Mister Musical

Once he was a theatre-crazy stagehand. Then he became a struggling producer who backed a couple of turkeys. Now he’s worth £350m, has five homes around the world, and describes his tastes as ‘stylishly common’. Simon Fanshawe on the marketing genius who pioneered the international mega-musical

Cameron Mackintosh is a global brand. Decisiveness has made him a considerable reputation and a great fortune. He creates the impression of doing everything at speed and bustles like The White Rabbit through his country house. But while he is no business slouch, he is, according to one friend, “like a charming puppy whose game you want to play and whom you always forgive for the occasional lapses in house training”.

These days the 53-year-old mainly works, and entertains, in his house in Somerset, a 13th century priory in 600 acres, where he lives with his partner of 15 years, the Australian photographer Michael Le Poer Trench. The kitchen is the hub of the house, bigger than any of the other rooms. “When I cook I just stand there and shout ‘peel this, cut that, get me a drink’ “. In the drawing room is a grand piano, which he doesn’t play. “But the composers do,” he says. They write, he produces and everybody makes money.

In the current Sunday Times Rich List, Mackintosh is valued at £350m. He is 54th, level pegging with his first collaborator, the Aunt Sally of the British musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber. As the critically acclaimed Lion King opened in London this week, Disney executives owe a debt to Mackintosh as a pioneer of the globally successful mega-musical.

Cats in 1981 was Mackintosh’s first proper money maker, even though he had had a taste of success with Side By Side By Sondheim, an immediate hit in 1976. Then there was his first solo effort which became the international success that is Les Miserables. It opened at the RSC in 1985 to the kind of poor reviews which might have overwhelmed a less enthusiastic and loyal producer. It has now taken £1.5bn at the box office and is estimated to have been seen by 45m people worldwide. After “Les Mis” there was another collaboration with Lloyd Webber, Phantom of the Opera in 1986. And it wasn’t until Miss Saigon in 1989 that Mackintosh felt “that the press woke up to the fact that I didn’t work for Andrew Lloyd Webber”.

With these four shows in the West End, on Broadway and around the world, Mackintosh became one of the most significant figures in postwar theatre.

He is not without a moderate helping of vanity but he has little enthusiasm for discussing his status and deflects questions about it on to comments about his relationship with the press. “It’s the Faustian pact of all time. That’s why I don’t normally do interviews down here at home. By and large I’ve had a pretty good run with the press.” This contrasts sharply with Lloyd Webber’s experience. “Andrew’s always been very naive in the way he treats the press. And I’ve said that to him”.

Two years ago, at the West End opening party of Cinderella, the ballet by Adventures in Motion Pictures, one journalist asked Lloyd Webber if, with AMP’s second success in the West End after Swan Lake, he thought the musical with words was dead. Lloyd Webber was defensive and told the journalist that he was now writing some of his best songs and that his next show was going to be his greatest. (It turned out to be the underwhelming Whistle Down the Wind.) The journalist moved to Mackintosh and asked the same question, which was greeted with a roar of laughter from the man who at that stage of his career was trying to make a mega-hit of his latest show, the poorly received Martin Guerre. “That’s a fucking stupid question, even from you,” he said. “Have a drink”. Both responses were characteristic.

Mackintosh is described by Stephen Sondheim as “an over-excited, boundlessly and unabashedly enthusiastic child in the playground of musical theatre. He is the kid with the toys. They’re his toys and he’s going to play with them. If you took all his money away tonight, he would simply start again.”

All his collaborators use the same metaphor. Julia McKenzie, who has directed and acted for him, says: “He’s a child about the business”. Martin McCallum, who runs the business side of his companies, says: “He just has a childlike simplicity about things. He won’t see anything difficult about anything”.

George Biggs, one of the West End’s most enduring figures, who at one time or another has run almost every theatre in London, and now works for Mackintosh, says: “He just has a schoolboy enthusiasm. He loves two things: theatre and buildings”. Helen Montagu, who co-produced the Sondheim show, says: “Whatever he does he does it with this childlike flair”.

