Truly, the sun never sets on “The Phantom of the Opera,” the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that has been filling theaters for more than three decades.
With seven productions currently happening across the globe, not a day goes by where “Phantom” isn’t performed somewhere. That includes semi-permanent runs in London, New York and Sapporo, Japan – three cities where it has played for 28-plus years and counting.
Starting Feb. 28, you can add Durham to that list when a 12-day “Phantom” run begins at Durham Performing Arts Center. A previous version of the touring musical also played there in 2014.
Overseeing it all is Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the 71-year-old producer behind “Phantom” as well a host of other Broadway landmarks. “Les Misérables,” which just played DPAC last month, is one of his shows. So are “Cats” and “Miss Saigon,” both also coming to DPAC as part of the 2018-19 season that begins this fall with “Hamilton.”
That is as impressive a resume as any producer has ever had in the history of musical theater. In advance of DPAC’s “Phantom” opening, we caught up with Mackintosh, calling from his home in London.
Q: So what is it that a producer actually does? What’s the job description?
A: Oh, there are all sorts of producers. Some just produce checks, others work with other producers and let the director get on with it, some just do revivals. What works with me is to find a piece. All the best stuff I’ve done has been invented by authors and brought to me in various states. If it’s something I love and want to get involved with, I work with it until it’s ready and find a production team to put it together. The material is always first, driven by story and character and good music that makes me want to do it.
Q: How did “Phantom” first come about?
A: One day in 1984, Andrew (Lloyd Webber) rang me up to ask what I thought about doing “Phantom.” There was another version going on in the U.K. and we decided to do our own version using existing material in the novel, which was full of references to Faust. It was not until we went into the first production that we decided we wanted to do it as a Gothic romance rather than a campy sendup, and then Andrew found his way into wanting to write the whole score rather than just one or two new tunes. I am deeply grateful he did. It turned out to be one of the best ideas ever and he came up with a fabulous score.
Q: How has it evolved in subsequent touring versions, like the one coming to DPAC?
A: Everybody said the original Broadway show was too expensive to tour. It just takes too much stuff. But we found a way. And after 25 years, I wanted another version that was not just a cut-down version. The approach we took with Laurence Connor, the new version’s director, was to make it grittier.
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The original is still one of the most beautiful shows I’ve ever seen, let alone produced, and its central conceit was bringing stuff into a black box. Rather than bastardize that, we created something new but equally spectacular to serve the story. The idear was to go backstage as opposed to in a black box, above and below to make the opera house more the lair of the Phantom. Paul ran with that idea and made it great.
Q: Will you be in Durham for any of this run?
A: I won’t. February and March, I’ve got “Mary Poppins” opening on three different continents plus “Les Mis” in Mexico. So that’s where I’ll be this spring.
Q: Are you ever able to just, you know, watch and enjoy them?
A: Only partly. On a day-to-day basis, I have the most creative responsibility once it’s written and the production created. I need to make it as fresh as possible, which is why I love going back to great classic material and reinventing it with a new generation of creators. That’s a great joy. And what makes me enjoy it as a punter, as it were, is when it’s right.
If it’s all performed brilliantly, I get lost into it. If something is not right, I’ll pull out and start thinking how to fix it. Under very exceptional circumstances, rarely, I’ll just go watch. But I can’t do too much of that or I’ll go mad. I’ll be seeing “Mary Poppins” in Italian, German and Japanese in the space of three weeks, which could be the Everest of attention spans.
Q: What was it like being knighted in 1998?
A: I was excited for my mother and a few friends. It’s occasionally useful for getting a table in a restaurant when they don’t know who you are. But when I was discussing it with people, they told me it would be great for musical theater. So that’s how I could square my conscience and make my parents very happy.
I’m honored to have my career recognized and glad to have played a part in making musical theater important. Do I want to be a Lord? No, then you have to be in the House of Lords. That’s absolutely great if your career’s over. Luckily, mine isn’t. I’m as busy as I’ve ever been. We have 30 to 40 productions being prepared over the next three or four years. I’ve also got eight London theaters to run, and also “Hamilton” to open over here. That’s been rather successful.
(And with that, he laughed deeply.)
What: “The Phantom of the Opera”
When: Feb. 28 to March 11
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham
Info: 919-688-3722 or dpacnc.com