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HomeMiddle EastOn stage: Nick Allott on putting Dubai on global cultural map

On stage: Nick Allott on putting Dubai on global cultural map

The numbers involved in musical theatre are staggering, according to Nick Allott. His favourite statistic is this: The seven Harry Potter films — the most successful franchise ever — grossed a total of $13bn; the four most successful musicals — Cats, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon and Phantom of the Opera – have garnered a whopping $16bn.

“A lot of people don’t know that,” says the managing director of UK-based theatrical production firm Cameron Mackintosh Ltd, named after the 70-year-old founder who has been arguably the most influential theatrical producer in history.

Allott is standing inside Dubai’s first purpose-built, multi-format performing arts theatre Dubai Opera, where in a few hours one of the longest-running musicals, Les Misérables, will begin its month-long presence. Cameron Mackintosh also is responsible for bringing to the opera house Andrew Webber’s long-running Cats, which opens in January, followed by Broadway hit West Side Story in February and Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellows’ Mary Poppins in May.

But entertainment is not all Cameron Mackintosh intends to bring to Dubai. The company is using the current productions as a rehearsal of sorts. It hopes to add the emirate to its map of permanent bases, where local schools, universities and small theatres can license its productions to help them put on professional performances.

It already licenses 35,000 productions worldwide annually, including at the eight theatres it owns in the heart of London’s West End.

The dhow-shaped Dubai Opera can seat 2,000 people during a concert or stage production.

Allott says the intention is not financial but a contribution to national education. Theatre is included in school curriculums in the UK and the US, and he hopes it may soon be the case in the Middle East.

“We’ve got a base in New York, London [and] Melbourne and I would like to see a base somewhere in the Middle East that would service this [region]. This would mean that a local college, instead of taking [details of a production] off the internet, would book a license, material and help with the orchestration. You develop the market that way,” Allott says.

Bringing some of Cameron Mackintosh’s biggest international musicals over the next few months is a “big test” of the appetite for such collaborations. The ultimate goal is to make scheduling Dubai as natural as Hamburg or Zurich, he says.

“It has to be because there’s a big investment in this place. Dubai has been a centre for leisure and holidays and recreation; it’s also a massively important business hub. So it’s natural that you’ll start to bring in your own style of international entertainment that can run for a while and bring big returns,” he says.

Allott, who has worked with Cameron Mackintosh for 35 years, started franchising musical productions — though he calls it a “much more hands-on process” — and rolling them out around the world in the 1980s. The company started in Europe, where it created new marketplaces in countries including Germany, which built eight new theatres for Cameron Mackintosh’s productions, as well as Scandinavia and Australia.

Les Misérables was performed at Broadway’s Imperial Theatre 5244 times between 1990 and 2003.

While Cameron Mackintosh is also slowly breaking into Spain, Allott says the developing markets of Asia and the Middle East are the firm’s future.

But, he says, such dreams cannot rely on one city alone.

“What we need now is a circuit, because obviously Dubai is not a developed enough market to sustain what we would call an open-ended run. Four weeks here is a good run but what we’d love to see is 20 weeks and then a year as it grows. So in order for that to work, we would need partners in Qatar, Oman and other parts of the Middle East,” he says.

“Probably this time around, none of us will get rich on it. We’re sharing the risk in the right proportions,” he adds.

Cameron Mackintosh has attempted similar business models in other cities but Allott says Dubai has better economic fundamentals.

More than 73 million people worldwide have seen the record-breaking CATS musical.

“We were the first commercial [theatrical company] in Beijing and Shanghai in 2002. We haven’t been back yet because the economic model is not there yet to support it,” Allott says. “But the economic model [in Dubai] is here to support it. If there is [already] an audience here to sustain a run for four weeks, that will grow.

“We’ve been approached many times to take shows to Doha, Qatar, but at that time there were no theatres. I was asked if we would bring Phantom of the Opera and I asked ‘how long for?’ and they said, ‘a week’ and I went, ‘which theatre?’ and they said, ‘we’ll build you one,’ and I said, ‘you know what, that’s not right’. It’s not right for me to encourage that. You have to have a natural evolution. I believe really strongly that you have to develop an audience market at the same time as you build a theatre.”

The build-it-and-they-will-come motto is “naïve” in the theatre business, Allott argues. He says while people may understand the value of a Chanel handbag because they have seen it in a movie, they won’t understand the importance of theatre unless there is cultural awareness.

While he calls it a “slow burn” in the Middle East, Allott says Cameron Mackintosh is happy to be the first to bring high quality, famous titles to Dubai.

The company has already started building a sustainable market for musical theatre in Dubai and integrating the arts into its culture. It has noticed a unique trend that does not existent in its other markets: late buyers.

Cameron Mackintosh knighted in 1996.

“What’s interesting looking at the patterns of business here is what we call a ‘late sale’. So in some places you sell out months in advance and we know it’s coming. Here, people are cautious. They’ll wait and see and say, ‘there’s no rush’,” Allott says.

“For instance, for Hamilton in London we were starting to sell the show in January. We announced that in July and you could sign up on the website to preregister. We had 150,000 preregistrations. So that’s ideally what you want. And by the time we got to Manila, because Manila is very established in terms of musical theatre, we were actually sold out,” he says.

“Our shows in America criss-cross America all over again. Phantom of the Opera has been there for over 20 years. So one would hope that next time we come, people would go, ‘Oh, I remember Les Misérables and I wasn’t early enough to come last time, let’s book early now,’” Allott says.