Cameron was born the eldest of three brothers. “There have never been brotherly jealousies,” says the youngest, Nicky .

They lived in Cuffley, Hertfordshire. Their father, Ian, was a jazz musician, playing in a band with the cartoonist Wally Fawkes, known as Trog; hence the band’s name the Troglodytes. But Mackintosh’s father forswore his life’s love to run the family timber business. His mother, Diana, is half-French and half-Maltese. “Our mother had her head screwed on,” says Nicky, who now runs a successful restaurant in Chiswick. “Dad was a musician, whatever goes with that. He was a good person, no prejudices. He would give anyone the benefit of the doubt, whereas my mother was a little sharper. I think Cameron gets his determination from her.

“She knows the value of everything. She was born in Malta and her experiences gave her the ability to make everything go a long way. A chicken that was supposed to be for two she made last for six. And Cameron’s not a spendthrift either. If he loves something he’ll spend money. But he’s not foolish with it”.

It was a large family which revolved to some extent around the boys’ paternal grandmother’s house in Enfield. “There was granny and lots of aunts,” says Nicky. “Once a year Cameron would organise a show. There is a photo of him aged about 14 with a boater, Rob [the middle son] with tails and me aged 5 in my father’s flat cap. He had got me to learn My Old Man’s a Dustman. He was theatre mad from a very early age”.

After boarding school at Prior Park in Bath, Mackintosh went to the Central School of Speech and Drama in London but left early. “There was lots of ‘History of the Greek theatre’ and I was just impatient to be practical and get on with it”. He had a brief spell in the chorus of a touring production of Oliver! and worked as a stagehand at the Theatre Royal in 1964 on Camelot. He and the lyricist, Alan Jay Lerner, by then a three-times Academy Award winner for An American in Paris, Gigi and My Fair Lady, became good friends.

Mackintosh’s desire to work in the theatre was overwhelming. “When I started I was like a sponge. I just did everything and that’s what I say to anyone who says ‘how do I become a producer?’ ‘Do anything anyone asks you’ “. Sue Higginson, who now runs the National Theatre Studio, was Mackintosh’s first secretary. She says: “He wants his own way, but he created this family thing at work. He was a fantastically good employer”.

He became a producer and gained a reputation with theatrical managements as “being rather good with the number two dates”. In theatre language that means not touring shows to the prime touring spots of Brighton and Bath, but to the Civic at Rotherham and the Quay at Peterborough. It is faint praise. Like all young producers he was just keeping his head above water. “I was still living in a £3.50- a-week apartment in Wardour Street in Soho. I didn’t have a car or a mortgage. I worked on the premise that I had risk enough in my professional life and if it all went wrong I could slam the door, pay the rent and cook.”

But Nicky remembers him as “always seeming successful.” And Tom Lehrer, the American satirist whose songs he turned into the revue Tomfoolery in 1980, says: “Well, now he’s gone from rags to riches, but he always had exquisite taste in rags”.

In 1969, only a few years after starting to produce, Mackintosh took a major tumble with his first West End musical, Anything Goes. He ended up £40,000 in debt. “Though funnily enough,” he says, “when you go into the business not knowing anything about it other than really wanting to do it, you sort of assume that this is normal. I never had a fortune. I was always scraping together £25 here and there to get a pair of French windows out of hock”.

Fortunately, he had an understanding bank manager. “I had heard that Harold Fielding the legendary American producer, used this bank in Leicester Square. And I thought they must know about theatre. And they did.

