The Man Behind Musical Hits

`I WANT you to hear something," says Cameron Mackintosh, producer and co-progenitor of such international mega-musicals as "Cats," "Les Miserables" and "Phantom of the Opera," as he jumps up from the sofa in his New York office. His whole being ignites with the sudden excitement and energy of a teenager. He darts down the hall, leaving me in the dust. A few moments later I find him putting on a music cassette. In an instant the room is filled with wondrously rich and exquisitely evocative sounds. We are listening to a yet-to-be-released lush symphonic suite, devised by London's Royal Philharmonic, of the British impresario's newest extravaganza, "Miss Saigon." I glance at the man who is undisputedly the world's most successful stage producer ever. His head is bobbing up and down to the beat. His expression is sheer bliss. This is a man in love.

That just about sums up Mr. Mackintosh. He is what he is, because he loves what he does. And he's completely uninhibited about showing it. His cherubic face breaks into laughter at the least drop of a quip. This, added to his casual style - athletic shoes, jeans, and loose-fitting shirt are standard threads - make him an oddity in the world of high finance and high-powered success. But it also points to one of the key reasons why he got there.

No need for 'trappings'

"Cameron can be a very, very tough producer," observes composer Claude-Michel Sch 154>nberg, who, with partner Alain Boublil, created "Les Miserables" and "Miss Saigon." "And then an hour later, during a lunch or dinner with you, he can be 15 years old - and boyish. After all his huge success, he is still natural and fresh."

Martin McCallum, a close associate of Mackintosh's since the producer's debt-ridden days little more than 10 years ago, offers further insights. "Cameron is not somebody who is interested in the trappings of the work," he explains. "He is just very genuine. And few at his level of success find it quite as easy as he does to hang on to that. But that's because he has a very good sense of himself: He knows who he is and doesn't believe all the publicity. That's possibly the most disarming thing about him. "

We are meeting only a few days before the much-anticipated New York opening of "Miss Saigon." But the producer is far less concerned about the critics and the widely reported protests that have been dogging the show than might be expected. The demonstrators outside New York's Broadway Theater where "Miss Saigon" is mounted are strident, but small in number. They say the show is dealing in negative Asian stereotypes. Mackintosh maintains that if they see it, they will know their protest is ill-founded.

Battle with Actors' Equity

The producer also believes that the earlier, much-publicized battle between himself and the leaders of the actors' union, Equity, who tried to block the import of Welsh actor Jonathan Pryce to play a Eurasian pimp was misguided. The Equity leaders, unlike their British counterparts, argues Mackintosh, "do not have their finger on the pulse of living theater - this was patently obvious in the arbitration - and do not understand in any way just how difficult it is to get a creative team to agree on a sing le person for casting." He says that his position was vindicated by the support of the rank-and-file members of Equity.

And rumors, of course, abound. That, for example, the lyrics have been hastily altered to make the story (set during the Vietnam War) less "anti-American." Having seen both London and New York productions: They haven't, and it isn't. Equally, Mackintosh has been accused of being the master of hype and musical "formula," which together he is manipulating solely to achieve another blockbuster.

"It's complete rubbish," he says. "If you examine the hype by the press ... they are in fact creating their own myth.... As for some sort of 'formula,' I never actually look for a formula at all. None of my [biggest hits] ... have been sure bets, by any means. If there is one thing that connects these shows that I have stumbled on, it's that the subject matter is universal and crosses every language barrier."

Mackintosh concedes, however, that there is one ingredient he does require from a musical: emotion. But given the general seriousness of his productions, that doesn't necessarily mean the five-hanky variety. "I just want to feel that I've been taken on some kind of exhilarating emotional journey," he explains. "Whether that's to fall about with laughter or to cry or to just tap one's feet, I don't care. But I don't want to go into a theater and feel the same when I come out."

But if there is an identifiable leitmotif running through Mackintosh's extraordinary stage hits, it surely lies within the man himself. According to those who know him well, he has an unerring belief in his own instincts. Added to this, he is considered as creative as any writer/lyricist or composer when it comes to pinpointing artistic problems in a musical. He's very much the persnickety hands-on producer who deeply involves himself with every department, something that is unique in the business. But, most of all, when he gets up in the morning, he doesn't "go to work": he has fun. "Cameron is the sort of person who, ultimately, as we all should be, is happy doing something that is good and excites him," observes a close friend and colleague. "It's not simply for a goal at the end, but to enjoy the process along the way. The fact that what he does is successful, as well, quite frankly, is just a byproduct."

Mackintosh, is now ranked among the richest people in Britain. His productions, more than 40 worldwide at the moment, are estimated to take in a phenomenal $1.8 million per day. He would never have to work again in his life if he so chose. But judging from the outer office bustle just beyond his door and his own unflagging enthusiasm for what he does, one would never suspect that is the case.

"I still don't quite believe it all," he muses about his career. "In fact, I only half believe it. It's almost like it has happened to someone else." The only appreciable advantage he had was knowing exactly what he wanted to do, "so there was never any choice."

It all began, he recalls, when, at age eight, he was dragged by his family to see his first musical, "Salad Days," in 1954. He was certain, with such a preponderance of singing and dancing, that it would be boring stuff.

It wasn't. He was smitten. The young Mackintosh insisted on returning for another performance and, determinedly, with the aid of his mother and aunt, afterwards sought out back stage the show's composer, Julian Slade. Rather than being patted on the head and otherwise patronized, Mackintosh says that Slade treated him with the utmost seriousness, pointing out all the mechanics and scenery machinations that went into making the show. By the end of the tour he had decided that when he grew up, he was goin g to make musicals. By 19, Mackintosh was a full-fledged producer.

Mackintosh smiles now as he reflects on the early days when, for example, before comprehensive computerization, he and a partner had several bank accounts around the country, which meant it took at least three weeks for a check, drawn from one to the other, to finally clear. "It was what we called 'putting a check on the road,' " he chuckles mischievously.

Another ploy to keep afloat was to ask actors if they would accept, in lieu of vacation pay, say, their suit from the show or "How about a nice set of Wedgewood pottery?"

'Cats' changed everything

Then came "Cats." That was 1981, and overnight his life changed. Only 34 years old at the time, but with already more than 100 shows under his belt - some successes, others abysmal flops - Mackintosh's colleagues had thought he was mad to try to mount a far-from-the-mainstream musical centered around a work by the high-brow poet, T. S. Eliot. What was worse, it was little more visually than a back-alley scene populated by anthropomorphic felines. Still, he took the gamble, using the only rule of thumb h e has gone by when deciding to back a show, both before and since: a palpable excitement, somewhere in the pit of his stomach, upon first hearing the score.

If Mackintosh doesn't get that, no matter what else an idea has going for it, forget it. "In the end I put a show on for myself," he says, "then just hope an audience will like it.... If I can tell they are getting the same rush from what I am delivering, which I got when I initially heard it, that, to me, is the greatest feeling in the world. That, in a nutshell, is why I'm in the musical theater."

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