It is a measure of Sir Cameron Mackintosh’s influence that an off-hand remark can spark political hostilities halfway around the world.
‘‘Melbourne is now sort of the natural home of theatres,’’ the renowned British theatre producer said last year. This observation was prompted by the Victorian government securing another Australian stage debut: Mackintosh’s refreshed version of Les Miserables.
‘‘[Melbourne has] looked after and increased its theatre stock,’’ he contended, ‘‘and that’s why more shows open in Melbourne than Sydney.’’
George Souris, the NSW arts minister, was livid. He branded Victoria’s winning bid a ‘‘joke’’, claiming the state ‘‘threw so much money at Cameron Mackintosh ... there wasn’t even a competition’’. His government never submitted a bid for Les Miserables, he added, so technically, Sydney hadn’t lost. It was also reported that he demanded a ‘‘please explain’’ from Michael Cassel, Mackintosh’s Australian representative and executive producer of the show, which opens at Her Majesty’s on July 3.
Cassel rushed to assure him that ‘‘no adverse impression’’ was intended. The fact Souris so willingly slammed his Coalition colleagues in Victoria made the spat even more remarkable.
This is what happens when you’re the world’s most successful musical theatre producer. Seemingly innocent musings are seized upon and blown out of proportion. Newspapers describe the fallout as having ‘‘all the makings of a diplomatic incident’’. And ministers of government come off sounding like jilted lovers.
‘‘All these politicians that give you the silly sound bites: they don’t understand how important it is to cast the theatre as well as your leading lady,’’ Mackintosh says, sitting in his Broadway office in New York City. ‘‘It’s so short-term of them not to get the buildings right. If I was running Sydney, I would have twisted a developer’s arm to build two 1600-seat theatres. Then Sydney would be on a level playing field with Melbourne, which has Her Majesty’s and the Prinny [The Princess].’’
A spectacle such as The Lion King, he explains, is perfectly suited to grand venues such as Sydney’s Capitol or Melbourne’s Regent. But Les Miserables would fall flat in such cavernous spaces.
‘‘You can smell what Les Mis is like in Her Majesty’s,’’ he says, a satisfied, faraway look crossing his face as he mentally transports himself to the 128-year-old theatre. This soon morphs into a frown. ‘‘I wanted to put Oliver! in Her Majesty’s [in 2002] – it had already done fantastic business in Sydney – but it ended up in the Regent. And it didn’t work. It just didn’t have the power to fill the Regent.’’
Mackintosh has put his money where his mouth is, buying and lovingly restoring several of London’s finest theatres. It’s clear he adores the buildings as much as the productions he puts on inside them.
At 67, he looks at least a decade younger, fit and tanned. He speaks with the urgency of a fledgling producer keen to make his mark, not a 50-year veteran who could rest easy on his $1.2 billion fortune. When a topic excites his passions, which is frequently, his eyes flash and he talks at speed.
Mackintosh’s American office, a few blocks up from the gloriously gaudy Times Square, looks like it has been airlifted from Britain. Dark wooden furniture, soothing green carpet, a comfortable sofa: nothing ostentatiously new or shiny. There are some small framed posters of his most famous productions – The Phantom of the Opera, Cats, Miss Saigon – but otherwise few monuments to his success. It is perhaps the least blinged-out headquarters of a show business billionaire in all of New York City. Only an Englishman could conceive of such pleasant understatement in the world capital of self-promotion.
I couldn’t play half the theatres I want to [in Australia] because of the unions and the cost of moving the show around.Sir Cameron Mackintosh
We meet the day before the Broadway premiere of his re-invigorated Les Miserables; the same version about to open in Melbourne. Given its extraordinary success – seen by 65 million people in 42 countries – Mackintosh could have simply revived the original production, sat back and raked in the millions. Instead, he’s tweaked almost every aspect.
‘‘I can’t keep doing the same show,’’ he says. ‘‘Anything that’s classic should be reinvented by new generations. I want younger people to embrace this as their own.’’
The opening night performance, on West 45th Street’s Imperial Theatre, suggests they will. The famous turntable set is conspicuously absent, replaced by digital projections based on the sketches of Les Miserables author Victor Hugo. Mostly, they’re unobtrusive, serving to set the scene while allowing greater focus on the performers.
However, when used to create a sense of depth, they create a cinematic feel (no surprise, given this version inspired the 2012 hit film starring Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe).
The simpler lighting and new orchestrations, relying on fewer instrumentalists, allowed Ramin Karimloo’s powerful voice to shine, particularly in Valjean’s soaring ballad Bring Him Home. The dialogue is sharper, the narrative clearer and the humour a touch more ribald. The whole thing feels fresher; a more vital take on the beloved production.
Les Miserables was famously panned by critics when it opened almost 30 years ago in London. Although a handful championed it, most predicted a musical involving French history and no sequins would be box-office turkey. Some observed that its logo was a glum peasant girl, and it even had the word ‘‘miserable’’ in its tile.
These critics, Mackintosh says, overlooked not only the appeal of the songs but the power of Hugo’s story: a timeless tale of courage, justice and redemption.
‘‘There are scenes from Les Mis that seem like they’re ripped out of every newspaper in the world at the moment. The building of barricades, empty chairs and empty tables ... Hugo wasn’t just writing about France. He was writing about the injustices of the day, which have their modern parallels everywhere.’’
Simon Gleeson,who plays hero Jean Valjean in Australia, agrees.
‘‘Walking down the street in Melbourne, you see people sleeping rough and you realise the gap between rich and poor is widening,’’ says the 37-year-old. ‘‘But there’s not just one reason Les Mis resonates. It contains multiple storylines, so people connect to it in different ways.
