Cameron Mackintosh ruffled a few feathers in Theatreland last weekend with his comments on BBC Radio 2, talking to Michael Ball about when theatres might reopen.
The headlines generated from his interview included “Sir Cameron Mackintosh: ‘Theatres could be closed until next year’” (BBC); “Cats and Les Mis producer says coronavirus will keep theatres closed to 2021” (Guardian); “Theatres will stay closed until 2021 says Les Mis producer” (Time Out).
Not everyone agrees with these statements: there are many in the theatre industry who are more optimistic that theatre, in some form, in some places, will return much sooner.
But, if you actually listen to the interview, I’m not convinced what Mackintosh says contradicts this. He is speaking specifically from the point of view of the types of show he produces (“the kinds of shows we do,” he says) and about being doubtful they will open on Broadway and in the West End this year.
It’s a big leap from that to ‘all theatres will remain closed until next year’.
However, on the specific point that Mackintosh made – and from his own very particular perspective – he is probably right.
Large-scale, lavish, big-budget West End musicals that rely on tourist audiences will undoubtedly be among the last types of live entertainment to reopen. It is extremely hard to imagine Les Misérables or Phantom of the Opera or Mary Poppins being able to return until social distancing has been relaxed and tourists have started to return to the West End.
These types of productions face challenges around audience types, backstage and front-of-house facilities and running costs. They will take longer to restage than most shows because of how complicated they are. Plus they are in the West End, which most people (whether domestic audiences or tourists) will access via public transport. Mackintosh – due to the phenomenal global success of his shows – will survive financially if his companies go into hibernation for a few months.
But most theatre is not like this and most theatremakers will struggle if they have to stop making theatre until 2021. This is a point that it is crucial for government to understand.
Maybe, as Lyn Gardner suggests opposite, rural touring will be the answer. Or perhaps it will be possible to construct tours that perform in specific theatres (with large front-of-house and backstage facilities and car parks) in areas of the country that are less affected by coronavirus. Maybe these will have to be shows with smaller casts and limited crew.
For some types of shows, it could be that any restrictions will make them impossible to stage, but that will not be true for all types of theatre and – for the good of everyone in the sector – it’s important we work out ways that some theatre can return as soon as possible. Even if we all have to wait a while to see Les Mis in its full glory again.