Super-producer Cameron Mackintosh had hoped to fly to Minneapolis to oversee the U.S. opening of his retooled “Phantom of the Opera.” He has fond memories of the Twin Cities from a 1999 spell when he came to launch “Martin Guerre” in North America. But Mackintosh, the London-based backer of such shows as “Les Misérables,” “Mary Poppins,” “Cats” and “Miss Saigon,” had to be in Asia tending to other properties in his multibillion-dollar musical-theater empire.
In a rare interview, he spoke by phone with the Star Tribune about his passion for theater and his reasons for launching this new version of “Phantom” that opens Tuesday at the Orpheum Theatre. It’s a more modern take that retains the story, the music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and some scenic ideas of a show that first opened in London 1986, where it is still running. “Phantom” also has become the gold standard musical of Broadway, where it has been running for a record 25 years.
Q Your name has become synonymous with a certain era of blockbuster musicals.
A That was invented by the press. The fact is they turned out to be blockbusters and look like sure things only in hindsight. Nearly every one of those shows was considered to be a dangerous folly at first. It’s the same with many of the great musicals. Nobody thought “West Side Story” or “Oklahoma” was a good idea. Similarly, “Cats” or “Les Miz” look like sure things only because they were successful.
Q Yes, there’s “Martin Guerre,” which had its North American premiere in Minneapolis in 1999 but didn’t make it to New York.
A We’re still working on it. We’ve got new lyrics. I understand why it didn’t work. It wasn’t constructed well enough.
Q Your shows did usher in the era of Broadway blockbusters with signature sets and props — the chandelier in “Phantom,” the helicopter in “Miss Saigon,” the barricades in “Les Miz.”
A People tried in the ’80s to say that my shows were big hits because of the scenery. That’s absolute crap. Time has proven that the music and the librettos of these musicals work just as well in a classroom as they do on Broadway. That proves that it’s nothing to do with the original staging.
Q You put out a new version of “Les Miz” that came to the Twin Cities last year. It has scaled-down barricades and uses technology more efficiently. Did you feel a similar impulse to update “Phantom”?
A It broke box office records right across America because it doesn’t seem like yet another revival of a great war horse. We could’ve played two or four more weeks in every city.
Q How do you update a show like “Phantom”?
A I start, as I always do when I do the re-imaginings, with the designer. Seven years ago, I got together with the wonderful Maria Björnson. I said, what we’ve got is fantastic but it’s hugely expensive. At some point, it’s going to become too expensive to do. We’re going to need to play that show for two weeks, not six or eight. What intrigued me and her was delving far more into the backstage world of the opera house. It’s a departure from the Hal Prince trademark of the original black box. We started talking about moving it upside down and making it more contemporary. Sadly, she died.
Q But not her influence.
A Not at all. One day I saw a production of [the Michael Legrand musical] “Marguerite” in London. It was designed by someone named Paul Brown. He’s operatic with a wonderful sense of drama. He’s also Maria’s protégé. I thought he would be someone who could help us rediscover “Phantom.” He and I started working on this concept of enormous, massive walls that thunder around the stage and become many things. They represent the building. The whole show revolves around these walls. The scenes in the opera house are not dissimilar from the ones in the original. We’ve kept the costumes that Maria adapted. Having been a stage manager when I started off in the business, I’m intrigued by how a set can excite the audience. The staging of a new version is governed by the physical reality of what the set will be.
Q But what do you say to diehard fans who have images of Michael Crawford, the most famous Phantom, singed in their minds and want to see a version of that iconic production?
A The original creative team made a wonderful show, which attracts a new audience. Many of the people who come to see the show usually say they’ve never seen it before. So, it’s not that the new version is better than the old one. It’s just that it’s different. What was extraordinary and original 25 years ago can no longer be. You want people to come see the show because it’s still one of the greatest ever. I want to give audiences a new experience, not a piece of nostalgia. I want people who see the show to understand what the fuss was all about in the first place.