'Cameron Mackintosh is the most successful theatre producer of all time, having staged more musicals in more cities than anyone else in the entire history of the theatre.' (Vermette, 2007: 172). The conquest of Broadway by the 'British musical' started with the big hit 'Cats'. It was premiered in London in 1981 and moved on to Broadway the following year (Sternfeld, 2006: 1) With the success of Cats, Cameron Mackintosh, its producer, became the centre of the successful spread musical theatre to all over the world. Along with the surge of globalisation which was taking place in the 1980s, musicals produced by Mackintosh became known as megamusicals or 'McTheatre; after Ritzer's concept of 'McDonaldisation' (The McDonaldisation of Society. First pub. 1993. Sage Publications, Inc.)
This essay will discuss the contribution by Cameron Mackintosh to the spread of musical theatre. 'He pioneered the globalization of the musical and paved the way for others to follow' (Vermette, 2007: 172), his most important contribution to the musical theatre is to create the fundamental formula called 'McTheatre'. I will first summarise the idea of McTheatre and explain how it can connect and compare with the concept of McDonaldisation (Ritzer, 2008); a method of describing a society which is dominated by globalisation. Following this, I will examine the detailed features of McTheatre and how, in particular, Mackintosh's McTheatre has influenced global practice.
Cats, Les Mis''rables, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon. These globally renowned musicals produced by Mackintosh are often considered as models of the 'megamusical'. We can use Ritzer's concept of McDonaldisation (1993) to explain and compare the features of the megamusical. Ritzer describes the concept of McDonaldisation as the mechanism by which the leading convenience food restaurant becomes more and more dominant in society. This phenomenon has spread to more and more sectors in all parts of the world and blends everything according to an American taste (Cited by Steger, 2003: 71). The idea of McDonaldisation encompasses not only the taste of increasingly bland and generic food. It refers to the standardisation of the entire supply chain, the copying and pasting of the organisational structure and even how the food is arranged and served. As such an argument can be made that this way of operating homogenises and dehumanises our world increasingly (ibid). Burston argues that this concept can be transferred to the musical theatre industry and famously coined the term 'McTheatre', which is previously called as megamusical as well (1998: 206).
In this way, the musicals categorised as McTheatre or 'megamusicals' can be seen as not just a pure art but as a product that can be marketed all over the world. Looking at the performance data, according to the program of Les Mis''rables at Queen's Theatre (London, published on January 2018), Les Mis''rables has been performed in 416 cities, 50 countries and 22 languages. Moreover, there have been 47 different cast albums and singles released around the world, and the total number of audience (including the audience for the film adaptation which was released in 2012) is more than 130 million. Obviously, these numbers have been growing in every day among all over the world.
As the numbers above show, McTheatre has succeeded in many countries. According to Sternfeld, the record breaking hit of the musical Cats (1981, New London Theatre, London) was the initial 'invasion' of Broadway, where traditionally is the heart of the musical theatre, by the British, where is comparatively new and was understood to be the second-best city for the musical (2006: 1). The massive wave of McTheatre from London did not stop for a while, and it has been followed by Les Mis''rables in 1985, (the worldly famous London version was premiered at Barbican Theatre), The Phantom of the Opera in 1986 and finally Miss Saigon in 1989. These shows immediately moved to Broadway from the West End after their success. This is the reason why Sternfeld indicates these phenomena as the 'invasion' of British. After the 1990's, the huge hit of McTheatre was created under the American Broadway style as well, which is represented by Beauty and the Beast in1994, The Lion King in1997 and Wicked in 2003. During these times, the musical categorised as McTheatres almost seem to monopolise Broadway and the West End, the two most significant theatre districts globally. Interestingly, the quick and increased trend of globalization in general happened since the 1980s', and alongside this, over the same time span, one must include the development of McTheatre.
The principal actors that made McTheatre possible were the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and the musical producer Cameron Mackintosh, who worked together for several musicals. Wollman (2017: 170) states that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Cameron Mackintosh were two of the first who find out how to transfer the show into specific locations. Moreover, their way of creation is aiming for making musical theatre as a global successful business with the system of continually making money (ibid).
