Brexit be damned: How Cameron Mackintosh plans to make inroads to Europe
As musical theatre has become an increasingly global business, interest in the genre now stretches far beyond its traditional originating homes of Broadway and the West End and long-standing transfer markets of Europe, North America and Australia to emerging markets in China, Japan, Russia and beyond.
As a result, managing and promoting musicals on a global basis has become a big (and lucrative) business. Producers such as Cameron Mackintosh and Andrew Lloyd Webber, Britain’s two most dominant creators of musicals over the last half-century, changed the template forever by rolling out quality replica productions of their titles around the world. But that product has been around in many cases for a long time now, and there’s another profitable and expanding market to be serviced in licensing non-replica, new professional productions of those titles, as well as a thriving business in amateur and schools productions.
That has typically been the business of independent licensing houses such as Samuel French, the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organisation (which as well as the famous R&H musicals also has a broad portfolio of other shows on its books), and Music Theatre International. The last of these was co-founded 55 years ago by Broadway composer Frank Loesser (who scored such classics as Guys and Dolls, The Most Happy Fella and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying).
Mackintosh became an equal partner in MTI more than a quarter of a century ago. Two years ago, the producer acquired a majority shareholding and has now followed Rodgers and Hammerstein’s initiative in setting up a bespoke European office in London in 2012 by newly launching MTI (Europe), which held a formal launch party in London earlier this month.
It came with a mostly ready-made, experienced staff, since it was spun off from Josef Weinberger Ltd, a venerable independent London licensing house originally founded in Austria in 1885, then headquartered in London after the rise of the Nazis. Managing director Sean Gray has been with the firm for more than 30 years, after joining it straight out of university in 1984. As such, he has previously looked after both the R&H and MTI catalogues when Weinberger’s was the agent for them both. Bert Fink, meanwhile, has been chief creative officer for professional licensing for just over a year since joining from R&H Europe, whose London office he helped to set up in 2012.
Mackintosh was instrumental in bringing Fink on board, and repositioning MTI’s European operation to be handled not by Weinberger’s acting as its sub-agent but as an integral part of the MTI office (Weinberger will continue to operate separately, particularly for plays that it represents that MTI has no interest in).
“MTI Europe was a dream that Freddie Gershon [MTI’s long-term chairman and chief executive, after he acquired the business in the late 1980s] had for many years,” explains Gray, “but he was put off by the cost of setting up a London office. Cameron isn’t, and probably doesn’t even think about it. He wants this to be global, and he knows this side of the pond so well, including the European element.”
It’s also a philosophical and psychological shift for the operation to be run from a base in Europe – albeit one in London, which in two years’ time will formally leave the European Union. As Fink wryly notes: “The irony is that Brexit has just formally started yet our bridge into Europe is getting stronger and stronger.”
He amplifies: “I’m dealing with a lot of markets that are new to the London office now like Italy, France, Spain, Hungary, Eastern Europe and Malta. There’s a voracious appetite for musical theatre in these places. I went to Budapest last May, and in a single weekend, in the capital of a country of 10 million people, MTI had five professional Hungarian language productions licensed: Les Mis, Billy Elliot, Shrek, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown and West Side Story. A month ago, I was back for productions of Singin’ in the Rain and Mamma Mia!, and in August I’ll be there again for The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
5 things you need to know about Music Theatre International (Europe)
1. MTI was founded in 1952 by Broadway composer Frank Loesser and orchestrator Don Walker.
2. MTI is owned by Cameron Mackintosh and Freddie Gershon, and has offices in New York, London and Melbourne.
3. MTI licenses productions in more than 50 countries around the world each year. In the European market, it licenses more than 4,800 productions a year, to more than 16,000 professional theatres, amateur societies and schools, totalling more than 20,000 performances and reaching an audience of six million.
4. MTI’s Broadway Junior programme offers condensed, author-approved versions of classic musicals, Disney favourites and modern works, custom-tailored to the needs of young people and schools.
5. Recent productions licensed by MTI Europe stretch from the north (The Full Monty in Tromso), to the south (Billy Elliot in Tel Aviv), to the east (Sweeney Todd in Moscow) and the west (Mamma Mia! in Reykjavik).
As those titles suggest, MTI represents a broad catalogue of classics and newer shows. Fink continues: “Our business is helping our clients to get their musicals done, and helping customers put on musicals.”
The job is partly about ensuring the integrity of the shows are being preserved – from translation to execution. “I don’t speak Icelandic, but when I saw Mamma Mia! in Iceland I knew it well enough to see that there were some changes and additions, and we had to politely remind the customer to do what was written. We work with local agents, too, who speak the language and know the local market, and can introduce us to the right people and understand what is being said.”
Running all this from London, says Gray, is good from a practical point of view: “We can get to Budapest or Berlin or any country in Europe in a couple of hours or so. And our clients – whether its Cameron, or Disney, or Mamma Mia! – want to be sure that someone seeing a production of one of their shows in another market will be seeing the show as it was written.”
Given the popularity of musicals, they can also be a key route to audience development and engagement. In 1994, Gershon personally pioneered MTI’s Broadway KIDS/Broadway Junior programme that introduces musical theatre in 30 and 60-minute versions of Broadway works to elementary and middle schools, where they are adapted for performance by students.
As Fink explains: “They’re truncated versions but not dumbed down. The first UK festival of these versions was recently held at Leicester Curve, with some nine groups, featuring more than 200 kids, presenting shows like Once on This Island, Hairspray and The Little Mermaid. It was so inspiring and moving.”
Profile: Music Theatre International (Europe)
Address: Music Theatre International (Europe), 12-14 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JJ
President: Drew Cohen
Executives include: Sean Gray (managing director), Bert Fink (chief creative officer), Sally Irwin (director, UK professional licensing)
Number of employees: 26
Number of musicals MTIE represents: 400-plus
Turnover: The company does not reveal financial figures
Key contacts: email@example.com (for general enquiries)