Cameron Mackintosh credo: 'It will be done right'

Thursday - 3/13/2014, 4:10pm EDT

MARK KENNEDY
AP Drama Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- By all rights, Cameron Mackintosh should be on a beach right now.

The British producer behind such megahits as "Cats," ''The Phantom of the Opera" and "Miss Saigon" has every right to be enjoying warm breezes and sipping something with a little umbrella in it.

Instead, he's in chilly New York, his sleeves rolled up, tinkering with a new version of "Les Miserables" that opens on Broadway this month. And when he returns to London, there's a May revival of "Miss Saigon" that needs his attention.

Mackintosh, one of the richest men in the world, keeps finding himself in the strange position of returning to former triumphs, stripping them down and then building them up again. Lesser men would stay on the beach.

"It's very easy for me. I love it," he says in an interview at his Times Square office. "I consider myself uniquely lucky to have the opportunity to reinvent these great shows in my own lifetime. Normally it's someone else. Normally I'm dead and someone else does it."

Mackintosh is a cheerful man with energy to spare. His snug corner office is bursting with awards, but the winner of them seems nonplussed. "All they are tributes to a long age," he says, laughing.

He has made himself the world's most successful musical impresario with a not-so-simple formula: Take a great existing work by, say, Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Giacomo Puccini, P.L. Travers or Gaston Leroux. Add a soaring score. And give it an element of spectacle -- a helicopter lands in "Miss Saigon" and barricades fall in "Les Miserables."

"Even if I don't have a big success, people coming to my shows go, 'It will be done right,'" he says. "You can't say it will be a success, but I will have made sure that it couldn't be better."

Since he became assistant stage manager -- and understudied Phil Collins -- in a touring company of "Oliver!" in 1965, Mackintosh has realized a childhood dream of being part of the theater.

He's had failures -- including a disastrous "Moby Dick" and a middling "Martin Guerre" -- but hits steadily came, from a Stephen Sondheim revue to "Little Shop of Horrors" to "Mary Poppins."

"I've had a charmed career so far. I didn't get lucky or successful too early in my life," he says. He was in debt for his first 15 years as a producer and had "to make every penny look like a fiver." The show "Cats" -- produced when he was in his mid-30s -- erased the debt, but not its memory. "I know the value of money," he says.

He didn't expect to be producing at age 67, and so he slowly built a portfolio of seven West End theaters in London as a retirement plan of sorts. That way, he'd be able to keep his foot in the door. "I thought I'd have an excuse to go to the theater, an excuse to chat with people about this show or that show," he says.

Over the years, he's seen the audience for Broadway and the West End change, thanks in part to the legacy he and Andrew Lloyd Webber have built. "Kids are brought up now to embrace musicals, which they weren't in my day," he says. "Now, they really enjoy it. And not only enjoy it, they see it as a great career. Live entertainment generally is a synonym for a career."

Producer Thomas Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group who worked with Mackintosh on "Mary Poppins," recalls the first time then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner met Mackintosh. It was to work on "Mary Poppins," and on his way home, Eisner turned to Schumacher and said, "His success is no accident."

"It's true. If your success is an accident, then you don't know how it happened and therefore you should just go lie down on a beach and be happy you were so lucky," says Schumacher.

"But if your success is not an accident, it's because you are an activator to the process. You are an element of the process, you are valuable to the process, and you should keep working on it."

Mackintosh certainly is doing that. These days, if he's not reimagining a previous hit, he's making sure the existing one is taken care of. That means checking on the new U.S. tour of "The Phantom of the Opera" or "Barnum" on its U.K. tour or "Les Miserables" in Spain.

"I think one of the biggest things I've done for the theater is ensure a show that's in its 10th or 20th year is as humanly possible fresh as it was when it was written about on its opening night."