Looking deeply into Cameron Mackintosh's McTheatre as a global theatre business, it can be analysed from two perspectives; one is the overall marketing and promotion of the production, the other is with regard to the contents of the show itself. How Mackintosh's new style of 'McTheatre' was innovative, and how did this theatrical form affect to the other musicals? First of all, the unconventional idea can be seen in the graphic products relate to the musicals. Considering the power of design in creating a powerful brand, as Rebellato (200: 45) observes McTheatre uses iconic illustrations. For instance, the poster of The Phantom of the Opera always contains the mask made of glass and red rose, or Miss Saigon illustrates the sunset with the icon of helicopter drawn by a brush. Moreover, avoiding the use of photographs of specific cast members inside the advertisement materials make it accessible for every audiences since the unspecific drawings establish familiarity with a show. These tactics is also used in the recent McTheatre, for example, in Wicked, they use the illustration of two witches with green and white. They are not using the real photograph of the real cast. Mackintosh explains:
It has always been important to have good eye catching posters as we've had for Cats, Les Mis, Phantom, and Saigon. A good poster is an immediately identifiable visual statement. It says everything and nothing, allowing the imagination to take flight and catching the spirit of the show with something very simple (cited by Vermette, 2007: 180).
This memory stays irrespective of where the production is performed. The iconography on the main page of the programme in Tokyo is exactly the same as the ones in the West End and Broadway. This is a common strategy across all successful companies. For instance, wherever customers buy a McDonald's hamburger, no matter where they are in the world, the yellow 'M' is the same. In addition, this means that the branding can be extended to merchandise. Cameron Mackintosh, who is always keen to the new ideas exactly adopt this McDonald's (and other famous brands') method and he prefers to use this as a strategy for his musicals. Other than programmes or CDs, which have strong connections with the contents of the show itself, each production often sells T-shirts, bags, magnets, key rings and mugs. Though Mackintosh was not the first person to start selling these show-related products, he used this marketing strategy more actively than anyone ever had before (Sternfeld, 2006: 78). The audience might wear the T-shirts carry the bag elsewhere, particularly on public transportation. Rebellato (2009: 47) called this strategy 'walking advertisements': the audience buy these special souvenirs and carries that merchandise beyond the theatre environment. Not only do they share how great their experience in the theatre was by displaying memorabilia from the theatre and talking about the show, but they even pay for the merchandise. Nowadays, the souvenir shop inside the theatre is very common in every big theatre.
This does not mean that Mackintosh neglects other advertising possibilities through various media. Rather, he covers as many channels as he can (Sternfeld, 2006: 78). One of his unique ways is to release a single as a pop song before the production is staged. This was Andrew Lloyd Webber's strategy when he first created the musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1971). Mackintosh followed this same formula and succeeded to create the sense that Cats was going to be a 'hit' musical before its opening day. Mackintosh pre-released the songs to create a brand and a sense of familiarity for the audience. Consequently, more people, who might buy some tickets for the show, were aware of the musical and music and the project was commercially successful.
Following on from the development of these strong brand imagers, Mackintosh's McTheatre strategy is to be a cultural phenomenon all over the world, in the same way as McDonald's spread everywhere around the world. Sternfeld (2006: 222) uses the opinion of Joe Brown and points out that Les Mis''rables is marketed not only as a 'great' show, but also as an 'event' that people have to experience. He comments that Les Mis''rables was not merely a musical, but a touching, powerful and precious experience that could change someone's life. He continues that promising these kinds of atmosphere to the audience means that it confirms certain amount of tickets sales. Audiences who come to see Les Mis''rables certainly talk each other about their theatrical experience that touched their heart. (Joe Brown, cited by Sternfeld, 2006: 222) McTheatre production often becomes a 'must see' phenomenon no matter where it is performed. Through these unforgettable moments, the audience increasingly appreciates their experience of Les Mis''rables, and this must be one of the aim for the producer. This is another important strategy of Mackintosh, especially when he thinks about the success of the show in the global market. Looking at the official London trailer which was published on March 2016 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5vz6-ElKAs), the show is described as, 'Seen by more than 70 million people in 44 countries and in 22 languages around the globe, it is still breaking box-office records everywhere. The original London production celebrates its 30th anniversary on 8 October.' Moreover, it highlights that Les Mis''rables was a winner of the audience vote in the Olivier Awards for 2012 and 2014. This attracts not only the local London audience but also tourists, because they are often keen to see a 'must see' show in the West End, the heart of Musicals.
Considering the history of the musical theatre, the reviews have always been important for the successful of a show. However, Seabright (2011: 213) explains that Les Mis''rables was an exception to this.
