Maestro with Midas touch faces toughest challenge yet

His name is synonymous with the West End musical, but last night Cameron Mackintosh faced his biggest test
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The Independent Online
Theatre watchers on both sides of the Atlantic were waiting last night to see whether the West End's producer with the Midas touch has lost his grip on the public pulse or pulled off another miracle.

Sir Cameron Mackintosh's pounds 4m musical of Martin Guerre, the soldier who "returns" to his village after years away and re-encounters his wife, itself returned after a short break, with a pounds 500,000 facelift.

Critics arrived at the Prince Edward Theatre to re-review the show they attacked last July as being at times incomprehensible and lacking a memorable score.

They would not normally re- review a show that has been revised during its run. But a Cameron Mackintosh show is not normal in any sense of the word.

The 50-year-old impresario has been producing in the West End since the age of 20 but since 1981, and his hit Cats, a new Cameron Mackintosh production has been a theatrical event and its success or failure a barometer for the state of the musical, the West End, and, not wholly flippantly, Britain's balance of payments.

So far Martin Guerre has not cut the mustard. It has been averaging 60 per cent houses. For the producer of Les Miserables, Miss Saigon and The Phantom of the Opera that is a slap in the face. It is above break-even point (that is pounds 140,000 a week on a pounds 280,000 capacity take) but only just. And only just is not enough for investors in a West End show. Some weeks it has even dipped below break-even and with advance bookings beginning to slide its health was looking precarious.

Besides, the financial side of this story is only a a part of it. There is also Sir Cameron's own psyche to take into account. The man whose first job was sweeping the stage on the first production of Lionel Bart's Oliver! has come to represent West End theatre.

He even has a revival of Oliver! at the London Palladium and generously gives Bart a percentage of the takings. He owns two West End theatres, the Prince Edward and the Prince of Wales, and is keen to acquire more. He is self-effacing, popular and generous, but he is no longer used to failure.

Last night Sir Cameron himself arrived at the Prince Edward Theatre armed with statistics.

To anyone who asks him if his pounds 4m musical can be saved, even with the substantial rewrite and redirection that last night's relaunch showed, Sir Cameron can produce three pages of research about great musicals that needed time to settle.

Oklahoma, he will tell you, was considered a disaster and its premiere was dismissed with one classic quote "No Gals, No Gags, No Chance". West Side Story, Porgy and Bess and Carousel also suffered early reverses. Even his own Les Miserables was "considerably modified" after a shaky start.

If this sounds like the reaction of a worried man, or a man eager to justify his decision to relaunch a much-criticised show and save a pounds 3m investment, it could be because Britain's most successful theatrical producer, the multi-millionaire with the Midas touch, has been having a rocky time.

A year that started with a knighthood has recently turned sour with Martin Guerre. After initial reviews found the show incomprehensible and lacking a memorable score, it played to barely adequate houses. Advances plummeted after unfavourable and sometimes inaccurate press coverage from pounds 25,000 a day to pounds 10,000 a day.

He has now ploughed a further pounds 500,000 into revamping Martin Guerre, changing, he claims, up to 60 per cent of the show in the process.

A trip across the Atlantic last month offered little solace. Looking in on the Broadway production of Les Miserables Sir Cameron found it looking stale with 19-year-old students being played by actors well into their forties. He decided to sack a sizeable number of the cast and found himself in conflict, not for the first time, with American Equity.

Part of the problem is Sir Cameron's perfectionism - he likes to see his blockbuster shows kept fresh with regular cast renewals even when they are displaying house-full notices. And part of the problem is his self-belief. After years of massive success he agrees that it is "psychologically difficult to accept that a show may have failed". It is this same bullish self-belief that allows him to claim that while sacking cast members of Les Miserables he is their champion in the fight for better contracts on Broadway.

And so last night saw a second first night, a second wave of high-profile pre-show publicity, a second stylish after-show party and the same set of critics writing a second set of reviews.