NEW YORK—He dreamed a dream, but it took a quarter century to come true.
Sir Cameron Mackintosh is sitting in an elegant hotel high above Manhattan’s Central Park, looking for all the world like a contented cat who has swallowed a very tasty canary.
And he has good reason to feel that way today. The initial public screenings of the film version of Les Misérables have proven to be emotional events, accompanied by wild applause and standing ovations, not the more usual crunching of popcorn and scratching of notes.
“How long have I wanted to see this day happen? Literally for 25 years. The show had opened in London, then on Broadway and in Tokyo. Everybody thought the next step was a film version and I agreed.
“The problem was that nobody back then wanted a through-sung musical. They all kept saying, ‘It could be a brilliant movie, just not like it is on the stage.’ ”
Mackintosh suddenly lowers his eyebrows in a disapproving way which is pure Louis XVI. “In the end, I said that the show has proven a success, thank God, so I will only go with it if I find the right director.”
For a while, Mackintosh thought he had found him in Alan Parker, the filmmaker who at that point had such varied successes and Fame and Midnight Express under his belt.
“We took meetings, I loved his ideas, we put plans in motion, but then the reason he didn’t do it was my fault. You see, it was such a huge success on the stage I didn't want the film to come out for five years. That's how foolish I was. I only thought it would run that long.”
One can forgive Mackintosh his decision. At the time, he had started the mega-musical juggernaut rolling in 1981 with Cats, but still ahead were his incredible global triumphs as producer of The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon. Five years seemed long enough to wait.
Who could have guessed that Les Misérables would still be running 25 years later in a North American tour (“that’s grossing 110 per cent each week”) as the film prepares to open officially on Christmas. But that was too long a wait for Parker and he called up Mackintosh one day and said, “Cam, I’m sorry, but I’m not there any more to do it.”
The most successful producer in the history of musical theatre sighs a little sigh but then turns his smile onto full again.
“I am very glad we couldn’t make the movie until now, because three very important things have happened. “First, we have this amazing cast, most of whom weren’t even born when the show first opened. From Hugh Jackman (the Jean Valjean) on down, we have a whole generation who have learned to act comfortably through music, a generation who earned their spurs in the musical theatre.
“Second, Phantom, Cats, Les Miz and Saigon have turned the audiences around the world onto this style of show. They're ready for it now as a movie. They wouldn’t have been back in 1987.
“And third, there wasn’t the technology available then to record the music live the way Tom has done it.”
Tom is Tom Hooper, the Oscar winning director of The King’s Speech, who was, as Mackintosh admits, “a very young schoolboy when Les Miz first opened, but he loved it and wanted to bring it to the screen.
“I guess the most important thing, besides his intelligence and sensitivity, is that he agreed with me that he wanted to record it all live.”
That pretty much amounts to heresy in the world of film musicals, where actors have had their voices dubbed in roles as famous as My Fair Lady’s Eliza Doolittle. (That was Marni Nixon, not Audrey Hepburn. Sorry.)
Or even when the actors sang they own material, they had pre-recorded it weeks or months before in a studio and had to lip-synch their on-camera performance to fit a performance they might no longer have wanted to give.
“It was Alan Parker again,” smiles Mackintosh. “When he made The Commitments, I was impressed by the raw sound of a lot of it and he told me it was done live.
“And when Jonathan Pryce played Peron for Parker in Evita, I told him that all his scenes snapped out beautifully and he told me it was because he had done a lot of them live.”
But ironically, being faithful to the stage tradition would mean changing a lot of the show’s structure so it could fly on screen.
“Alain (Boublil) and Claude-Michel (Schönberg, the show’s authors) and I never wanted the film to just record the show, we wanted to reinvent it. It had to be taken apart, but it could only be put back by the people who had created it.
“We were far more radical with the show’s reconstruction than Tom. He would keep saying, ‘Are you sure you don't mind if I do that?’ And we would say, ‘We don't mind anything, as long as it works!’”
The surprising thing about the finished product is that it doesn’t seem very different, unless you’re the kind of fanatic who’s seen Les Miz 20 or 30 times over the years, but it moves in many different ways.
“When you’re watching the film, you're not aware of how much it’s been altered. It’s much grittier than the original stage version, much more faithful, actually, to Victor Hugo’s original vision.”
The key to Mackintosh’s success is how much he remains a fan, the bubbling enthusiasm he has for the invention of the director and cast.
“Anne Hathaway’s ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ is utterly amazing and it could have only happened like that on the screen. Russell Crowe (who plays Javert) wanted the inevitability that he would kill himself to be the key to his part. You can act all that behind the eyes on film. Try it on stage and it would look like Howard Keel was back again,” laughs Mackintosh, evoking one of the most macho and blustery of all musical leading men. But Mackintosh grows serious as he weighs what makes this property so enduring.
“The power of the show comes from within, from the music, but that all stems from the genius of Hugo. The remarkable secret of the show’s success is that it remains contemporary. Those characters, which are now 150 years old, still appear in every society, in every country.
“At this point in our history, when the divide between the haves and the have-nots is as huge as it ever was, Hugo’s message remains true. The survival of the human spirit drives people to endure anything and triumph in the end.”
FIVE FAVES WHO HELPED LES MIZ ON ITS JOURNEY TO THE SCREEN
ALAIN BOUBLIL AND CLAUDE-MICHEL SCHÖNBERG
“From the minute I heard the original French concept album in 1983, I sensed the power of this music.”
ALAN JAY LERNER
“He was the only friend I had who spoke French, and he told me I had to do this show.”
“He, of course, starred as Jean Valjean in the original and asked if he could play the Bishop in the film. ‘It would be great to say goodbye to it that way,’ is how he put it.”
“He first gave the idea of daring to record a musical live, right on the set.”
“His taste and tenacity are as great as his intelligence and passion. It makes for a wonderful combination in a director.”
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