[T]he RSC/Cameron Mackintosh production of Les Mis''rables, which opened at the Barbican Centre in 1985 to reviews which were somewhere between negative and lukewarm. Despite that, the show was a huge success, transferring first to the West End and later to Broadway, with a London production continuing to run over twenty years later. The initial success of the show, despite the lack of critical support, is often attributed to extraordinarily positive word of mouth recommendation, no doubt helped along by the fact that the show being an RSC co-production would guarantee it a large and culturally well-connected core audience, regardless of what the reviews said. Of course, credit is also due to Mackintosh's determination that the show would transfer to the West End, and his confidence that it would fare well upon arriving there. (Seabright, 2011: 213)
In the same interview Mackintosh states:
I don't think the public goes to the theatre solely because of great reviews, although they can certainly give you a rush on the box office to start with. The most important thing for any show is word of mouth, that's what propels a long run (cited by Vermette, 2007: 180).
Obviously, in creating the phenomenon of a 'must see' show, and encouraging to use the power of word of mouth marketing is strongly supported by other branding strategies, such as the use of iconic illustrations, developing a variety of merchandising, and utilising audiences and customers to advertise, as explained above. In recent years, especially after the rapid permeation of the Internet in 2000, 'word of mouth' marketing, for Mackintosh became increasingly crucial. Seabright (2011: 215) called this a 'democracy of opinion', and also points out that the individual opinion and production tactics of Mackintosh are easily adjusted to this era of social networking. In this one could say that he has created a pioneering model for globally successful musicals.
Cameron Mackintosh's way of promoting the show is very unique as explained above. In addition to these producing strategies, it is also clear why Mackintosh's musicals are called McTheatre and how they have influenced the musical theatre industry when deeply examining the contents of the show itself. When Mackintosh sells the rights to put on his musical in another country, he retains the rights of the script, the rights of music and the rights of settings separately. In this way, any new production has to buy the whole original show together, not just the book and the music, but all settings, costumes, choreography, direction, lightings and marketing system including advertisement. Mackintosh maintains that audiences in every single venue in the world should have the same identical experience that the audience at the original location did (Rebellato, 2009: 41). According to Rebellato (ibid), the relationship between the original productions and the those in different locations can also be explained by referring to the McDonald's principle. A second production is not a new production, rather it is a franchise, just like McDonald's. Mac and Dick McDonald, the founder of McDonald's, planned to start a franchise store because they 'wanted to guarantee customers a standard of hygiene, taste, and nutrition wherever their burgers were to be found (ibid)'. Both the words of Cameron Mackintosh and McDonald brothers are identical.
The main components of one of his musicals - such as music, storyline and settings - are often described as being 'big' from several perspectives. According to Sternfeld (2006: 2), plots of McTheatres usually use a theme of 'epic, sweeping tales of romance, war, religion, redemption, life and death, or some combination of these and other lofty sentiments'. Sternfeld (ibid) also points out that they rarely bring the story from contemporary context, rather McTheatre often set in the past. However important thing is that all McTheatre storyline contains a universal theme or thought which is very crucial for all the potential audiences from the different countries and backgrounds can feel some sympathies (ibid). From the musicals which Mackintosh produced, Les Mis''rables, based on the epic by Victor Hugo, includes 'epic' messages as unconditional love for all men, even the love-hate relationship between arch-rivals and the human desire for freedom. Even though Miss Saigon is a story of the 1970s, which might be argued that the time is relatively contemporary, its theme is the unforgettable love under the cruel war age. Some might argue that Cats is an exception, since the story is based on T.S. Eliot's poetry collection Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats and does not have any strong plotline. However, Siropoulos (2010: 142) states:
Cats was a highly exportable product, mainly because of its post-dramatic structure: it does not have a unique cultural identity or a culturally - specific narrative ' or any traditional narrative at all; it is a sampling of many different visual elements and musical styles, constituting not so much a musical play as a unique experience.
Considering this, in terms of Cats, its ambiguity and non-specific cultural associations were the key for its global spread and success. All of Mackintosh's McTheatre productions contain universal themes which have no specific cultural connotations for audiences.
The unique features can always be seen in the style of music. Different from the traditional types of musicals, McTheatre often contains quite little spoken dialogue and instead utilizes fully sung-through score to tell its story. The character dialogue is usually captured in powerful, easy to remember and sing and enables the musical to cross any potential language barriers and become relatable for audiences abroad. Not only this catchy and hummable melody has the benefit for the international audience, but also this could enhance the 'walking advertisement' which was explained before. The use of leitmotif also helps with the spread of word of mouth' promotion because audiences memorise melodies and sing them elsewhere. In addition to this, theme songs such as 'Do You Hear the People Sing' or 'One Day More' are often used at a wide variety of public events because they are both catchy and include a universal message. This secondary use of a musical's songs brings additional advantages for the McTheatre.
