Cameron Mackintosh can’t sit still. Fresh off a plane from London and on his way to the first preview performance of the reimagined “The Phantom of the Opera” in Rhode Island, Mackintosh is squeezing in a stop at the Opera House for a wide-ranging conversation about his role as a producer, his commitment to quality, and his astonishment at the continued global reach of his power trio of blockbuster musicals: “Les Miserables,” “Miss Saigon,” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”
In addition to shepherding the new production of “Phantom,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that opens Thursday at the Opera House, Mackintosh is overseeing 50 productions that will be opening around the world over the next three years. In the wake of the successful film version of “Les Miserables,” five more touring productions of his revamped 25th-anniversary version of that show are going out on tour, and a new production of “Miss Saigon” opened in London last month. As if that weren’t enough, he also owns seven historic theaters in London and is co-owner of Music Theatre International, which has licensing rights to many musicals.
“I’m 67,” he says, sounding almost surprised. “I never thought I’d be this busy, working this hard, staying so involved at this age.”
But Mackintosh’s pace has barely slowed since “Cats” opened in London’s West End in 1981, followed by “Les Miserables” in 1985, “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1986, and “Miss Saigon” in 1989.
“I never imagined that nearly 30 years after ‘Les Miz’ and ‘Phantom’ opened, they would still appeal to people,” Mackintosh says during his November stop at the Opera House. “It’s impossible to predict why something will become a phenomenon, but I will say I have been most successful with productions based on classic source material.”
“Phantom” is based on the Gaston Leroux novel, “Les Miserables” on Victor Hugo’s novel, “Miss Saigon” on the opera “Madame Butterfly,” and Mackintosh’s hit musical revues, “Five Guys Named Moe” and “Tomfoolery,” were based on the songs of Louis Jordan and Tom Lehrer, respectively. In addition to his skill at choosing material, Mackintosh is a hands-on producer, one who not only controls the purse strings but is also directly involved in creative decisions, from the writing of the scripts through the supervision of the touring productions.
“I’m not involved in everything,” he says with a twinkle in his eye. “I interfere with everything.”
His particular kind of interference has involved convincing Stephen Sondheim to add songs to “Follies” for a 1987 production in London’s West End, reworking the script to “Barnum,” the Cy Coleman musical about the famous showman (which he says is perfect for Neil Patrick Harris “if his schedule ever opens up”), or working with the design team to reimagine a musical like “The Phantom of the Opera.”
“In the theater we’re never quite satisfied,” Mackintosh says. “We get a production to the best it can be under the time and budget constraints, and I hope that these new versions provide another step forward for the creative team. Plus, so many years later, technology has changed and there are opportunities to do things in different ways that we simply couldn’t in 1986.”
Mackintosh says he started thinking about reconceiving “The Phantom of the Opera” with the original designer, Maria Bjornson, more than a decade ago. “We wanted to find ways to create more of the sense of the Phantom’s world, to make that more realistic,” he says. “In the original version, the audience travels into his lair, but it’s very dark and vague in a way.”
But when Bjornson died in 2003, Mackintosh says he dropped the idea until he met designer Paul Brown. “Paul spent most of his career in opera, as Maria had, and his first job was working for Maria, so he was sensitive to the kinds of things she also had an eye for,” he says. “Maria’s sense of the show revolved around the proscenium, but in this production the driving force isn’t the frame. You really can’t do that in a touring production.”
Despite the time and budget constraints of moving a show as big as “The Phantom of the Opera” from one city to another, Mackintosh has built his reputation on tours that don’t skimp on production values.
“I don’t believe in cutting corners when you’re preparing a show for a tour,” he says. “I’d much prefer to reconceive it so that an audience in any city will have the same experience an audience member had when they went to the West End or Broadway.”
Brad Oscar, who joined the “Phantom” tour in March, says that when the company picked up and moved to another city, he was overwhelmed by the size of the production. “We fill 22 trucks with equipment!” he says by phone from the tour. “We’re bringing Broadway across the country.”
‘Technology has changed and there are opportunities to do things in different ways that we simply couldn’t in 1986. . . . to create more of the sense of the Phantom’s world.’ Cameron Mackintosh (top), on reconceiving his successful production of “The Phantom of the Opera”
Mackintosh says it’s important that the iconic moments people are expecting are still there, including that crashing chandelier. “Those moments are equally breathtaking, but different. The Act Two opening, for example, is ‘Masquerade,’ and it’s stunning in a new way.”
But, he says, it’s also important the characters exist believably in their own world. “This new version has allowed us to bring the Phantom on stage more,” he says. “The Phantom has gained some grit because he’s more realistic.”
Oscar says it’s exciting and intimidating to join a show he and audiences have known for a long time. “There are expectations,” he says, “But I think our characters have more balance and definition in this production.”
Oscar, a Boston University graduate last seen on Boston stages in “Young Frankenstein” and “The Producers,” plays Monsieur Richard Firmin, co-owner, with Monsieur Gilles Andre, of the theater the Phantom is haunting. “We are able to play off each other,” he says. “Firmin is the successful businessman baffled by the whole world of opera, while Andre is the artist, enamored of the world we’re going into.”
Although Mackintosh seems equally at home with character development and financial forecasts, he says his real strength is not coming up with the idea, it’s putting the right creative team together.
“Producing is a lot like cooking,” he says, “and I believe I’m a very good amateur chef. You can have all the right ingredients and something still won’t taste good, or it will simply be adequate. A good chef’s role is to balance the ingredients so that they work together.”
Over the years, Mackintosh has built a core of people who work on the five or six shows in his production company.
“I’m grateful to work with so many brilliant creative people,” he says. “My job is to create an atmosphere of trust. Of course, I’ve been friends with some of these people now for 30 years, but what we have to do is be able to sit in a room and say anything to each other. And if we don’t agree on something, it’s because we didn’t get the right answer.”Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version misidentified Mackintosh’s production company.