Making history with Hamilton

By Corrie Bond-French

When Sir Cameron Mackintosh first heard first-hand about Hamilton, the musical was still in preview in New York; President Obama hadn’t yet jokingly laid claim to its discovery, creator Lin Manuel Miranda hadn’t yet become a household name and its comet-like success was still to blaze its trail across the skies over the 52 states whose very history it articulates.

As it was, Sir Cameron tucked into lunch that day just a stone’s throw away from the Victoria Palace Theatre with little idea how his own association with the musical would unravel.

“I’d heard about this hip hop musical, and in fact Andrew (Lloyd-Webber) was the first person I knew who’d actually seen it and told me how wonderful it was. We were having lunch in Victoria so it was obviously predestined for the show to land in Victoria, though I didn’t realise it at the time!” he laughs.

Written by theatre visionary Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton tells the story of America’s forgotten founding father Alexander Hamilton through rap and hip hop. It would go on to win an unprecedented 11 Tony awards, grammys and a Pulitzer Prize. It was a keeper.

Fast forward to December 2017, when the doors of the Victoria Palace were opened amid unprecedented fervour and anticipation after unavoidable two-week delay. Tickets to see the phenomenon that is Hamilton were the hottest in town, and Sir Cameron had yet again made musical theatre history.

It has, of course, become something of a habit for the theatre impresario extraordinaire, a man whose half century-plus experience of theatre producing is underpinned with near-divining stick instinct for knowing what the public wants to experience at the theatre. With record breaking runs of shows such as Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Oliver!, Phantom of the Opera and Cats, Sir Cameron has amassed a fortune, estimated at over a £billion, enabling him to purchase and refurbish a clutch of London’s historic theatres (the ninth is in the pipeline) including Victoria Palace.

Yet when Sir Cameron changed his Big Apple travel plans after his friend and fellow producer Jeffrey Seller also urged him to see Hamilton while it was still in preview, he still had little inkling of the once in a lifetime opportunity he would encounter.

“I just went over really as a friend and as someone who loves musicals, but seeing something that original happens rarely in one’s lifetime and I was blown away. Then they asked me afterwards did I think it would work in London? I said I’m sure it will work in London. I didn’t know if it would be the sensation it would be in New York, one can never know with these things, but as far as I was concerned it was one of the best shows I’d ever seen in my life and that’s all that matters.

“Then to my surprise – because I really did think they were just asking my advice as to whether it could work in London, they asked me if I would do it with them, and I went ‘God, I would be flattered and honoured’, as I am. I’ve had a wonderful time doing the show and I think we’re all completely thrilled with how brilliant a British cast we were able to find because you know, on the face of it, it seemed a completely American musical.

“Everyone now realises it’s far beyond that because Lin’s amazing lyrics tell such a wonderful story that I think that’s been the marvellous, well, when I say ‘surprise’ it’s because you never know until you do it, reaction in London, that everyone has got the complete nuance of all the storytelling. The great delight when you bring a show from another world like that is to see the material speaks to the British audience entirely as if it had never been done anywhere else, they’re not going to see it because it’s American, they’re going to it because they love the story, love this music and they’re blown away by the whole production. Audiences are coming again and again from all ages – it really touches a nerve right across the board and that’s really very, very rare.

“Lin has delineated and brought to life wonderful historical characters in a very contemporary way.  Only Lin Manuel could have written Hamilton, and no matter what else he does in his life this will always be one of the supreme achievements, and how rare it is one man can write book, music and lyrics, never mind star in the part in the first place, but he was perfect casting for it.

Clearly, theatre producing is still a labour of love for Sir Cameron, who says he decided on his career path on his eighth birthday when he precociously introduced himself to composer Julian Greenslade during a production of Salad Days.

“I’m very lucky to have been the person who for whatever reason has liked the material. And it is the material at the end of the day. I mean, I’m not a bad producer and I do obviously have an instinct the public like, but it’s because I’ve been inspired to want to produce some extraordinarily different material. The one thing that does unite all my shows is that they do have amazing and unusual unique material that they’ve grown up from.”

Another string to his bow is his love of architecture, and he is immensely proud of the new lease of life he has been able to breathe into some of London’s much-loved historic theatres: “I’ve loved not only bringing them back to their old splendour but also making them more splendid than when they opened with modern conveniences”. But he concedes that the refurbishment of the Victoria Palace theatre was far from a smooth process, and a mammoth undertaking:

“It was, it nearly put the end to me last year, it was absolutely exhausting. I brought the theatre long before I’d ever heard of Hamilton, because of the development going on with the underground as part of the deal it gave the theatre an extra 20 feet of stage…but of course when you buy any old building when you dig into the ground or into the fabric that’s when you find the trouble!

“Also it also had to be done in a certain time because of the huge rebuild of Victoria around there so it was literally a once in a hundred years opportunity where you didn’t have any adjacent buildings so you could actually do the work, and by the time work started, Hamilton had happened and the producers had decided that this was the best theatre for it in London irrespective of whether I owned it or not, that’s where they wanted to do it, so we took a gambling risk which has certainly paid off but it was touch and go.”

Somewhat ironically, given his role in history relevant to Hamilton, it was discovery of 200 year old drainage from when George III acquired Buckingham Palace that wrought havoc on the theatre’s refurbishment.

“It was under a third of the theatre and the complication that caused was astronomic. I had a project which was going to cost £35 million, a lot of money, that ended up costing over £60 million to do. It does look like I’ve spent the money on it! But I can tell you it was touch and go and we’re still finishing off bits of it.”

Known for his forensic attention to detail, unforeseen health issues affecting key members of his team left Cameron increasingly involved in ensuring his original vision was achieved.

“VP was by far the biggest project I’ve ever done in my life,I had to be there most days and nights, well, not all nights but it was an exhausting four or five months.  It was nerve racking. At one point we were having 400 people a day there to try and meet the deadline.

“Of course the show delivers, but the fact that we ended up only going back by two weeks I think is one of the most miraculous things that have ever happened in the history of the theatre!”

But all’s well that ends well. Hamilton swept the board at the Olivier awards, and it remains the hottest ticket in town, with Cameron’s ticketless ticket system scuppering the touts.

“After over 50 years at it I’m thrilled that most of my musicals are going as fresh as a daisy, so it has been an added bonus to be co-opted onto the next musical sensation around the world.”