The Pro­ducer

Cameron Mack­in­tosh, mas­ter of mega­mu­si­cals, will re­ceive Sig­na­ture Theatre’s Sond­heim Award

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY PETER MARKS

When Cameron Mack­in­tosh speaks in those plush English vow­els about his lat­est old-made-new ven­ture on Broad­way, you al­most feel as though you’re lis­ten­ing to words that were meant to be in­scribed on tablets.

“She is a stahhh!” he is say­ing, with the easy­go­ing au­thor­ity that comes nat­u­rally to a born show­man. “You could tell she was a

stahhh. You could see there was some­thing there. It was the same as with Lea. You knew. And how ex­tra­or­di­nary God would give us two 17-year-olds who are sen­sa­tional.”

He is sit­ting in the of­fices he has long oc­cu­pied in the mid­dle of the theater dis­trict, heap­ing Mack­in­toshian en­thu­si­asm on the cast­ing coup he thinks he has scored for the new re­vival of “Miss Saigon,” which has its of­fi­cial open­ing March 23 and is the lat­est of Mack­in­tosh’s ’80s and ’90s megahits to re­turn to Times Square. The ma­jor dis­cov­ery the first time around for “Miss Saigon” was Lea Sa­longa, a teenager from the Philip­pines with a voice like liq­uid gold, and Mack­in­tosh is cer­tain that his new Kim, Eva Noblezada, is an­other 17-year-old thrilla from Manila.

“You just know,” he says, “that they have some in­nate still­ness in them that makes you go, ‘They need to be up there.’ ”

Au­di­ences know, too, that with his list of hits on both sides of the Atlantic — among them “Cats,” “Les Mis­er­ables” and the longestrun­ning Broad­way mu­si­cal of all time, “The Phan­tom of the Opera” — the 70-year-old Mack­in­tosh also is one of the most suc­cess­ful and long­est-run­ning pro­duc­ers of all time: His first pro­duc­ing credit came in Lon­don 50 years ago, at age 20. But it’s also clear, as Mack­in­tosh pre­pares to ac­cept an award

Monday night from Sig­na­ture Theatre, the com­pany’s Sond­heim Award — named for the revered com­poser-lyri­cist and be­stowed an­nu­ally on a fig­ure cho­sen in con­sul­ta­tion with Stephen Sond­heim him­self — that the era in which he reigned supreme is draw­ing to a close.

The mega­mu­si­cal is not yet down for the count: “Phan­tom,” which has been at New York’s Ma­jes­tic Theatre since 1988, has passed the 12,000th-per­for­mance mark, and “Les Miz” has been to Broad­way three times since 1987 un­der Mack­in­tosh’s aus­pices, the last go-round end­ing in 2016. His Mi­das touch with mass-ap­peal mu­si­cals worked again in the 2000s with “Mary Pop­pins,” which he pro­duced with Dis­ney The­atri­cal Pro­duc­tions. And tours of his ma­jor suc­cesses — shows that es­sen­tially res­cued “the road” from obliv­ion — are still huge draws across the Amer­i­cas, Asia and Europe: A new “Les Mis­er­ables” com­pany goes out on the U.S. cir­cuit in the fall, and a new “Miss Saigon” the next year.

Mack­in­tosh’s some­time part­ner, An­drew Lloyd Webber, has four shows on Broad­way at the mo­ment, in­clud­ing a rel­a­tively new one, “School of Rock — The Mu­si­cal,” so it would be hard to ar­gue for the ir­rel­e­vance of British theater roy­alty. Still, Mack­in­tosh is enough of a stu­dent of theater trends — heck, no one reads them, even now, bet­ter than he — to un­der­stand that he’s not in the van­guard any­more. “This par­tic­u­lar cy­cle is over,” he told Lon­don’s Tele­graph in 2014. “What it needs is a new Cameron Mack­in­tosh, to come up and work with a younger gen­er­a­tion.”