“Then I had an even bigger debacle with a production of At Home with the Dales, which was written by the man who played Dr Dale of Mrs Dale’s Diary on the radio. It got rather good reviews but absolutely no one wanted to go and see it. We ended up, this cast of 10 in this little play, booked for two weeks into the Winter Gardens in Blackpool.” The Winter Gardens is a 2,000-seater. “We were playing to about 20 people a night. I knew I had to stop. The bank manager said ‘You haven’t got enough to pay the actors have you?’ And he gave me £500 on condition that I paid them because he said if I didn’t, Equity would bar me and I’d never work in the theatre again”.

Mackintosh left production and went to work as advertising man ager for the national tour of Hair. “I invented Hair Rail. It was my first promotion.” It offered audiences inclusive theatre and rail tickets from outlying stations to come into the towns and see the show. “I don’t think anyone had done it before.”

When Hair ended he got a job company managing a tour of a play with comedian Eric Sykes, but pulled out to go back into production with the inauspicious, middlebrow piece Murder at the Vicarage. It was a reasonable success and Mackintosh again displayed a flair for marketing by touring it back-to-back with another Agatha Christie show, Black Coffee, and calling them The Christie Festival.

By 1972 he was back in the West End, producing a musical of Trelawney (of the Wells) which had started at the Bristol Old Vic. Then, in 1973, he mounted his very first musical from scratch, The Card, based on an Arnold Bennett novel. It had a pedigree creative team. The script was by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall, the score was by Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent, and, significantly, choreography was by Gillian Lynne, who subsequently worked with Mackintosh on Cats.

Because they neither write, direct, compose nor act, producers are notoriously overlooked in theatre. Mackintosh is fond of saying “Who remembers who produced Shakespeare?” But Mackintosh’s name is known worldwide. He has an acknowledged grip on marketing. Sondheim says: “He is a better promoter than anyone in theatre today”.

And his money allows him to promote a new show to such an extent prior to opening that its advance at the box office makes it virtually critic-proof. According to Julia McKenzie, who directed and co-devised the first production of the new Stephen Sondheim revue, Putting It Together, which will open on Broadway next month: “He’s monstrous. He wants to do everything. When we were putting this show together he wouldn’t stay away”. Sondheim says: “He loves to interfere – it drives me crazy – in every individual department. But it is his major contribution. You feel that there is a captain of the ship – there’s a boss who is looking out for everybody’s interests”.

Mackintosh, who backs his own taste in every detail, doesn’t argue with any of this. “Although theatre is utterly collaborative, it is impossible when the producers are a group of people. You’ve got no one definite batting for the production team to go against. Although of course I value other opinions – and if I have to overrule someone it usually means there is something wrong – but in the end it’s got to be my taste. When some of my backers once started to say ‘We’ll back that show but not this one’ I said, ‘Well I think you should go off and pick your own.’ If they feel they have their own taste they should go off and produce themselves, not back me. Whether one agrees with it or not I’ve got a strong sense of taste. I have always gone for what I like”. And his verdict on his own taste is concise: “stylishly common”.

Trevor Nunn, who co-directed Les Miserables, says that from his first experience of Mackintosh, “he has changed over the years from a very exuberant, youthful producer to someone who is all knowledgeable and massively experienced”. He describes Les Miserables as “entirely the story of Cameron’s determination”. This clear resolve subsequently led to Mackintosh and Nunn, now director of the National Theatre, parting company. Nunn was the first director of Miss Saigon. But before casting had begun, Mackintosh asked him to step down. “His conclusions were – and still are – inexplicable to me,” says Nunn, “but he has the absolute right as producer to take decisions for the good of the show as he sees it”. Are they still friends? “Well, we’re still in business”.

As is Miss Saigon, but only until the end of this month, when it finally closes after 10 successful years. (According to last year’s Wyndham report into West End theatre, Miss Saigon and Les Miserables have each taken more worldwide than any Hollywood movie barring Titanic. Phantom of the Opera and Cats have each exceeded even Titanic’s global takings). Mackintosh has equally high hopes for his new original musical, The Witches of Eastwick, which opens next May.