‘‘Fundamentally, it’s a question of who you are and what you stand for. Are you a good person? How will you look back on your life? Do you strive for a humanity that is inclusive and progressive, or are you shutting the doors and saying, ‘Nope, it’s all about me’? It even has love stories: Cosette and Marius, and Eponine’s unrequited love.’’
We meet at Melbourne’s Opera Centre, where the cast (including Hayden Tee as Jarvert, Patrice Tipoki as Fantine and Kerrie Anne Greenland as Eponine) are in the final stages of rehearsal. A mock barricade made out of plywood serves as a proxy for the lavish stage prop. Some performers are singing to themselves; others are stretching their taut bodies.
We settle into a soundproof music practise room where Gleeson, who also works in film and television, explains his lifelong devotion to Les Miserables.
His parents used to play the soundtrack on long car journeys when he was young. His entire family made a special trip to Melbourne from their rural Victorian town to see the original production in the 1980s. In fact, his first role was in the 10-year revival of the blockbuster musical. (He was part of the ensemble.)
Mackintosh, who had the final say on casting, was won over by what he describes as Gleeson’s ‘‘inner spirituality’’.
‘‘All the best Jean Valjeans have it,’’ he says. ‘‘They have a serenity and calmness to them. When you talk to them, they’re grounded people.’’
Consider, for instance, Gleeson’s reaction upon winning the lead. Ecstatic, he dialled his wife from the taxi he was in, then his mother and sister. No one answered. Instead of directing the driver to the nearest pub for some booze-fuelled revelry, he opted for quiet reflection.
‘‘It was important to put it into perspective,’’ he says. ‘‘If you had said to my 12-year-old self I’d have this opportunity one day, I would have thought you were ridiculous. It’s important to acknowledge that; to celebrate and enjoy what has happened. But then you need to look at the reality and not get too carried away.’’
It’s dangerously easy, for instance, to get swept up in comparisons. Will people like him as much as Australia’s first Valjean, Normie Rowe? Or Hugh Jackman in the film? How will this revised stage version stack up against the original? Or the movie? It’s enough to do his head in. If he let it.
‘‘A dear mate of mine played Hamlet at the National [in England] recently,’’ he says. ‘‘I asked him about the pressure of comparison and he said, ‘You know the answer. You don’t compare.’’’
The show is renowned for being physically and emotionally taxing upon its cast. While the grotesque Thenardiers provide some levity, most characters are ‘‘walking into pressure-cooker situations’’ on stage, says Gleeson.
‘‘It sounds paradoxical but you have to learn to relax a little while giving a high-octane performance. You need to find the optimum way of putting your body through those demands.’’
A strict exercise regime – something all Valjeans must adhere to – keeps Gleeson in shape. Striking an emotional equilibrium is not so straightforward.
His young daughter, for instance, hated him practising Bring Him Home in the house. Only when his wife found her crying in her bedroom did they understand why.
‘‘She latched onto the fact that something is deeply wrong,’’ he says. ‘‘Even without the lyrics, you can hear the hurt and the desperation in the music.’’
Now, he sings the song only when his daughter is at school.
Gleeson’s wife is actor and singer Natalie O’Donnell. The pair has performed together on stage, television and in film (often playing a couple). Before they had children, they worked on London’s West End, the world’s biggest theatre market. But as a performer, Gleeson finds the Australian industry tougher.
‘‘The frequency of new shows is greater in London [which creates more opportunities],’’ he says, having starred in a new West End production in 2005 called The Far Pavilions.
The difference between the Australian and British markets arouses a passionate response in Mackintosh. Unless the industry makes some radical changes, he warns, international producers may stop bringing their shows here.
Les Miserables should have debuted on our shores at least one year ago, he reveals, but the launch was stymied by Australia’s odd method of booking theatres. And what he describes as excessively stringent union provisions, would see him lose money if he toured his productions regionally.
‘‘The cost of the unions and the way people work in the theatre in Australia – it’s terrible,’’ he says. ‘‘Here, people just get on with it. I moved Phantom of the Opera from Chicago to Philadelphia in a few days. In Australia, they want two weeks and then a fortnight in Bali to recover!
‘‘I couldn’t play half the theatres I want to [in Australia] because of the unions and the cost of moving the show around. To move a show from Birmingham to Manchester in England would cost £150,000 ($269,000). To move from Melbourne to Sydney, it costs $2 million. It’s just crazy.’’
Getting The Phantom of the Opera on the road in England, he adds, set him back £4 million ($7million). Doing the same here would cost twice that.
Not helping matters is the fact our limited number of theatres are booked for set periods, sometimes years in advance. It’s particularly bad in Brisbane, which suffers a shortage of good venues.
‘‘Under the Australian system, it’s first-come-first-served. You get a logjam instead of the public deciding which shows they want and which ones they don’t. We had to book Her Majesty’s for Les Miserables two years ago! That’s not how theatre works in London and New York.’’
Already, Brisbane and regional Australia are missing out on his shows. Perth will soon become economically unviable, he asserts – and if nothing changes, Sydney and Melbourne, too.
Mackintosh is determined to effect change not just because this is one of his favourite markets, but countries. His partner of many years, Michael Le Poer Trench, is Australian. He enjoys spending time here and loves our theatres. And he has long proclaimed the quality of his Australian productions equal to, or better than, their international equivalents.
‘‘They’re as good as anything that opens in London or Broadway,’’ he says. ‘‘The [Australian] production of Mary Poppins was probably better than what opened on Broadway and the audience responded to that. Regardless of whether my shows have been huge hits, they’ve always been done to a phenomenally high standard in Australia.’’
TAG: Les Miserables opens July 3 at Her Majesty’s Theatre. ticketek.com.au/lesmis.
Michael Lallo travelled to New York courtesy of Les Miserables Australia.