The kind of spec­ta­cle of which he has been the cham­pion — mu­si­cal epics framed by war and love, sto­ries fea­tur­ing fly­ing chan­de­liers, fly­ing he­li­copters and fly­ing nan­nies — are no longer the artis­tic vogue. The only thing fly­ing at “Hamil­ton” is money into the box of­fice. The new mu­si­cals mak­ing a mark this sea­son, “Dear Evan Hansen,” “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” and “Come From Away” on Broad­way and “The Band’s Visit” off-Broad­way, are quirkier pieces, by a mostly younger cadre of com­posers, book writ­ers and lyri­cists, whose ideas for the form are driven more by the dic­tates of in­ti­macy and new mu­si­cal styles than by py­rotech­nics. (Let’s stip­u­late that the scores of “Les Miz” and “Miss Saigon” at times also set off their own melodic fire­works.)

The pro­ducer is still able to hit the jack­pot, though, with emer­gent power play­ers such as Lin-Manuel Mi­randa: One of the eight the­aters Mack­in­tosh owns in Lon­don’s West End, the Vic­to­ria Palace, is be­ing ren­o­vated for the Novem­ber open­ing of the Lon­don pro­duc­tion of “Hamil­ton.” Ink­ing a deal with that mu­si­cal amounts to seiz­ing the Holy Grail; the en­tire first tranch of tick­ets sold out in 48 hours. “I’ve never known that kind of in­ten­sity,” Mack­in­tosh says. “Ever.” True to his rest­less rep­u­ta­tion, the im­pre­sario is in­tro­duc­ing front-of-house in­no­va­tions, such as a pa­per­less tick­et­ing sys­tem for “Hamil­ton,” which he thinks will help thwart scalpers and rev­o­lu­tion­ize the theater busi­ness.

Of late, his con­ces­sion to changing mu­si­cal tastes has been to pol­ish old gems rather than cut new ones. “That’s why I’ve done the new ‘Phan­tom,’ ” Mack­in­tosh says, about a re­cent re­fresh­ing of that show that “evolved out of ne­ces­sity and bore­dom.”

“Be­cause it’s in­ter­est­ing to do some­thing new af­ter 25 years,” he adds. “I mean, I’m very proud of the original pro­duc­tions — it’s great ma­te­rial. And like any great ma­te­rial, you want new gen­er­a­tions to bring their imag­i­na­tions.”

To those who have worked with and for him, in­clud­ing Eric Scha­ef­fer, Sig­na­ture’s artis­tic direc­tor, Mack­in­tosh’s stay­ing power af­ter half a cen­tury, his abil­ity to re­main so ex­u­ber­ant, is a tes­ti­mo­nial in it­self.

“In those 50 years his pas­sion hasn’t di­min­ished,” says Scha­ef­fer, who di­rected an original mu­si­cal, “The Witches of East­wick,” for Mack­in­tosh in Lon­don. “It’s just grown and grown and grown.”

Mack­in­tosh says that he is “not an awards per­son” and that he tends not to at­tend tro­phy cer­e­monies. But the Sond­heim Award is one of the ex­cep­tions: “Be­cause it’s Steve, him want­ing me to do this,” he ex­plains. “The two I’ve re­ally en­joyed are the Richard Rodgers [Award] in Pitts­burgh” — given for ex­cel­lence in mu­si­cal theater — “and this one from Steve. Two of my great­est heroes.”

That they are ac­co­lades be­stowed by Amer­i­can or­ga­ni­za­tions speaks to the pro­found af­fec­tion Mack­in­tosh has long felt for the theater in­dus­try in this coun­try, where, he says, he was em­braced at a ten­der age. For all the suc­cess of the shows he has pro­duced by Lloyd Webber (“Cats,” “Phan­tom,” etc.) and the French team of Claude-Michel Schon­berg and Alain Boublil (“Les Mis­er­ables,” “Miss Saigon”), mu­si­cals are an Amer­i­can phe­nom­e­non. And from his ear­li­est days in the theater, Mack­in­tosh was in­ter­ested in putting Amer­i­can ma­te­rial on the Lon­don stage. It was a Sond­heim re­vue, “Side by Side by Sond­heim,” he pro­duced in 1976 at Wyn­d­ham’s Theatre just off Le­ices­ter Square — a theater he would one day buy — that amounted to his first British ex­port, al­though he didn’t re­tain the rights when it moved to Broad­way.

“Ev­ery­one has been in­cred­i­bly wel­com­ing to me ever since I was pen­ni­less when I came here in 1976,” he says. “I never ever had any­one not be en­cour­ag­ing to me in this coun­try.” Bernard Ja­cobs, then the artis­tic brain be­hind Broad­way’s big­gest theater owner, the Shu­bert Or­ga­ni­za­tion, would give him an apart­ment in New York to stay in. And one day in Washington al­most 40 years ago, af­ter Mack­in­tosh had seen a try­out of David Merrick’s “42nd Street,” he ven­tured over to the Water­gate and rang up the sto­ried pro­ducer in his room.