It is based on the novel by John Updike, which was subsequently filmed with Jack Nicholson and Cher. Mackintosh has backed the musical’s writers, John Dempsey and Dana P Rowe, over several years now and particularly through a savaging from the critics for their first work in London, The Fix. “They have their own sound but they are absolutely rooted in the great traditions of musical comedy. Their instinct is to home in on the great American musical and give it some edge. It’s been very important to keep them working because before these guys were literally having to do any old job and then take 10 days off to write together”.

Most of this kind of support comes through Mackintosh’s Foundation which, according to the Charity Commission, gives out about £1m annually to a variety of projects. There have been two major institutional grants. It endowed Oxford University with £1.75m for a Chair in contemporary theatre and it gave £1m to the National Theatre for the revival of classic American musicals.

Mackintosh funds several students a year through drama school, paying fees, grants and all expenses. He also supports the Mercury Group of young writers of musicals. Anthony Drew and George Styles, whose musical Honk! is to be the National Theatre’s Christmas show this year, first met him when they were young hopefuls winning the 1985 Vivian Ellis songwriting prize. “He completely kept us in bacon sarnies at one point in our career,” says Drew. “He never drops you, there’s always something going on in the background”.

Their patron has kept faith with them through a number of “not-quite-right” productions of their musical The Just So Stories. He helped them negotiate an option with Steven Spielberg, which in the end expired, and also introduced them to one of London’s best agents, Patricia McNaughton. After the news that a production of Just So at the Tricycle Theatre on the London Fringe was not after all going to transfer to the West End in April 1992, the two got a parcel. “It had a letter inside,” remembers Drew, “that just said, ‘Two tickets to anywhere in the world you want to go’. We were terrified that we might choose somewhere too expensive. So after a lot of thinking about it, we settled on a safari in Africa. But we asked Tee, his secretary, to just check with him it wasn’t too much. The only comment he came back with was that it was a very long flight and we had to go business class”.

Mackintosh is at an interesting point in his career. He maintains: “I love living in the country, I love living in Scotland and therefore for me to want to actually not do that, I’ve really got to love a project a lot. I’ve been producing for 30 years and it’s no novelty”.

But he doesn’t look as if he is slowing down. He has the Sondheim review opening on Broadway; an entirely re-written and new version of Martin Guerre was incubated at The West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds and is now destined for New York after its current tour of the States; and The Witches of Eastwick is being cast for the West End.

He will never be short of money. His shows will continue to be presented globally for many years – Les Mis opens in Bueno Aires next year. But in the next few years he will turn his attention beyond West End shows to the theatres themselves.

Currently London is seeing the biggest sale ever of its theatres. Associated Capital Theatres, which owns eight West End theatres as well as the Donmar Warehouse, is up for grabs. And theatre group Stoll Moss,bought by the Australian Robert Holmes a’Court, is also up for sale. The group, whose theatres include the Palladium and Drury Lane, is said to be valued at £100m.

Mackintosh is coy about the nature and value of a bid. But, asked if he is going to buy Stoll Moss, he says: “Well someone is, and certainly I would be very interested”.

Bids closed last month and Stoll Moss’s bankers are being noncommittal, but the word is that there will be interest from Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group; Stephen Whalley Cohen, who operates St Martin’s and the Savoy; Peter Holmes a’Court, son of current owner Janet Holmes a’Court; and the American group that just bought the Apollo group, SFX.

It’s about the latter that Mackintosh (and others) are concerned. “I think it’s better to have people who own theatres from the country of the theatres because the theatre business is very difficult. My belief is that corporate theatre – production and ownership – will be fairly shortlived because it doesn’t stack up for stockholders. Stoll Moss, despite Janet’s investment, was still run by the financial controller of an Australian company. But theatre has always survived on mavericks. I believe that with ownership goes tremendous responsibility”.

