Flight of the Concorde: secrets of billionaire producer’s success

When he was eight years old, Cameron Mackintosh saw a musical in London’s West End, met the composer after the show and walked out the door set on a career in the performing arts.

Knighted in 1996 for services to the theatre, he is arguably the world’s most successful producer and the name behind many of the world’s biggest blockbuster shows, including Mary Poppins, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera, Cats and Oliver!

Sir Cameron Mackintosh, musical theatre producer at The Florentino Grill.Credit:Joe Armao

“At any one time I’ve got 20 or 30 productions either on or in the planning. I’ve got my eight theatres which I own in London, plus I’ve got Music Theatre International, which I own and which is one of the biggest secondary rights companies in the world, which has a Melbourne base,” he says, as we check out the menu at Grossi Florentino’s Grill. It’s a Melbourne institution but perhaps not the exact nominated destination: Mackintosh’s PR had taken him upstairs to the fancier restaurant.

Knowing it’s the opening night of Mary Poppins, I’d booked the downstairs venue, figuring a three-course set menu was too much. The billionaire theatre producer is nonplussed as he takes a seat opposite me, looking out across Bourke Street.

After a quick look at the menu, we decide on a zucchini flower each to start, scallops then veal for me, lamb brains and lobster ravioli for him; a green salad to share and a glass of white wine each.

Stefanie Jones as Mary Poppins and Jack Chambers as Bert and cast in Mary Poppins.Credit:Wayne Taylor

A regular visitor to Australia, Mackintosh has eaten here before and is a fan of its classic Italian food. He also loves Longrain – that was my canteen, he says – and dined at fashionable newbie Aru the night before our interview. He speaks fondly of Melbourne and particularly loves that all the major theatres are accessible by foot. “It feels like a proper city. You can walk everywhere. Sydney is fabulous in many areas, but it’s very fragmented.”

The 76-year-old observes that Melbourne is not yet back to full capacity, in contrast to London. “Friday nights have come way, way back. The West End is very buoyant, in fact since September I would say it’s even more buoyant than pre-COVID. Really the only thing that slightly affects us is the dreadful strikes we’re going through on the railway.

“Whatever internal problems we have, it’s still a great city to come and visit. Plus the British public are pretty resilient, and particularly the theatre-going audiences. I think it will be interesting to see what proportion of our domestic audience, which is always quite high anyway, is going to be affected by inflation. The inference is it’s actually going to be a shallow recession.”

According to Mackintosh, New York is more like Melbourne after the pandemic, with people returning to the CBD but not in the same numbers. He believes it’s a combination of some people having moved out of the city permanently, and many others working from home on Fridays. It’s a change that makes life difficult for anyone staging live events, as does people holding off on buying tickets.

The veal at Grossi Florentino’s Grill.Credit:Joe Armao

Mackintosh changed the model for musical theatre, being the first producer to roll shows out globally. The Sunday Times in Britain estimated his worth at £1.205 billion ($2.2 billion) in 2022. Statistics for Phantom underline his success: it played to over 140 million people in 33 countries in 166 cities around the world, with an estimated gross of $6 billion.

Mackintosh acknowledges the role of an unusual factor in building his business. “I always give credit for the international part of my career to the invention of the Concorde – if the Concorde hadn’t existed in the ’80s and ’90s, I’d never have done the number of shows I did in America … And the miracle is, they’re still on, so many of them.”

Don’t ask him which he loves most, though – it’s a bit like the favourite child idea. He does venture that Les Mis is the one with the most longevity, thanks to Victor Hugo as much as the timeless themes of love and war.

The postwar hit Salad Days, which he saw with his aunt and his mother when he was seven, introduced him to musical theatre. When he turned eight, Mackintosh asked to see it again.

He tells the story of meeting the show’s composer Julian Slade afterwards, who took him and his family backstage, literally pulling back the curtain on the world of performance. “He played the piano and all the magic sounds that made everyone dance. Right then I knew that was what I wanted to do when I grew up. Within about a few weeks, I’d worked out the job I wanted to do was called a producer.

Lobster ravioli at Grossi Florentino’s Grill.Credit:Joe Armao

“I obviously liked the story … it was about the music transforming people. And even though it was a very lightweight show in many ways, it did touch on things, [in] songs like ‘We Don’t Understand Our Children’, and two young people trying to make their way in life and the tramp who plays the piano, we find out that he is the black sheep of the family, their uncle. It has themes that have stayed with me all my life.”

Mackintosh is in Australia for yet another opening, more than four decades after his first production here in 1976. His ties to this part of the world extend beyond the professional, having met his partner, Australian-born photographer Michael Le Poer Trench, here, fittingly at the opening night of Oklahoma! These days, the amount of travel he does is pared back. “I genuinely go ‘do I need to get on this plane?’.”

The Melbourne production of Mary Poppins sees him reunited with Marina Prior, who plays two roles: Miss Andrews – Mr Banks’ wicked former nanny who replaces Mary Poppins during the second act – and the Bird Woman. Their relationship dates back to 1984, when Prior was 18, “just after she’d been a busker and had just been discovered here”, he says. “Somebody said ‘you should meet this girl, she’s very talented’.

“She and I got on like a house on fire, she is a hoot. As well as being very bright and a wonderful actor, she has a wonderful naughty sense of humour. We hit it off from the outset.

Marina Prior as the Bird Lady in Mary Poppins.Credit:Wayne Taylor

“I’d toyed with the idea of trying to do the double [role] but I’ve never actually achieved it,” he says. “You need someone special: [Marina] is the excuse to do it.”

Mackintosh famously tried for years to get P.L. Travers, author of the Poppins books, to give permission for him to create a musical. When she was 93 – “quite frail but mentally astute” – she contacted him and, after three further meetings, gave her blessing. He then had to negotiate with Disney, who owned the songs written for the beloved 1964 movie starring Julie Andrews in the title role. Together with Julian Fellowes – best known as the creator/writer/producer of Downton Abbey – he devised the musical based on several of Travers’ books, adding 10 new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe.

Next on the agenda is Miss Saigon, which will be staged in Sydney by Opera Australia in August. While here, Mackintosh has been looking at potential cast members. “At this stage for that show, I’ve found a far bigger pool of Australian talent than I did in the previous two times I did it, so this is most encouraging for me.”

Receipt for lunch with Cameron Mackintosh at Grossi Grill.Credit:Kerrie O’Brien

Set in Vietnam during the war, the show has come under fire for depicting the West as a saviour and for its stereotypical portrayal of Asians. He rejects those ideas, saying it is one of few musicals based on fact, and that the storyline reflects what people will endure when faced with war.

Compared to the US and Britain, Australia is a very small market for stage shows. That’s why work by Sydney’s Hays Theatre and the recently closed Production Company in Melbourne are vital, Mackintosh says. “A lot of them would never make commercial sense to do again, but at the same time they’re great roles that help you grow as an artist and give a tremendous experience for the audience. So I think every bit of the grassroots interchange in Australia is great.”

Mackintosh hopes to bring his Steven Sondheim show Old Friends, which has only been staged in London, to Australia before long. He continues to be remarkably hands-on, relishing his role as a storyteller, and has no plans to retire any time soon.

“One of the gifts God gave me was to be a natural dramaturge, even before I knew what the word meant,” he says. “I only do a show because I love the story first, the character second.”

Mary Poppins is at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne until June 18; Miss Saigon is at the Sydney Opera House from August 17.

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