As a fresh staging of The Phantom of the Opera arrives in Leeds, producer Cameron Mackintosh tells Rod McPhee how you effectively create a new musical while retaining the magic of old.
IT may have raked in over £3.5bn and been seen by 130 million people in 27 countries around the globe, but The Phantom of the Opera initially got off to rather a stumbling start.
When writer Andrew Lloyd Webber and uber-producer Cameron Mackintosh joined forces to create the 1986 stage version, their initial inspiration was the book Le Fantôme de l’Opéra. Unfortunately, while Gaston Leroux’s creation might have been a great story, it wasn’t the greatest work of literature.
This was never more apparent than when they approached a third big name to write the lyrics.
“I sent it to Tom Stoppard,” says Mackintosh, stifling a laugh. “And he said: ‘If Andrew’s name hadn’t been attached to it, I’d never have got through this tawdry little book – no thanks!’
“The trouble with the novel is that it has a fantastic plot, but it’s not terribly well written. I mean, the book wasn’t even in print when we first approached the idea and Andrew didn’t even want to write the score. We just thought we’d have fun producing it.”
But the story at the heart of the book – that of a mysterious Phantom terrifying the occupants of a Parisian opera house until he falls in love with beautiful soprano Christine Daaé – had both stage impresarios hooked.
In the end Lloyd Webber did write the score, with Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe providing the lyrics, and that produced some classic songs such as Music of the Night and All I Ask of You.
But another name involved in Phantom turned out to be an unlikely one: former Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em star Michael Crawford. Although he was primarily known for the BBC sitcom, he’d also starred in musicals such as Barnum.
The artist formerly known as Frank Spencer, turned out to be a massive hit in the lead role. In the end Crawford became so synonymous with the masked musical genius it turned out to be something of a double-edged sword for both producer and writer.
“We held our breath when Michael left in 1991,” admits Mackintosh. “But the show was such a phenomenal production and he laid the stamp for how to play the role. Since then we’ve never really had a ‘star’ play the Phantom of the Opera.
“The task for John Owen-Jones, who plays the Phantom in this production, and the director Lawrence Connor was to make John rethink the part for this production.
“John’s version is less balletic, whereas Michael did that – he was always very physical, even in his comedy – and John isn’t. Nor did we want him to try to copy that either. We wanted a far more real man. A true portrayal of someone who’s been tortured.”
The new touring version, which arrives at Leeds Grand Theatre next month, sees Mackintosh try to break with past perceptions of the show while still maintaining the magic formula which made the musical such a blockbuster more than a quarter of a century ago.
“The pressure is on because when we first did Phantom we did it with an absolute dream team of people.” he says. “But with all my revivals I strive not to simply create a poor version of the original.
“What the show looked like was always as important as its subject matter, that was always something I was very conscious of from the beginning – otherwise it could just look like a bad movie.”
Initially Mackintosh viewed multiple movie adaptations of the story and after viewing all of them he was convinced they had to stage something spectacular. The resulting scenery took days to set up and if it moved venue the company would have to send much of it ahead just to get it constructed in time for the next run. Advances in technology mean that the new set is quicker to build, easier to move and, Mackintosh admits, 25 per cent cheaper than the old version.
Created by designer Paul Brown, the new incarnation is no less breathtaking. In fact, it is a feat of engineering which puts a fresh slant on the narrative’s settings.
“Although many of the costumes remain the same, the way the set works now, in most cases, is completely different to the original version,” he says.
“The journey to the Phantom’s lair, and the lair itself, is particularly different.
“Another difference is that the Phantom was actually a great inventor and he invented the maze of mirrors, which we’ve used for the masquerade scene like the ballroom, and the Phantom also creates his lair, not out of gorgeous things, but out of old objects and props.
“If I had to give you two words: the original production was beautiful but this one is more visceral. The new version has much more contrast between the rather gritty world backstage and what’s happening on stage.
“We wanted to give it a bit of depth. This Phantom doesn’t live in a beautiful music box – his organ is actually made out of old heating pipes. He’s hidden himself away which makes it more true to the novel, perhaps more so than the very operatic and glamorous version that we produced previously.”
Although Leroux’s book was the somewhat shaky inspiration for the show, the musical has taken on a whole life of its own since it premiered at Her Majesty’s Theatre in London before going on to launch a record-breaking run on Broadway in 1988. So, Mackintosh was well aware of the weight of expectation before this tour began. Not surprisingly he’s been keeping an eye on the reaction of fans, new and old.
“We haven’t had one bad word from the public so far,” he insists. “Although, they are very protective of the show, they adore the new version and just seem pleased that it’s been remade in a fresh way.
“And, as Andrew Lloyd Webber found out with Love Never Dies,(his sequel to Phantom) the show has the most virulent fans in the world.”
August 9 to September 15, Leeds Grand Theatre, New Briggate. Tickets: 0844 8482700, www.leedsgrandtheatre.com