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`Les Mis'erables' bids for world audience

By Louise SweeneyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 24, 1986

New York

Cameron Mackintosh is beaming a golden smile, the sort only the producer of a multimillion-dollar hit musical can beam. And his voice, as F. Scott Fitzgerald once said of Daisy in ``The Great Gatsby,'' sounds like money. Mr. Mackintosh is definitely not one of ``Les Mis'erables,'' the downtrodden poor whom Victor Hugo immortalized in his classic French novel. The British producer purrs that he has $5 million worth of Broadway advance sales from the American production of ``Les Mis'erables,'' which opens in New York March 12. The American premi`ere is Saturday at the Kennedy Center Opera House in Washington; Kennedy Center and Mackintosh have joined in producing the musical in both Washington and New York.

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The original London production, done at the Royal Shakespeare Company's Barbican Centre, paid its investors back in a phenomenal 24 weeks. It has made over 1.5 million ($2.15 million) profit in its first year's run.

Mackintosh says 17 productions are now scheduled around the world before 1989 including: Sydney; Tel Aviv; Budapest; Tokyo; Barcelona, Spain; Oslo; Stockholm; Munich, West Germany; Paris; Warsaw; Toronto; Vienna; Rotterdam; Athens; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Santiago, Chile; and Reykjavik, Iceland. ``And hopefully Moscow,'' adds Mackintosh. ``We're a long way from getting it finalized, but the ministry of culture said they are very interested in doing it....''

It is a cold, damp day here in New York, as Mackintosh tilts back in a black leather chair in his office just off Broadway and tells how he found ``Les Mis'erables.''

Mackintosh had quipped in program notes for the musical's souvenir brochure: ``Until I heard the original French album of `Les Mis'erables' in 1982, I had always considered the idea of a French musical as a contradiction in terms.'' In person, he explains that one Monday he picked up the double album for the French hit by writer Alain Boublil and composer Claude-Michel Schonberg, based on Hugo's novel.

French director Robert Hossein had staged the musical at the 4,500-seat Palais Des Sport for a wildly successful but limited, 16-week run in 1980. That might have been the end of ``Les Mis'erables,'' the musical, with its stirring songs, from ``Do You Hear the People Sing'' to ``I Dreamed a Dream.''

But two years later, on Thursday morning of the week he bought the album, Mackintosh listened to the French musical. ``By track four, I was so knocked out I couldn't believe [it]. ... The actual music... painted pictures. I just felt I was listening to my memory of the movie of `Les Mis'erables,' starring Charles Laughton and Fredric March. I just knew I had to do it.''

He telephoned Alan Jay Lerner, ``who was one of my best friends. I said, `Alan, I'm coming round ... and I'm going to bring a wonderful show for you, and I want you to hear it.''' After Lerner and his wife had listened, Mackintosh remembers, ``Alan said, `Deah boy, you're right.'''

So Mackintosh, lured by the total theatricality of the music, jumped into producing ``Les Mis'erables'' in English. He asked his friend Trevor Nunn, director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to direct it. Mr. Nunn agreed, provided he could co-direct with his ``Nicholas Nickleby'' collaborator, John Caird, and start the production with the Royal Shakespeare Company. It became a Cameron Mackintosh/RSC Production. New English lyrics were written by Herbert Kretzmer, and Mackintosh estimates that roughly 70 percent of the original French music by Boubil was retained, and other new songs were added by him.

Mackintosh, of course, had not seen that original French production. ``It was the music itself,'' he explains. ``And I didn't know the novel at all. I still have yet to read it, all 1,200 pages. I'm not strong enough to lift it.''

He doesn't appear frail, this solid Englishman with the monochrome look. Mackintosh, who has hair the color of black walnuts and matching eyes, sports a Don Johnsonish near-beard on his round, almost boyish face. He wears a gray-on-gray striped shirt, black pants, black socks, brown shoes. No flash, no diamond pinky ring; he doesn't look like Hollywood's idea of an impresario.

But he is a former boy wonder, who started producing shows in London at the age of 20 and has since then racked up an impressive number of hits, including the Tony Award-winning ``Cats'' and ``Song and Dance,'' both by Andrew Lloyd Webber, as well as ``Little Shop of Horrors'' on Broadway. In London his West End productions have included ``Side by Side by Sondheim,'' Sandy Wilson's ``The Boyfriend,'' Stephen Schwartz's ``Godspell,'' and Lionel Bart's ``Oliver!'' among others.