On Tuesday night Cameron Mackintosh rolled out the champers and got silver glitter falling from the ceiling at the curtain call of his production of Oliver! at Manchester’s Palace Theatre, distributing plastic flutes and champagne bottles throughout the house to toast the 200th anniversary of the birth of its author Charles Dickens.
Though, as it happens, Cameron missed the party himself, delayed in production meetings for the forthcoming film of Les Miserables at Pinewood, it was an auspicious occasion, even if a temporary power outtage to the orchestra pit brought the performance to a grinding halt for a few minutes in Act One.
But seeing this revamped production again - heavily indebted to Sam Mendes’s 1994 London Palladium revival that Mackintosh also produced, as he did the Rupert Goold directed copy of Mendes in 2008 — also made me think of both the show’s enduring qualities, and it’s influence more generally on British musicals.
As I put it in my review published online for The Stage yesterday, “Lionel Bart’s Oliver!, now amazingly itself over half a century old, is to the West End musical what Guys and Dolls is to Broadway, at once ageless, timeless and matchless.” It’s the definition of a classic that it warms you up with the instant glow of recognition; but also constantly surprises you, too, with how much there is to savour and enjoy anew.
That was partly generated on Tuesday by the star wattage of Samantha Barks, who placed third in the public vote on TV’s “I’d Do Anything” Nancy contest four years ago to play the role when the show returned to Drury Lane, but has now finally made the role her own after previous stints in Cabaret on tour and as Eponine in Les Miserables at the Queen’s, then the 02 Arena 25th anniversary concert and soon the film. She’s a huge star in the making — and still only 21!
But it’s also revealing how, though “discovered” by reality TV, she’s earned her spurs in live theatre, and how Mackintosh has nurtured her career. He’s done the same for countless others, of course — just the other day I was interviewing Ramin Karimloo who told me he owed everything to him, and has likewise gone through the ranks — from understudy Marius (to Hadley Fraser!) in Les Miserables, to a touring Chris in Miss Saigon and the title role in Phantom of the Opera both at Her Majesty’s and in the 25th anniversary concert at the Royal Albert Hall last year. Now both he and Hadley Fraser have come full circle back to Les Miserables, where they are respectively now playing Valjean and Javert.
And of course the writing of Les Miserables in the first place, long before Mackintosh was involved, was inspired by its authors Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boublil seeing an earlier production of Oliver! in London, also produced by Mackintosh. And it was another page-to-stage Dickens — the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby — that would provide the template and inspiration for the RSC’s involvement with and staging of Les Mis, too, with the same co-director team of Trevor Nunn and John Caird, and the same designer John Napier.
So Oliver! in a very real sense begat Les Miserables. Yet in the midst of that show’s global triumphalism, it’s interesting that Oliver! has never, for instance, conquered Broadway - the last attempt to take it there, when Mackintosh produced it in 1984 with Patti LuPone as Nancy, ran for just 17 performances. Yet a year later she would be the original Fantine in Les Miserables; yet another link between the two shows.
But it’s also interesting how, when Mackintosh was the producer who patented the idea of global exports of shows in identical productions to the original, he is now reinventing the wheel — and the shows — by holding onto some of their best elements, but re-staging other bits. Les Mis was duly overhauled for a 25th anniversary tour that subsequently came to the Barbican, running there simultaneously to the ongoing West End one for a few weeks; now The Phantom of the Opera is due the same treatment later this year. And ditto now, this latest Oliver!.