Cameron Mackintosh is one of the most successful producers in musical theater history. His list of credits includes several of the defining hits of the late 20th century: Big budget, lavishly staged spectacles including “Cats,” “Les Misérables” and “Miss Saigon.” But looming over all of them has been the longest-running Broadway show of all time: “The Phantom of the Opera.”
On Friday, Mackintosh announced that “Phantom,” a surprisingly enduring gothic melodrama about a masked musician obsessed with a beautiful soprano, plans to end its Broadway run Feb. 18, four weeks after it celebrates its 35th anniversary.
The show, directed by Hal Prince and with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, has been an enormous success. On Broadway, it has been seen by 19.8 million people and has grossed $1.3 billion; globally, it has played to 145 million people in 41 countries.
But it has been buffeted by a decline in international tourism — “Phantom” was particularly tourist-dependent, given its status as a symbol of Broadway and the fact that the local audience has already had so many years to see it — and by inflation, which has contributed to rising production costs.
The show will continue to run in London, and in productions elsewhere around the world, and it could return to Broadway at some point, but the closing of the current production is nonetheless the end of an era, and the news brought an outpouring of shock and sadness from fans of many ages. (It also prompted a rush of ticket sales — nearly $2 million worth in the first 24 hours.)
In a telephone interview Saturday, Mackintosh, who is 75 years old and is based in London, explained the decision. “You don’t want to run a great show into the ground,” he said. “It’s always been one of my mantras throughout my long career: There’s an art to closing a show, as well as opening one.”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Tell me how this decision came about.
Once we got through the first few months (after the reopening), we were getting to a situation where we were having regular running losses. We watched it through the spring and summer, and it became obvious that a show of this expense — because you know “Phantom” is more expensive than virtually any other show around, particularly the long-running shows — we were going to continue losing. And, as a veteran of long-running shows, I’ve found there comes a point with the greatest show where the only thing you can do is to tell people it isn’t going to be there indefinitely, which people always assume, with a long-runner, it is.
What are the weekly running costs?
Just under about $950,000 net now, which is about $100,000 more than it was pre-Covid. Costs on both sides of the Atlantic have gone up, whereas the box office hasn’t. And generally, I would say, across my group of theaters, there’s much less international tourism. Box office is down 10 to 15 percent on average. The truth is that “Phantom” was having a number of losing weeks pre-Covid, but the good weeks were much, much higher. And there comes a point, with any show, where there is a tipping point, where the number of good weeks has declined sufficiently that actually it’s outweighed by the number of losing weeks, and at that point there’s only one sensible decision to make.
How do you know whether what’s happening on Broadway is a temporary dip or is going to last?
Don’t be silly — how could anybody in this day and age make that kind of prediction? One can only see so far ahead. But we’re all going into uncharted waters, all over the world, with interest rates going up, the problems being caused internationally with Russia and Ukraine, and the cost of living shooting up in ways that no one’s even had to think about for 30 or 40 years.
Do you think that “Phantom” would have closed if there had been no pandemic?
I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s just the pandemic — I think it would be wrong to say that. The world has changed. The pandemic was a catalyst, but now suddenly the West is realizing that the whole situation which everyone let drift with Russia, and to a point with China, has changed the whole order, and we’re in the middle of discovering where it’s going to go. And the theater isn’t immune from that.
How did you decide to reopen after the shutdown?
In America, we would not have come back from the pandemic with “Phantom” if we had not had the gigantic amount of money from the federal fund, plus extremely healthy insurance. Having that allowed us to make a plan and bring the show back in the best possible way that we could.
Why is “Phantom” so expensive to run?
Many of the long-runners — “Cats,” “Chicago,” “Chorus Line,” even “Hamilton,” which will be a long-runner — they’re all single-set shows with mostly limited costumes. We’ve got 27 musicians. It’s a different world that Andrew and I created the show in. Most of my great shows were created during the ’80s, and that world has disappeared. We are in different times.
How are you feeling about this? It’s not just a business decision.
I’m both sad and celebrating. It’s an extraordinary achievement, one of the greatest successes of all time. What is there not to celebrate about that? When I started, a year to two years was considered a good run.
What is your theory about why ‘Phantom’ has run so long?
It is simply an amazing, beautiful musical. It is a wonderful, mythic story. We were by no means sure, when we were rehearsing it, that the thing was going to work at all, but miraculously it came together and there’s something quite extraordinary about it.
Will you do another show on Broadway?
I hope so. I’m not dead yet. Whether it will be a new show is another matter. But I’ve had a show on in New York since 1981, when I did “Tomfoolery” at the Village Gate. For me it’s been extraordinary run.