From a staging perspective, McTheatre creates spectacular impressions on all levels, not just plot and music. This can include dazzling costumes, sophisticated light and shadow play with the help of high tech equipment or huge sets. Great examples of such techniques include the barricades for the revolution in Les Mis''rables and the falling chandelier in The Phantom of the Opera and highlight the impact and high quality of the show. The grandness of the setting is crucial when the McTheatre moves to the next performance location. The huge setting of full-size helicopter on the stage of Miss Saigon might be a good example of the effect of Mackintosh's musical. When Hakataza Theatre was constructed in 1999 in Japan, they planned to a huge stage space from its original conception, in order to accommodate the full-scale helicopter for Miss Saigon and future similar productions. The owner of Hakataza Theatre may well have anticipated the importance of including the world wide successful McTheatre productions in their programming, which is the reason why they considered Miss Saigon as a possibility for their theatre. The fact that the theatre was constructed in consideration of the scale of the stage settings shows the influence of Cameron Mackintosh and his McTheatre on world musical theatre, because it even influenced the design of theatres in Japan. Not only did it influence the design, but it indicates how influential Mackintosh was in maintaining the magnificence of the stage production irrespective of the theatre location.
These spectacular presentations are easy to grasp for non-English speaking audiences. With the help of technology and great financial capabilities the production companies transform the theatre into an immersive environment that can compete with the biggest Blockbuster movies from Hollywood. Grandiose sound design, extraordinary costumes and big, mechanical apparatuses transcend language and cultural barriers and open up new business opportunities.
Nonetheless, McTheatre does not come without its critics. One might feel that he/she is just an easily replaceable piece that consists the show. As outlined previously, Mackintosh retains the rights of the production in most aspects and keeps tight control over which aspects are fitted to the local environment to ensure the production is as 'true' to the original as possible. As the example of Hakataza Theatre above shows, the theatre was built to fit the show, not the other way around. No option might be given to do the reverse, because McTheatre has to be exactly replicated elsewhere as Mackintosh himself highlighted. In addition to this, Rebellato (2009: 45) argues that in terms of casting, in McTheatre the star performers are less important and the producer tends to focus on securing the image of the show's brand instead, and eventually the casts are therefore replaceable. Elements such as these support the claims that McTheatre has become a franchise, consequently dehumanising this art form.
In addition to these criticisms highlighting the danger of dehumanisation, there are also accusations made of cultural imperialism:
While the globalization of the entertainment industry can give people around the world greater access to musical and other entertainment forms, there is a danger that the dominant cultural economies either unwittingly or deliberately become guilty of cultural imperialism, rendering differences between one society and another invisible, and collapsing all cultures into that of the politically dominant or economically most powerful. (Seabright, 2011: 213)
However, even though McTheatre receives criticism, still it could be said that this theatrical form brings important advantages. The fact that Mackintosh's McTheatre was the first musical genre to perform globally (Rebellato, 2009: 40) led to the birth of the next generation of McTheatre, for instance Beauty and the Beast (1994, Palace Theatre, New York) and The Lion King (1997, New Amsterdam Theatre, New York) and Mamma Mia! (1999, Prince Edward Theatre, London). All rely on the same strategy for global success as demonstrated by Cameron Mackintosh in the McTheatre principle. The first two are based on the established world-wide fame of Disney's animation, and Mamma Mia! focuses on the universal theme of mother-daughter relationships.
Looking at the next generation of McTheatre shows the same approach to promotion with their wide range of merchandise and focus on creating a 'must see' experience. In this way Mackintosh's McTheatre influenced not only the creative side but also audience development. The easily exportable nature of McTheatre impresses audiences who live as far apart as London or New York, undoubtedly the mecca of musical theatre. As Sternfeld (2006: 4) highlights:
[U]nlike musicals of earlier decades, which could be staged in any way a local director chose, the megamusical [McTheatre] has been reproduced in foreign cities with meticulous care to ensure that it resembles its Broadway [the West End] incarnation as closely as possible.
Looking through Mackintosh's wide-ranging strategies, it might be said that McTheatre leads to a familiarity between the theatre and the audience. From the audience's perspective alone, they are encouraged to become involved through all of the promotional strategies. For example, from word of mouth reviews, they might feel closer to the show in comparison to related newspaper articles. The daily exposure to merchandise brings the show closer to their life. The strong universal theme and catchy melody also increase the impact in the same way. More importantly, this happens globally because of Mackintosh's world-wide strategy. The result is to enhance the impact of musical theatre not only in Broadway and the West End, but also for audiences across the rest of the world. Cameron Mackintosh, who is the inventor of the theatrical form of McTheatre, diminishes the potential barrier of the musical theatre. His McTheatre becomes a successful model for the following musicals from both London and New York and make them possible to successfully perform around the world.
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