It was enough for theater fans to learn that after more than 50 years, the Tony Award-winning “Oliver!” would be returning to Tokyo. The icing on the cake (or the extra serving of soup) is that it will be theater titan Cameron Mackintosh who brings it.
Mackintosh is a major force in the London arts scene. He owns eight West End theaters and his shows as a producer include such hits as “Cats,” “Les Miserables,” “The Phantom of the Opera,” “Miss Saigon” and “Hamilton.”
“Oliver!” which is based on the 1838 Charles Dickens classic novel “Oliver Twist,” is being performed at the capital’s Tokyu Theatre Orb through Nov. 7 before moving to Osaka’s Umeda Arts Theater from Dec. 4 to 14.
“It matters to me so much that we create a great show in Japan,” Mackintosh, 74, tells The Japan Times.
Adding to this occasion is the fact that the production will be staged with an entirely Japanese ensemble, including the title role, which will be played by four young actors: Hayato Evans, Kentaro Koshinaga, Tasuku Kobayashi and Ryota Takahata. Leading stage actors Masachika Ichimura and Shinji Takeda will take on the role of the kids’ gang boss, Fagin.
The all-Japanese cast differs from when “Oliver!” last came to Tokyo in 1968. That production ran for two months at the Imperial Theatre with a cast of British, American and Australian actors. Mackintosh wasn’t the producer back then, though he’d already toured England for a year with the show as a set builder and on stage as a member of the chorus.
“The set went back to London after that Japan tour, and through a series of coincidences I eventually came to own it,” Mackintosh recalls. “When I first put it up, for my show in 1977, it was still wrapped up in Japanese newspaper. And it was very odd for me because my name was on some of the costumes.”
He says he still has the whole set (“including the drives and revolving stage”) in a barn at his country house in the southwest of England. “But for this Japan season, we’re sending the set from the recent London production.”
Mackintosh then recalls how his deep attachment to “Oliver!” began when the same aunt who’d taken him at the age of 8 to see his first musical, Julian Slade’s “Salad Days,” took him six years later to see “Oliver!” — by the composer Lionel Bart — just after it opened in 1960.
“I sat on the benches right at the top and we had to queue outside to get up to the gallery,” he says, “and I was just blown away by what a brilliant show it was. That ‘Oliver!’ changed the whole way musicals were done. They used to have what were called drop cloths to hide the scene changes, but in ‘Oliver!’ all the scenery changed in front of the audiences’ eyes and they saw the lights and everything.”
Besides being a “revolution in design,” what’s always impressed Mackintosh about “Oliver!” is that it is “such a tough but very warm-hearted musical.” Its story of children growing up in poverty and being exploited is relevant today, though the audience can take some inspiration in the resilience that the lead character shows.
“There’s a cheerfulness, too, about the Artful Dodger and the kids,” Mackintosh says, referring to the nickname for the character of Jack Dawkins, who leads the gang of child criminals. He will be portrayed by four different boys in the Japanese production. “And there is Nancy (played by Sonim and Megumi Hamada), who has such a tragic life but actually survives.
“And I think after all we’ve been through with the pandemic — and I can feel it in audiences in London — people are responding incredibly with a sense that life will go on. They want to go out and feel alive again, and with ‘Oliver!’ you’ll leave the theater with a smile on your face and joy in your heart.”
Crediting Bart with the show’s ongoing appeal, Mackintosh praises the music in particular.
“This is one of the greatest musicals ever written because it has such an extraordinary score and every number is really life-affirming but also very moving,” he says. “I love how the music is irrepressible; it makes me smile but it’s from the heart and is deceptively simple but actually very, very powerful.”
Mackintosh adds that the show’s brilliance comes from its dark themes that bring out the characters’ resilience. “You’re rooting for the orphan to find his home and family,” he says. “I hope it’s what will appeal to Japanese audiences besides the show having a wonderful cast and being very spectacular.”
Mackintosh doesn’t feel the need to worry about Japanese audiences too much, however. Though he hasn’t brought “Oliver!” to Japan before, he has had numerous other productions do runs in the country.
“When we did ‘Mary Poppins’ in 2018, the Japanese audience loved that style,” he says, referring to the traditional music hall elements of the show. “It was very British, but the (Japanese) completely embraced it and I thought, ‘Well, if they like that show — and they love ‘My Fair Lady’ — ‘Oliver!’ is another of the great classic British scores and I think they will love it, too.’”
Taking over the direction of the Japanese “Oliver!” is South African native Jean-Pierre Van Der Spuy. He last staged the production in England five years ago, but this run has presented him with the challenge of managing 54 child actors — including the four Olivers — who were all selected by open audition. Still, perhaps owing to his early days in theater as a teenage stagehand at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London, Mackintosh is clearly excited about the set.
“The scenery is marvelous, and there’s a huge chase with Oliver and the kids running through the streets and the way the set moves round the stage is part of the pleasure of the show,” he says. “I’m also sure audiences here will be entranced by such wonderful songs as ‘As Long as He Needs Me, ‘’Where is Love?’ and the Artful Dodger’s ‘Consider Yourself.’ They’re heartbreaking but full of joy.”
Looking back on his storied career, I ask Mackintosh what exactly makes a successful producer.
“What I’m good at is spotting the good ideas of writers early on,” he says. “Then my talent is I know how to make them better. I seem to have a wonderful knack for getting the best out of everybody and putting together the best people in the world to do the staging. ”
He admits this sometimes comes down to being “the right person at the right time” in bringing out the best in another artist’s imagination.
“I’m very proud of the pleasure my productions have brought and continue to bring,” he says, “and hopefully they will do so long after I’m taken upstairs.”
“Oliver!” runs through Nov. 7 at Tokyu Theatre Orb in Tokyo. It will then move to Umeda Arts Theater in Osaka from Dec. 4 to 14. For details, visit www.oliver-jp.com (Japanese only).
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.