`Les Mis'erables' bids for world audience

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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....''

Recommended: 'Les Misérables': 15 memorable quotes

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.

Mackintosh talks like a genteel Tommy gun, spraying words like bullets in his clipped West End voice. Occasionally he laughs, as he tells about how he decided to become a producer at the age of eight, when his parents took him to see the hit musical ``Salad Days.''

He was born in London to parents with ``vague connections to show business'' - his father a jazz musician, his mother a World War II troop entertainer. When he went back the second time to see ``Salad Days,'' this ``bumptious child'' demanded to meet the composer, asked him how all the stage effects were done, and decided making musicals was he would do when he grew up. After attending boarding school, he went to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, then worked as a stagehand in Drury Lane and produced his first show at 19. His string of successes speaks for itself.

Does he have some sort of dowsing rod for hit musicals? ``Not really. I obviously have some sort of God-given gift for appreciating unusual shows. ... It's the raw music that excites me, and the idea of the show.'' It's usually ``the theatricality of the music'' that convinces him, he says. He feels Hugo's masterpiece about the fugitive Jean Valjean, hunted through life by the obsessed police inspector, Javert, for stealing a loaf of bread, possesses that rare commodity.

``Look,'' he says, ``people go to a show like this for one basic reason: It's a rattling good evening's piece of entertainment; it's one of the greatest stories of all time; it's made over 25 movies. Oh yes, it's one of the most filmed subjects in history; it's known all over the world. It even spawned one of the most famous television stories, called `The Fugitive,' starring David Jansen. That is the story of `Les Mis'erables,' the innocent man pursued by the policeman. No less an entertainer than Alfred Hitchcock said 20 years ago, `It will make the greatest musical on Earth.' We found that in one of his books.''

Mackintosh also believes that one of the story's ``principal messages - of man's freedom and man's right to survive injustice, which is the philosophy behind `Les Mis'erables' - is one of the reasons why it is more than just another hit musical.''

But when ``Les Mis'erables'' - or ``The Drabs,'' as it is sometimes called in the business because of its somber costumes - opened in London, no one guessed it would be such a phenomenal success. For the most part, says Mackintosh, the critics greeted it with ``either shattering indifference or positive vehemence.'' Over lunch the day after opening, he told his collaborators, ``Well, it can't get much worse. We were really pole-axed. I'll ring the box office and just confirm our depression.'' He had a terrible time getting through because the show was already a hit: 5,000 tickets sold in the first three hours. ``It was word of mouth,'' not the critics, that made it a hit, he says.

Mackintosh thinks another factor was at work in some of the reviews. ``A lot of critics were affronted by the idea of a commercial manager - myself - known for musicals, and the Royal Shakespeare Company getting together at all to do what they thought was an obviously popular piece of work.'' The RSC, which put up one-third of the money for the $1.3 million London production, receives one-third of the English profits as an investor, explains Mackintosh. He says they also get ``a portion'' of the profits from the productions outside of London. How much? ``That is not for me to disclose.''

He does say the RSC, which has had money problems on its government-subsidized budget, is going to earn more money from ``Les Mis'erables'' than any other show it has ever produced, and he dismisses criticisms that ``Les Mis'erables'' has been anything but a bonanza for the RSC artistically and financially.

The American version, reportedly five times as costly as the British, runs 3 hours. It stars the original Jean Valjean, an Irishman named Colm Wilkinson, with a true, poignant tenor voice. ``We never found anyone in America that has quite his specialness,'' says Mackintosh. He adds that, if there's one special ingredient in that performance, ``it's that Colm's soul and Jean Valjean's soul are at one.'' He says that Mr. Wilkinson ``has a voice which is, on the one hand, pure and, on the other hand, contemporary. And that's what's haunting about it, and that is the secret of the show - that it is not a rock opera in any way. It [straddles] the world of `Jesus Christ Superstar' and a proper opera.''

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