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Cameron Mackintosh on Sondheim's unfinished musical: 'It was 50 or 60 per cent there'

Read the second part of our exclusive interview

Cameron Mackintosh and Stephen Sondheim
© Dan Wooller

Last week we gave you the first part of our exclusive interview with theatre producer Cameron Mackintosh and, after a week-long interval, we thought we'd return with the second act!

Sat in Mackintosh's Shaftesbury Avenue office, topics were many – including the state of the West End, Broadway and Stephen Sondheim's musicals.

One of the biggest news stories of 2022 was Mackintosh's decision to close The Phantom of the Opera on Broadway – shocking many and dismaying even more. The move sparked huge box office returns as punters rushed to get their Phantom fix before it closed (the show has since nudged back its end date in anticipation).

Mackintosh explains: "The truth was, we would never have got up if it hadn't been for that vast amount of money from the state that went to all the big shows after lockdown, as well as healthy insurance pay-outs which very few shows got on this side. Despite all of that, every week saw us losing money until we announced we were closing. It was the right thing to do."

Often Phantom was battling against audience assumptions: "The problem with all these long-running shows is that people think they'll run forever. And the costs involved – even over here though not to the same extent as New York – have risen and risen and risen, to the point that you can be bringing in a million dollars a week and not make any money. That was what was happening. Few shows can even take over a million a week at the moment. I was absolutely determined that it would go out with the same extraordinary blaze it's had."

Cameron Mackintosh and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (Music) during the curtain call for The Phantom of the Opera during the show's 30th anniversary
© Dan Wooller, 2016

As it turns out, the move has also sparked a surge in demand on this side of the Atlantic, countering the ongoing turbulence of the tourism industry: "There's been a huge shift. Pre-Covid, two thirds of our audience were foreign visitors, and one third were domestic to the UK. Now, and it's partly to do with the show closing in America, our advance has swapped around. Audiences have also been younger – especially British audiences who assumed Phantom will play forever – who now have the show firmly on their radar. Our box office has definitely gone up by 15 and 20 per cent in London."

It sounds as though Mackintosh, who owns eight West End venues through company Delfont Mackintosh (any theatre fan should quickly pick up a copy of Master of the House, a newly-released, picture-heavy tome brimming with trivia about these eight theatres), has a degree of certainty heading into 2023: programming almost entirely through to next year with an assortment of musicals, plays and more.

Given the imminent broadcast of the Sondheim fundraiser concert on the BBC on New Year's Eve, we naturally dedicated a large portion of our initial interview with Mackintosh to discussing the legendary composer and lyricist, who passed away in late 2021. But there was, as you might expect from the man, more to be said.

Last month there was a small social media controversy (picked up by the Hollywood Reporter, Playbill amongst others) when fake Twitter accounts spuriously suggested that a new Sondheim musical, titled Square One, would have make its premiere on Broadway in 2023. Rumours of an unfinished Sondheim show have been circulating in the months since the award-winning writer's death.

Angela Lansbury, Stephen Sondheim and Cameron Mackintosh – Lansbury and Sondheim both passed away within 12 months of one another
© Dan Wooller

Mackintosh was quick to clear up any misinformation: "The unfinished musical was the Bourgeoisie one [presumably based in part on Luis Buñuel's film, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, as had previously been reported]. My last conversation with Steve was the Sunday before he died. He asked me to go through the entire score with him on the phone."

Will it ever be seen on stage, we ask: "I don't know. It was 50 or 60 per cent there. Musically. What was interesting was that Steve had never gone through a full score with me before like that – I think he wanted me to reinforce his view as to whether or not he was going to complete it. Because of the amount of energy it would have taken.

"I mean," Mackintosh laughs, "he was always looking for excuses not to write! When we went through it I found so many vigorous tunes, but none that he had fully completed. Some moments would go off at tangents – I'd ask him: 'why don't you let the music do its thing!'.

"There was a whole section in the musical that he told me he wanted to be 'wall-to-wall music' – like the Follies sequence. But sadly he never got to write that. There was a lot of music within what he'd already written that I'm sure he would have used for that specific section, but he died before he was able to do all of that."

In the end, Mackintosh was philosophical about the entire experience. "In a way, I was blessed that my last conversation with him, a dear friend, was when his mind was working full tilt. And talking about some amazing stuff he'd written."

So, whether this unfinished musical heads for the stage is to be confirmed. In the meantime, there is more than enough Sondheim (and musical theatre in general), to be consumed in 2023 – with plenty more to be revealed.