The show currently pulling in the punters at the Theatre Royal is Barnum, the musical based on the life (the larger-then-life) of 19th Century American showman Phineas Taylor Barnum. Brian Conley is the actor deemed big enough to fill his boots.
But the other day a modern day Barnum was in the audience to watch the show, although the audience mightn’t have been aware of it.
Sir Cameron Mackintosh – although he doesn’t stand on ceremony – is one of the most powerful producers in world theatre. He owns eight theatres in London (probably soon to be nine, he suggested) and has productions of his musicals – Miss Saigon, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, to name a few – on various continents.
Before posing for pictures with Brian Conley and co-star Linzi Hateley, who plays Mrs Barnum, he shared some memories and made the comparison himself.
“There are quite a lot of similarities between PT Barnum and myself,” he said. “The more I got into researching his life when I was doing this new production, I came to realise how he did publicity for his show but kept himself behind the scenes.
“I didn’t realise how important he was on the political side. He was one of the people who got Abraham Lincoln elected in the early days. He was influential in the abolition of slavery which is reflected in Black and White (a Barnum routine). He used a parody of minstrel shows to make political points.
“At one point, I think, the Republicans asked him to run for president. He was the most famous American in the world.”
A good deal of this is in the show, which Mackintosh watched in Newcastle with Shelby Coleman, widow of New Yorker Cy Coleman who wrote the music for Barnum.
So what of his own political aspirations? “I’d be no good as a Prime Minister,” chortled the producer. “I’d be much better as a benign dictator.”
It was interesting to see Mackintosh in Newcastle and at a theatre whose stage is not equal to his bigger productions, such as Miss Saigon.
His affection for the venue was clear. “I’ve seen lots of shows here and brought lots of shows here. It has always been a fabulous theatre, whatever state it was in. Even when she was a dowdy ‘royal’, there was always an amazing atmosphere.”
His early involvement in the theatre is captured in a clipping in The Journal from May 1967 headlined ‘Youngest in the business’. It reports, beneath a photo of a fresh-faced pair, that Britain’s youngest theatre management in the country is to bring a new production of Jane Eyre to Grey Street the following month.
They were Robin Alexander, aged 24, and Cameron Mackintosh, 20, who traded as Ariadne (Theatrical Managers) Ltd. “We think we know enough now to present good stuff,” they are quoted as saying. “But one is always learning in this game.”
One certainly is. But what lessons Cameron Mackintosh has learned. Determined to become a producer at age eight, in 1954, when his mother and aunt took him to see the musical Salad Days, he plunged in as soon as possible. “The very first one I did was The Reluctant Debutante. I was 19 at the time so hardly reluctant.”
He recalled getting his fingers burned with an early London production of Anything Goes – a “terrible disaster” – and the early years of living hand to mouth, touring little shows and even opening one of them in Newcastle, a musical called Rock Nativity which premiered at the old University Theatre (now Northern Stage) in December 1974.
In the band was a young teacher, Sting, who recalls the show with mixed feelings in his autobiography, Broken Music, explaining how it felt “a little too ponderous”.
But it’s not easy staging a musical as Sting would find out much later. Cameron Mackintosh didn’t see his The Last Ship but suggested: “What I hear about it, he brings tremendous depth when he performs himself but probably it’s material suited to his specific delivery.”
As for Cameron Mackintosh, who has featured regularly in the annual rich list, he said he had benefited from the support of much older and established producers, such as the American Arthur Cantor who “could see that I had something”.
Having acquired the English rights to Godspell, a show he didn’t quite understand, Cantor asked the young man if he could “get a few more weeks out of it on tour”.
“I took it over, I think in 1974, and kept it running for seven or eight years, taking it back into London. It became my nickname, Mr Godspell, and that was the first time I started to get regular money, although I was still paying off the huge debts from the collapse of Anything Goes.”
Oh, and also from a misguided musical spin-off from radio ‘soap’ Mrs Dale’s Diary. “Everybody wanted to hear it on the radio but nobody wanted to see it at the theatre.”
Another break came with musical revue Side by Side by Sondheim which Mackintosh decided to produce sight unseen, having heard good reports from two friends. Arthur Cantor barked: “So you’re going to do a Sondheim show? It’ll close after previews!”
It worked, though. Recalled Mackintosh: “That was the first time, in the the mid-70s, when people started to go, ‘Yeah, maybe he has something special’.”
But he reflected: “All through this list of stuff, from My Fair Lady and Oliver! and right up until I did Cats, I was still in debt from my early flops.
“The big difference between then and now... well, the theatre wasn’t as organised as it is now. It has become, particularly through Andrew Lloyd Webber and myself, a big international business. Who would have thought the creative industries would have become one of the biggest contributors to the exchequer? Theatre has played its part.”
Back to Barnum and it was a show, said Mackintosh, for which he had always had a soft spot. He related the labyrinthine tale of how it came to the stage in America, making a big star of Jim Dale who had played the lead in his own first West End musical, The Card.
Mackintosh still exudes the enthusiasm that shines out of that Journal clipping but the steel behind the laughing eyes of this “benign dictator” can easily be imagined.
He talked about his love of “re-inventing” classic shows, saying: “I can’t bear my shows not to be better than people have heard and I can’t keep up the enthusiasm for something that I feel is becoming old fashioned.”
His latest theatrical acquisition in London was the Victoria Palace Theatre. “I’m doing a major renovation and it’s also a glorious Frank Matchem theatre, so I’m stealing all the good ideas from here.”
When not making shows he indulges a love of architecture. “I have eight or nine building projects,” he said. “I drive the architects mad like I drive my directors mad but they still love me... most of them.”
Meanwhile he does for others what old hands once did for him. In Tyneside-born Michael Harrison, co-producer of this Barnum tour, he evidently sees a little of himself.
“A few years ago he did a tour of one of my shows, The Witches of Eastwick, which did very well. I just liked the way he worked.”
High praise indeed. Barnum is at the Theatre Royal until Saturday. Box office: 0844 8112121 or www.theatreroyal.co.uk