He knows that owning theatres will not make him money. He has already invested £2m in the Prince Edward, one of the five he already has. “These theatres need a lot of money pumped back into them,” he says. “Over the next years we will all have to take decisions about how to preserve the character of these old theatres but turn them into places for the 21st century.”

McCallum, his business manager, puts it more bluntly: “To invest in theatres you have to be either extremely committed or extremely stupid”. And Mackintosh isn’t stupid.

He has plans for them too. He will clearly not keep all of them but will rationalise his own group so that he has one of each size and sell the others on. “I’m really keen,” he says “to make sure that there is a balance of ownership”. And his real enthusiasm is reserved for the idea of having a larger version of the Cottesloe (the National Theatre’s 200-seater) or the Donmar Warehouse. “Over the next five years I want to look at ways of bringing other kinds of theatre into the West End. But I haven’t found a site yet”. And he knows that to try and do that on a conventional commercial site just does not stack up financially. “Whatever theatres I have, I will be a custodian for a certain part of their life. It’s like me with houses. I don’t spend money on houses as an accountant, thinking it will make more money. I know that, hopefully, because of what I’ve done, this house will be there to be enjoyed by someone else in 200 or 300 years’ time.

He has five houses altogether – in Somerset, the South of France, New York, London and a small lodge in Scotland, near Mallaig on the west coast, which he inherited from his aunt Anthea. He has since acquired much of the 13,000-acre Nevis estate around it. He says he “bought the view to ensure that the area wasn’t broken up or spoilt… I see my responsibility to Mallaig as preserving the way of life, not in aspic but in spirit”. He has invested his foundation’s money in a health clinic, crofting and a swimming pool for the community. The total investment is thought to amount to £500,000 so far.

He was also involved in attempts to help the neighbouring community of the isolated Knoydart peninsula, who were attempting to buy out their “laird”. Originally there was a plan for Mackintosh to buy the freehold and lease it back to the inhabitants but, in the end, the locals wanted to own the freehold themselves. “It was completely amicable,” says Mackintosh, who has contributed £75,000 to their efforts. He has also recently bought up some of the land around his Somerset estate. “This way I am able to to give this younger generation their independence – working the land they grew up on but can’t afford to keep any more”.

Mackintosh is an old-fashioned patron, who believes in the responsibility that comes with wealth as much as in the musical theatre that has made him his money. Nunn describes him as having “many dichotomies. One side of him wants to own a string of theatres and the other just wants to live in this tiny hut in Scotland. He’s probably at his absolute happiest when he’s cooking for friends”. Above all, Mackintosh enjoys the role of host. To his audiences as much as to his friends.

Life at a glance

Born: October 17 1946.

Educated: Prior Park, Bath; Central School of Speech and Drama, London.

Career: Stagehand at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane – later assistant stage manager; producer of musicals. Knighted in 1996.

Productions: Little Women (1967) Anything Goes (1969); Trelawney (1972);The Card (1973); Winnie the Pooh (1974); Owl and the Pussycat Went to See (1975); Godspell (1975); Side by Side by Sondheim (1976); Oliver! (1977), new production 1994; Diary of a Madam (1977); After Shave (1977); Gingerbread Man (1978); Out on a Limb (1978); My Fair Lady (1979); Oklahoma! (1980); Tomfoolery (1980); Jeeves Takes Charge (1981); Cats (1981); Song and Dance (1982) Blondel (1983); Little Shop of Horrors (1983); Abbacadabra (1983); The Boyfriend (1984); Les Misérables (1985); Cafe Puccini (1985); Phantom of the Opera (1986); Follies (1987); Miss Saigon (1989); Just So (1990); Five Guys Named Moe (1991); Moby Dick (1992); Putting it Together (1992); Carousel (1993); Oliver! (1994); Martin Guerre (1996); The Fix (1997).

Recreations: holidays, cooking.

This article originally appeared at:

This entry was posted in Art, Celebrity Profiles, The Guardian. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.