Miss Saigon Can't Miss

If the American dream is for money to spare--as a character sings in Miss Saigon--no nightmares should mar the sleep of the show's 44-year-old sole producer, Cameron Mackintosh. Opening on Broadway on Apr. 11 at a cost of $10 million, the new musical was a Mackintosh money machine even before it drew don't-miss-it reviews from the likes of The New York Times and Time. The good notices spurred advance sales that were pegged at $35 million before the premiere, and weekend orchestra tickets ($60) and front-mezzanine seats ($100) can't be had until January. A ticket broker in New Jersey, where scalping is legal, is quoting some $100 summertime tickets at $225.

A supremely confident Londoner whose international successes include Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables, Mackintosh doesn't blush at charging $100--a new top for a musical--for 250 choice seats that normally would fetch $60. It's better than raising all 1,170 orchestra and front-mezzanine seats to $65, he explains. In London, Miss Saigon recouped its $6.5 million production cost in 35 sellout weeks at the 2,250-seat Drury Lane Theater. But the Broadway Theater that holds the costlier New York version has 500 fewer seats. The premium-price tickets can produce an extra $10,000 for each of the show's eight weekly performances, boosting the potential seven-day gross to a record $765,000.

At capacity, Miss Saigon can take in about $200,000 more each week than Les Miserables, a sellout since it opened four years ago. "But the weekly operating cost of the new show is $100,000 more, about $450,000," says Mackintosh. "So, earning $300,000 a week, it works out that we'll recoup our cost here in 36 weeks."

LOVE STORY. Theater people find little reason to doubt Mackintosh, and few buy the suggestion that postwar patriotism might turn audiences away from a show that essentially is Madama Butterfly set in 1975 Vietnam. "Nonsense," says Michael Alpert, a veteran press agent who promoted David Merrick's revival of Oh, Kay! this season. "It's basically a good old-fashioned love story."

There's another sign that Miss Saigon is no misfire: Theater owners are clamoring to become Mackintosh's partner in foreign and touring productions. It's an expensive privilege: In Toronto, impresarios David and Ed Mirvish are so certain they can duplicate their success as co-producers of Les Miserables that they told Mackintosh they'll build a new $15 million theater to accommodate Miss Saigon's lavish scenic effects, including a realistic helicopter escape.

Like the feisty Merrick in his heyday, Mackintosh refuses to let theater owners follow a longtime industry practice: keeping the interest earned on advance receipts. "Since Cats in 1981," he says, "we share the interest." Fifty-fifty? "Hmm. Let's just say, equitably." Sweet American dreams, Mr. Mackintosh.

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