What he also hopes to see is Dubai become a production base whereby a lot of the revenue stream stays in the city.

“Quite clearly you’ve got the resources here and the intention and a sophistication in terms of architecture. You just need to reinforce that with people,” he says.

Phantom of the Opera has played for 30 years.

Despite optimistic views on Dubai, a Mackintosh theatre is not in the cards for the Middle Eastern city.

“It’s very hard to operate things remotely. There are very good people here. We’d always help bring a product here, we’d advise on how to build one, because we have experience and we’ve done so in Shanghai and Beijing. But would we build one ourselves? Probably not,” he says.

The firm has its hands full with its eight theatres in London as well as an upcoming $37m theatre it is building specifically for Hamilton, the Broadway hit that tells the story of the founding fathers of America through rap and hip hop.

“We’re bringing it to London next November so some time Dubai will hopefully see it,” he says.

But how much does bringing such a show to Dubai actually cost?

The lively musical West Side Story opens at Dubai Opera in February and will be the third Cameron Mackintosh production in the emirate.

“The way we do it is we say to Jasper [Hope, Dubai Opera CEO], this is what our show costs, this is what we’d like to make on top of that to make it worth our while, but not a lot because obviously we appreciate you’re a new building. It’s horse trading. And he probably subsidises us and we probably subsidise it, [too],” Allott explains.

“In this case, [producer] Cameron Mackintosh came here just over a year ago on his way to vacation and he said, ‘look this is potentially a very important market. We have a really good tour add, but I want to supplement it with the best of the best. So we pulled actors from other parts of the world and other productions and essentially put a company together just for Dubai. Commercially, that’s bonkers,” he says, laughing.

“No one is going to lose but it’s not a money maker. But what we will have is the best of the best and Dubai will go, okay, I like the sound of that.”

Despite being a musical producer, Allott knows a thing or two about the business of theatre. The 62-year-old was named one of London’s 1,000 most influential people in 2011 and 2012 by the Evening Standard newspaper. In 2014, he was asked by the UK Prime Minister’s Office to become a business ambassador for the country’s cultural sector. According to him, musical productions are just as good a business investment as anything else

Mary Poppins the musical first went on stage in 2004 and will open at Dubai Opera on May 1, 2017.

“I did a return of investment for Les Misérables in London last week – it represented a 5,500 percent return on [investors’] original investment. And this show is 31 years old,” Allott says.

“I had a nice letter from investors saying, ‘this is better than my house. This is better than my auntie’s will’.

“When you get it right, it’s fantastic. When you get it wrong, it’s spectacularly expensive. We’ve had our own failures; we’ve had shows that didn’t work out. But when it’s right, it works out extraordinarily.”

Broadway in New York City contributes $14bn to the local economy, from ticket sales, merchandising and restaurants. In London, it adds $3.7bn. Allot says Dubai needs to see similar numbers.

“When you make these arguments, governments start taking it seriously,” he says. “Live entertainment is almost indestructible. We’re going through a very strange moment. In 2008, when everyone thought the economic world was coming to an end, we had two of the best years, economically, we’ve ever had, because of a number of reasons.

“In the UK, a lot of people who would normally travel two or three times a year on holiday panicked and needed things to do at home with their children so they came to the theatre. Everything was cheaper because inflation stopped and interest rates went down,” he says.

If Mackintosh’s musicals were here in 2008, the situation might not have turned out the same for families in Dubai. Average ticket prices for Les Misérables at the Queens Theatre in London are $40 (£32), compared to a staggering $160 in Dubai. Allott attests that to market prices and labour costs.

The musical Miss Saigon is based on Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madame Butterfly.

“Initially, here the people who would have priced [the tickets] would have done so being fully cognisant of what the market can bear. If they find, and if we find, that audiences are being kept out because of that then we’d have something to say to management here and we could look at doing a model of more dynamic pricing,” Allott says.

“Wherever you are in the world, the price of tickets is always controversial. Everyone always says it’s ‘too expensive’. [But] this is a hugely labour-intensive organisation. All of them have to be paid, put in hotels and flown. There’s a cost for that. Ultimately, when you build your own unique domestic production base, then all of that gets less expensive and you can bring prices down.”

“Cameron has made his name on being fair to the audience. There’s a phrase ‘gouging’ — gouge as much as you can from your audience. We’ve never done that. It’s important to spread the prices where people at the top, which clearly are many, can afford to pay and perhaps blue collar workers, students, younger people can come and see the show at less expensive prices.”

But even though tickets are four times more expensive, the Dubai Opera is unlikely to see an empty house during Cameron Mackintosh’s performances.

The firm celebrated 30 years of Phantom of the Opera in London this year, and of Les Misérables in 2015. It also just marked 25 years of Miss Saigon.

“The fact is, if something touches a generation, there’s no reason why it should stop doing that. Les Misérables will outlive me. I would walk into the back of Les Misérables and feel the emotion, feel people engaged with the story. That doesn’t stop overnight,” Allott says.

“Two of my musical heroes died [recently] – Lenny Cohen and Leon Russell – and when you listen to their music you think ‘you know what, I could happily have their music played at my funeral’.”

“It’s art but not with a big ‘A’. It’s art with a small ‘a’. It’s art that connects with people. And the fact was, a very talented group of people came together with those shows, made them work and continued to look after them in year 30 as if it was year one. It’s the best we can give you,” he says.

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