The success of Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" has not been lost on British mega-producer Cameron Mackintosh. The man who made millions off such stage blockbusters as "Cats," "Les Miserables" and "The Phantom of the Opera" is talking with Steven Spielberg about an animated version of Rudyard Kipling's classic "Just So Stories."
Mackintosh had mounted two small productions in England of "Just So," a musical based on the Kipling book, and somebody in the audience alerted Spielberg to the project. "Steven liked the music, thought it was a possible animation project and we're hard at it now," says Mackintosh, in town recently for meetings at Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment. "We're going into a development stage and if everything comes together, hopefully it will go ahead."
Spielberg has long directed and produced the same sort of wide-appeal spectacles that characterize most Mackintosh shows, and the stage producer has even compared the universality of his shows to Spielberg's "Raiders of the Lost Ark." Spielberg and "Cats" creator Andrew Lloyd Webber also announced plans two years ago for an animated film adaptation of that musical. Now comes a possible stage-to-screen transformation of one of Mackintosh's smaller shows, a musical that still hasn't had a major production either in the United States or in England. But its popular, literary roots are typical Mackintosh: The fabled "Just So Stories" have taught generations of children such important things as how the camel got his hump, the leopard his spots and the elephant his nice, long trunk.
British composer George Stiles, 30, and lyricist Anthony Drewe, 31, emphasize the quest for knowledge in Kipling's turn-of-the-century tales. Their musical follows the baby elephant's trek to the banks of Kipling's "great grey-green greasy Limpopo River" to learn such things as what it is the crocodile eats for dinner.
"It's a wonderful story about an inquisitive child whose inquisitive mind gets him into all kinds of troubles and scrapes," says Stiles. "It's basically a simplistic, high-fantasy children's tale, but it's told in a way that uses wit and language to entertain adults as well as children. The great animated features have managed to do that--entertain the people who take the kids (to the movies) as well as the kids themselves."
Kipling's animals also change shape quite a bit, something that Stiles admits is easier to do in animation than onstage. "A rhino with tight skin is getting older, foldy, baggy skin, and an elephant's 'blackish, bulgy nose, as big as a boot' gets extruded into a fine new trunk," he says. "You can imagine it's a tricky thing to do."
Amblin sent two members of its animation team over to see the London production, he says, and the two Englishmen came to Los Angeles for two weeks of meetings with Amblin animators and writers. Stiles and Drewe also went off to see "Beauty and the Beast"; they had heard the score, but the film hadn't yet opened in London.
What might we expect? "We have a number called 'We Want to Take the Ladies Out to Dinner,' which is sung by the lascivious leopard and the painted jaguar," says Stiles. "They explain to the ingenuous elephant's child why they want to find the giraffe and the zebra; they say they want to wine and dine them, but in reality they want to dine off them."
While an Amblin official says that screenwriter Robin Lerner is writing the screenplay, the two Englishmen will continue work on their score back home. Although they expect to cut back their musical material from the 20 or so musical numbers currently in their two-hour show, Mackintosh says, they are simultaneously reshaping the show for the stage. A spokesman for Ford's Theatre in Washington says that no shows have been confirmed yet for next season, but Mackintosh says he's anticipating a U.S. premiere at that theater next April.
The impresario and others meanwhile continue trying to get other Mackintosh productions to the screen. While such international Mackintosh hits as "Phantom" and "Miss Saigon" have already grossed $1.3 billion in the United States alone, and most have announced movie versions with one studio or another, none seem close to emerging onscreen.
"Just So" would be developed at Amblimation, a London-based animation company set up by Amblin and Universal Pictures. "Cats" is "in the early stages of development" there as well, according to an Amblin official, but no production date has been set. Mackintosh is not involved artistically in either Amblin's "Cats" project or a possible Warner Bros. film of "The Phantom of the Opera."
Mackintosh did just meet here, however, with executives at TriStar Pictures, which announced film plans three years ago for "Les Miserables," the hit that's grossed $410 million-plus in U.S. theaters alone. That film is "still in pre-production," Mackintosh says, adding that no director is now involved.