour and his life. "But with this, it was very important to me that we got it right."

Mackintosh may have figured out the right way to reinvent, but he doesn't do it without careful attention to what got him there in the first place.

• • •

In The Phantom of the Opera, the masked man is the orchestrator of his own world, lurking behind the scenes, doing things not everyone understands.

It's not unlike a producer. The producer runs the show, hiring people, raising money, making choices, shaping what the audience sees. And if his show somehow sustains itself for decades, as Mackintosh's shows have, the producer has to keep it feeling fresh.

Mackintosh's new production of Phantom, directed by Laurence Connor, has been on tour for a year following a sold-out run in the United Kingdom. It's designed to get in and out of venues with ease and less expense, tweaked to feel relevant to a generation new to the chandelier love story.

The walls of the opera house open "like Pandora's box," Mackintosh said. The Phantom has taken props out of the opera house to create his lair, made his organ out of stolen steel pipes. The iconic visuals are there — the lair, the staircase, the chandelier — just presented in new ways.

"It's not better than the original," Mackintosh said. "But it does have a very different, slightly more gritty, darker, and I think in a way more passionate look at the material."

The Phantom himself has 12 costume changes, "and you would never know it," said Chris Mann, an alum of NBC's The Voice who took over the title role in Fort Lauderdale.

"I'm there probably 70 percent of the time on stage and you probably won't even notice me because I am stalking," Mann said. "They have me stalking the scene on stage in my sort of alter ego."

Mann and the other new leads did not rest easy when they heard Mackintosh would be in Florida.

"We were all very nervous about pleasing him and hoping that he liked our work," Mann said. "At the end of the day he was very happy and said that he felt we were redefining the show again."

Changing a behemoth is not a new task for Mackintosh, and not something he approaches lightly. In May, he relaunched Miss Saigon in London to mark the musical's 25th anniversary. He has also revived and updated productions of Les Misérables.

"I don't change for change's sake," he said. "I do it because I know how an audience wants to respond to material, as, in fact, I want to respond to material."

Audiences have a particularly protective relationship with musicals.

"It's funny how people in the straight theater, they expect it," he said. "There will be a different Hamlet twice a year. All these classics, no one would think of doing the same version of all the authors. But in the musical theater, they go, 'Why are you going to change it?' I say, 'It's one of the great musicals, and therefore, you want to see something new.' "

Phantom is the longest-running show in the history of Broadway, and has lived on healthily in tours. The Straz Center has welcomed Phantom six times since 1994, and it's always a major seller, Straz president and CEO Judy Lisi said.

"It's at the top of everybody's list," she said. "That and Les Misérables are the two most popular shows, the two that come up the most. ... I think they really develop a relationship with the Phantom. He seems so isolated. So different. And I think all of us feel that way, in a way."

Fans are always nervous about change, Lisi said, and she was no exception. When Lisi went to relaunched productions of Mackintosh shows in the past, she admitted feeling a little worried.

"Except I loved them even more," she said. "I think that's the genius of Cameron."

• • •

The oft-told story of little Cameron Mackintosh's is this:

At 7, he attended the musical Salad Days in London, sure it was for sissies. He became so taken with the notion of a piano making everyone dance that he requested to return on his 8th birthday.

On that day he dressed in his kilt, and after the show introduced himself to the composer. He went backstage, saw the magical piano and the flying saucer and all the moving parts, and decided this world would be his.

But a person is made of more than his major moments. And what made Mackintosh the producer he is had everything to do with his daily routines.

He was raised with lots of love, he said, with a grandmother and aunts who took him to the theater. But his family had no money. It was just after the war, and food in England was still being rationed.

"We had to make food last," said Mackintosh, who still cooks and farms extensively. "A chicken in those days was considered a rarity. And you got your Sunday lunch and you got something with risotto in leftovers and then you made a soup. You know? So I was brought up making things go far, which has helped me in enormous stead."

He started working in theater at age 18, able to take low pay because of his thrifty ways at home.

"I was always able to feed myself nice food very cheaply, and therefore any money I had I could spend, apart from the odd drink, on what I wanted to do. And travel to see shows."

He worked as a stagehand, in the box office, did some directing, lighting, a bit of "very bad" acting. His first successful turn as producer came in 1976 with Stephen Sondheim's Side by Side, a show he took on sight unseen after listening to his ever-sharpening gut.

Still, Mackintosh was in debt for 15 years before Andrew Lloyd Webber approached him with the idea of turning T.S. Eliot poems into what would become Cats. That ushered in Mackintosh's 1980s streak of Les Misérables, Phantom and Miss Saigon, musicals that transcended niche markets and became blockbuster draws for average people.

A certain formula emerged.

He found he was only interested in producing tales about ordinary people who triumph in extraordinary circumstances. He drew inspiration from classics: Herman Melville, Charles Dickens, John Updike. From a business standpoint, he became known as a tough negotiator and found ways to make "an English pound look like 5 pounds on the stage," he said.

But one thing had to come before the songs, before the actors, effects and costumes. One thing that would demand greatness of all the rest.

The story.

• • •

The Phantom of the Opera is a tale of a complex love born in a theater.

Originally a 1909 French novel by Gaston Leroux, it was based around stories from the Paris Opera. It took several forms, including a 1925 film with Lon Chaney and a stage musical that preceded Lloyd Webber's.

But what Lloyd Webber did for the story made the difference, Mackintosh said. He introduced a more textured love triangle with the characters of the Phantom, Christine and Raoul, which dramatically raised the stakes and added depth.

"It is what allowed him and inspired him to make that music so passionate, so resonating," he said. "And on the face of it, if you'd read the novel, you'd never think it could be such a potent love story."

The masked man will always represent a source of connection for people on the fringes, looking for hope in situations that seem impossible.

"It's the fact he's disfigured and feels unworthy, and yet, love happens," Mackintosh said. "A sort of love happens."

In the Broward Center, Mackintosh finished his coffee and posed for a photo, standing in front of a poster bearing both his name and the Phantom's hollow-eyed white mask. He headed through the theater and took a seat halfway back as rehearsals began to carry on all around him once more.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8857. Follow @stephhayes.

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