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Mackintosh: Master builder

Producer plans West End makeover, new venue

Cameron Mackintosh, who has made a singular career out of producing shows, assumed a new mantle June 25 as the instigator of what should be the most singular physical makeover the West End has seen in years.

Mackintosh isn’t the actual architect of the £35 million ($58.24 million) rebuilding and refurbishment scheme that is poised to see a thoroughgoing facelift, inside and out, affecting at least one-fourth of existing West End stock by the end of 2007. The chosen architects are the Covent Garden partnership RHWL, whose so-called “arts team” has been involved in more than 150 auditoria in 80 projects worldwide.

But it’s inconceivable that anyone besides Mackintosh would conceive a plan on a scale that will tend to the frayed facades and antiquated interiors of the seven playhouses in his portfolio — while opening an eighth theater, the first on Shaftesbury Avenue since 1931, that will be named for Stephen Sondheim.

“What we can’t do is change the economics of the theater,” said Mackintosh, speaking at a lunchtime pour attended by the lion’s share of U.K. legit heavyweights (though not by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who remains the only other theater owner-impresario in Mackintosh’s financial league).

But Mackintosh said what he can do is “reinvent (these theaters) for the 21st century in order to give them another lease of life,” so that theatergoers to come can enjoy shows the way Mackintosh, as a stage-struck 8-year-old, sat enthralled by the Julian Slade musical “Salad Days.”

Unusually, the various overhauls — some detailed and expansive, others primarily cosmetic — are being funded without outside investors, drawing on Mackintosh’s own accumulated fortune as the multimillionaire who has backed four of the most successful musicals ever: “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Miss Saigon.”

And though his total outlay may seem relatively slight given estimates of late that the entire West End has needed refitting to the tune of $400 million or more, these refurbishments are being approached carefully and with caution, much as one would produce a show.

“This is money properly spent (and) properly controlled,” Nick Allott, Mackintosh’s managing director, told Variety. “Hopefully, with a commercial eye on things, you can bring this all in for a lot less than you think you can.”

Certainly Mackintosh has no one single task ahead of him to match the recent rebuilding of, say, the Royal Court, an excavation-intensive project that cost more than $40 million (much of it from the National Lottery, a resource available to a state-funded venue like the Court but not to Mackintosh). And it cost impresario Paul Gregg in the region of $30 million some years back to overhaul the Lyceum Theater, which reopened with a revival from the Mackintosh stable, Hugh Jackman in the National’s “Oklahoma!”

But Mackintosh’s commitment throws down the gauntlet to Lloyd Webber and others that he is more than prepared to put his money where his mouth is, at a time when the West End is openly worrying about its future as a desirable destination.

Rival producers were quick to offer paeans.

“We’re all working on a scheme to try to bring the theater into the 21st century,” said Stephen Waley-Cohen, prexy of the Society of London Theater and producer of, among other shows, “The Mousetrap.” “Unfortunately, we don’t all have Cameron’s resources, so I admire very much what he’s doing.”

Sacha Brooks, co-producer of “The Graduate,” which ran on Shaftesbury Avenue one week shy of two years, called the announcement “a turning point. If the West End as a business and as an area can be saved, then the fight back starts today.”

The indices are such that Sondheim should find a smarter, spiffier theatrical thoroughfare when the flexible 500-seat studio space carrying his name opens atop the Queen’s Theater at the end of 2007.

The Sondheim Theater, described by Mackintosh as “a black box, but a glamorous one,” is intended as a receiving house to help fill the gap in exactly the sort of Off Broadway-size commercial venues London has long lacked. Finally, too, the likes of the Almeida, the Donmar and the National Theater’s Cottesloe will have a natural commercial point of entry for the West End without having to recapitalize shows for inappropriately large houses, and from scratch.

Among those eagerly grabbing the podium at the launch was local politico Simon Milton, leader of Westminster City Council, the London borough that contains within its borders most of the West End.

Citing the kinder, gentler Times Square as “our inspiration, really,” Milton rattled off statistics: Crime in Leicester Square, the throbbing heart of the area, down by as much as 50%; a 24/7 team of wardens who lack police powers as such but can act as “figures of authority”; and the implementation from September of a new cleaning contract for the borough worth $53 million, up from the $32 million currently being spent to combat litter, public urination and the bottles and cans nightly testifying to a populace that famously likes its drink.

“The name of the game is welcoming, clean and safe,” said Milton of an environment that David Haig, star of the newly opened Shaftesbury Avenue play “Hitchcock Blonde,” later decried on TV that same day as “also very sleazy.”

Nonetheless, listening to Mackintosh talk of changing the Queen’s Theater from a 990-seater over three levels to a 1,213-seater over two, or of the Strand Theater’s little-known past as London’s first Shubert-owned playhouse (albeit briefly), one could hear the ready enthusiasm with which this producer has trumpeted shows like “The Witches of Eastwick” in the past and will tubthump “Mary Poppins,” his Disney co-venture still to come. (Music from “Witches” was heard over the PA system as guests filed in.)

“All these theaters have a personal resonance for me,” said Mackintosh, who didn’t need to spell out the underlying meaning of the launch. All shows, even “Les Miz” and “Cats,” ultimately come and go, while the buildings to showcase them allow a permanent bequest.

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