“The cast came to us,” musical-theater impresario Cameron Mackintosh is saying, as his Manhattan production office hums with pre-gala electricity. It’s a few hours until the New York premiere of “Les Miserables,” the 2-hour-37-minute movie-spectacle version of the West End and Broadway musical that Mackintosh ushered to global success, cementing his place among the most influential producers of the English-speaking theater.
He’s explaining that he and the rest of movie’s producing team did not have to twist arms to wrangle an impressive roster of stars for the $61 million film, which opens nationwide on Christmas Day. For example, Hugh Jackman, who plays Jean Valjean — the heroic central character in Victor Hugo’s sprawling novel, set in the politically turbulent France of 1815 and beyond — “rang me” about the part, Mackintosh said. (They’d known each other since a London revival of “Oklahoma!,” in which Jackman played Curly.)
Russell Crowe inquired, too — “I’ve been stretching my voice,” the producer quotes him as remarking — and so Mackintosh set him up with tickets to refresh his memory of the stage musical and help him settle on which of the leads Crowe felt he might better be suited. “Javert’s my role,” Mackintosh says Crowe told him, referring to the single-minded gendarme who pursues the saintly, unfairly persecuted Valjean across the years.
No one earned a part without singing to the satisfaction of director Tom Hooper and the other principal architects of the film. Amanda Seyfried, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Eddie Redmayne, all featured prominently in the movie, which was filmed in various locations in Britain last spring, had to prove their voices could pass muster. “They all auditioned,” says Mackintosh, “and of course it was for their own good.”
Indeed it was. Not only is the lush “Les Miserables” score by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer notoriously challenging: Go ahead, you try singing the falsetto of “Bring Him Home.” But the actors would also be required to sing their numbers with the cameras rolling on the set, not in the cozier confines of the recording studio. “Tom was as passionate as I was about recording it live,” Mackintosh says.
And so, with show-tune geeks counting down the hours and social media awash in commentary from early screenings — “Just saw ‘Les Miz.’ When can I see ‘Les Miz’ again?” Time Out New York’s Adam Feldman posted on Facebook — Mackintosh waits for the worldwide verdicts on whether the translation of “Les Miz” to the big screen will resonate “Chicago”-style, or fizzle, a la “Rent.”
“Look, I’m a dinosaur now,” Mackintosh says, sitting in the suite of offices from which he oversees his Broadway interests. At 66, but looking a decade younger, Mackintosh is one of the last of the old-school titans, a stage producer in the truest sense of the title: an executive who makes big shows happen, rather than just emptying bank accounts into them. (Today, Broadway Playbills list dozens of “producers” for each multi-million-dollar show, but the vast majority of them are, in actuality, merely investors who are indulged by the lead producers.)
He’s most closely associated with the mega-musicals of the 1980s: “Cats” and “The Phantom of the Opera” with Andrew Lloyd Webber; “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon” with French musical writers Schonberg and Alain Boublil. Those collaborations brought him immense wealth and influence: His empire now includes seven theaters in London’s West End. In the ensuing years, he’s had other notable ventures, such as the long-running “Mary Poppins,” produced in tandem with Walt Disney Co., and some noteworthy failures: the Boublil-Schonberg musical “Martin Guerre,” an epic that sputtered before Broadway.
His genius is, in part, a matter of regeneration. He’s shown a singular ability to keep his enterprises alive, sometimes to Broadway’s artistic detriment, as his shows sat in the prime musical houses seemingly forever. He helped change the definition of a hit: Smashes didn’t run for two or three or four years anymore; they ran for decades. “Les Miz” lasted an astounding 6,680 Broadway performances over the course of 16 years; “Phantom” is at 10,343 performances and aiming, it seems, for infinity.
And he finds ways to re-stoke his properties’ embers. A rejiggered “Miss Saigon” (closed in 2001 after a mere 4,092 performances) is in the works. Arlington’s Signature Theatre has a revival in mind for next season, too. For the 25th anniversary of “Les Miz,” he took the unusual step of hiring two new directors, Laurence Connor and James Powell, who reconceived Trevor Nunn and John Caird’s original production, and sent it on tour. It played the Kennedy Center last year and returned to Washington this week, in a visit to the National Theatre that runs through Dec. 30.
“Les Miz” has been running continually somewhere in the world — and most of the time, many places simultaneously — since its London debut in 1985. That its American segue happened so quickly after that was the result in large measure of the Kennedy Center’s major domo at the time, Roger Stevens, who fell in love with the show in London. Broadway’s leading landlords, the Shubert Organization, had seen it early, too, and had an opposite reaction. “They hated it,” Mackintosh recalls. “What you’ve got is a stiff,” he quotes the late Bernard Jacobs, the Shuberts’ chief tastemaker of the period, as telling him.
Ultimately, “Les Miz” would wind up at a Shubert house, but the Kennedy Center made Broadway happen. “Roger Stevens said, ‘We will give you the money to take it to Broadway,’ ” Mackintosh recounts. “I was able to embark on it without having all of the financing.”
“Les Miserables” emerged at a time when the movie musical was in hibernation, though a film version was in fact announced publicly by TriStar Pictures for 1992, with Alan Parker attached to direct. But the deal foundered, and the idea was put on a back burner. Mackintosh says the notion was rekindled in the wake of the on-screen critical success of “Chicago” and the popularity of other movie musicals such as “Mamma Mia!”; the ongoing strength of “Les Miz” in schools and on tour, and one wild card factor, by the name of Susan Boyle.
Mackintosh says he turned on the telly the night of her singing of “I Dreamed a Dream” on “Britain’s Got Talent” and “saw something extraordinary.” What he reports having said as he watched cannot be repeated here. But the effect was to catapult “Les Miz” back into contemporary relevance. “That woman and that performance, which was in its way artless, took the world,” he says. “After 25 years, Susan Boyle gave the show its first new hit.”
Working Title Pictures saw the opportunity, too, and when Mackintosh’s partners on the project asked him to meet Hooper — whose “The King’s Speech” had not yet propelled him to the ranks of highly-sought-after directors — he thought they found the director for the job. Hooper told Mackintosh that his work on the “John Adams” miniseries for HBO filled him with enthusiasm for stories of revolution. “He understood the breadth of it, the epic nature of it,” Mackintosh says.
A new song, “Suddenly,” was added for Valjean after he rescues the orphaned Cosette from the clutches of the evil Thenardiers (Bonham Carter and Baron Cohen, reunited from the shoot of “Sweeney Todd”). Other material has been augmented or reshuffled. But the movie “Les Miz” is very much the panoramic progeny of the stage.
Mackintosh says he was on set for 90 percent of the filming, but his role was to whisper in the creative team’s ear, not shout to the cast (more than 250 strong) through a megaphone. Directing, he says, was never, and will never be, his passion, or his forte.
“When I sense something original, I see how to make it better,” he says. “I’m the best fanner of the flames there is.”
the movie, opens nationwide on Dec. 25. “Les Miserables,” the stage musical, runs through Dec. 30 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Call 800-447-7400 or visit www.telecharge.com.