“I said, ‘Hi, David, it’s Cameron. You met me once when I did “The Card” in Lon­don. I just wanted to say the show was bril­liant, and if there’s any­thing I can ever do for you for the show . . .’ And he went, ‘Wait there.’ Ten min­utes later he came down and gave me the most ex­tra­or­di­nary mas­ter class, for two hours.”

Mack­in­tosh re­calls with great warmth theater fig­ures of Ja­cobs’s and Merrick’s stature, and, like them, he has had his misses, as well as tri­umphs: In 1996, Boublil and Schon­berg’s “Martin Guerre” — an­other lav­ish stage mu­si­cal, based on the story re­counted in the 1982 movie “The Re­turn of Martin Guerre” with Ger­ard Depar­dieu — was met with mostly neg­a­tive reviews in Lon­don. At the time, Mack­in­tosh noted that a decade ear­lier, “Les Miz” had not been em­braced by the Lon­don crit­ics ei­ther. Ul­ti­mately, “Guerre” was seen as a de­feat; it never made it to Broad­way.

The re­turn of “Miss Saigon,” though, has re­united the pro­ducer with one of his fa­vorite prop­er­ties. Its ini­tial Broad­way run (4,092 per­for­mances, 19912001) was spec­tac­u­lar by any other mea­sure than a Mack­in­tosh yard­stick. The sub­ject of the Viet­nam War had nar­rowed the fam­ily-view­ing pool some­what: “You need to take 10- to 12-year-olds, not the 6- to 8year-olds who can sit through ‘Les Miz’ or ‘Phan­tom,’ ” he says. This is partly why the run of this “Miss Saigon” is be­ing ad­ver­tised as “lim­ited” through Jan­uary 2018 rather than open-ended.

But if it catches fire, who knows? Mack­in­tosh waxes po­etic about the ac­tors he has found who are mak­ing their Broad­way de­buts, such as Jon Jon Bri­ones, playing the bravura role of the shady En­gi­neer, orig­i­nated on Broad­way by the Tony-win­ning Jonathan Pryce. The story, he says, has never been more rel­e­vant, telling of a young Viet­namese woman who falls in love with an Amer­i­can G.I. and is left be­hind with their child af­ter the fall of Saigon.

“The sad truth is that the world has caught up with ‘Miss Saigon.’ You’ve got the refugees; they’re climb­ing over the walls,” Mack­in­tosh says, re­fer­ring to the fa­mous scene re-cre­ated in the mu­si­cal when the gates of the Amer­i­can Em­bassy closed, shut­ting out the Viet­namese des­per­ate for a spot on one of the evac­u­a­tion he­li­copters.

The dis­cus­sion re­minds him of how con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics plays into his hands, even in a piece de­pict­ing ear­lier his­tory, such as “Les Mis­er­ables,” with its de­pic­tion of the bar­ri­cades dur­ing the Paris up­ris­ing of 1832. “What’s go­ing to hap­pen when we do it in Mex­ico?” he asks. “I think I just have to raise the Mex­i­can flag dur­ing ‘One Day More,’ and the au­di­ence will give it a stand­ing ova­tion! I have to send a thank you to the Don­ald, for mak­ing all my shows so cur­rent.”

But wait! Back to “Miss Saigon,” please. In­quir­ing minds want to know:

The he­li­copter that swooped out of the rafters so fa­mously in the original? Is it back?

A laugh erupts from the per­pet­ual show­man’s gut.

“Big­ger,” he ex­claims, “and bet­ter than ever!”

SI­MONE MASSONI FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

DEEN VAN MEER

TOP: A 2010 “Les Mis­er­ables” that came to Washington’s Na­tional Theatre in 2012.

MARIJAN MU­RAT/EURO­PEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

ABOVE: Cameron Mack­in­tosh in a Ger­man theater in Oc­to­ber.

RICHARD DREW/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

BELOW: Betty Buck­ley, as Griz­abella, sings “Mem­ory” from “Cats” for the 1983 Tony Awards broad­cast.

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