Allan Knee's Syncopation is a two-character romantic comedy about an improbable relationship between a Jewish meatpacker and an Italian garment factory worker in 1911 New York.
Not inappropriately, the show's lead production team is also an improbable partnership (there's comedy involved, but no romance) -- between an ebullient, American-born Jewish academic and a reserved, Protestant, Toronto lawyer. (Winnipeg's Manitoba Theatre Centre, where the show played last month, and Toronto's Mirvish Productions, are also members of the production triumvirate.)
The ex-American is Joe Green, a bearded, large-framed, gruff-voiced, excitable former dean of fine arts at York University.
The Canadian is John McKellar -- tall, smooth-shaven, low-keyed, silken-tongued -- a semi-retired commercial lawyer and chairman of Weir and Foulds, one of the city's premier firms, and the father of actor/writer Don McKellar.
Unlikely as this union may appear, it seems to work, and Syncopation, which opens tomorrow at the Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto, is not their first initiative.
Fourteen years ago, they teamed up to produce Ken Ludwig's Sullivan and Gilbert, which had successful runs at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.
And both men have deep roots in show business. Raised in Philadelphia, Green earned his PhD from Indiana University in dramatic theory ("About 140 years ago," he jokes. "I think I studied with Aristotle directly.") He founded York's theatre department in 1968, directed 40 plays there, produced (with Leon Major) a cross-Canada tour of A. R. Gurney's The Dining Room in 1984, and a 1986 revival of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. He was executive producer of the Gemini Award-winning Glory Enough for All, a two-part, four-hour miniseries starring R. H. Thomson, and 26 episodes of Jake and the Kid for Nelvana Films.
The son of a high-school principal, McKellar has been involved in theatre since university days. A consiglieri to half a dozen Toronto theatre companies, he served as director, adviser, executive or board member of the Crest Theatre, Theatre Toronto, Toronto Arts Productions, Tarragon Theatre (where he's still a director and treasurer), the Augusta Theatre Company and Canadian Stage. He also put in two terms as a board member of the Canada Council. In fact, McKellar played a key role in the naming of the Tarragon Theatre, which he incorporated in 1971.
"I had been pressing [then artistic director Bill Glassco]to come up with a name and I finally called him at home and said, 'We've got to get this settled today,' and he was in his kitchen -- Bill was a great cook -- so he looked around and saw his spice rack and said, 'Let's call it . . . Tarragon.' "
A roughly $1-million production, Syncopation is a project of Green's and McKellar's Fundamentally Film Inc., which also has a third partner, Connecticut-based producer Bud Stone. It was Stone who found and recommended the play, which was showing at New Haven's Long Wharf Theater in 1999. His colleagues went down to see it, liked it and bought (for an undisclosed sum) Canadian rights.
After shopping the play to various regional theatres, the trio approached David Mirvish; it was charming, he said, but would need a star to carry it. Within a week, they had signed Cynthia Dale to play the part of Anna Bianchi, the young Italian. Her participation lured MTC artistic director Steven Schipper into the co-production equation. Geordie Johnson was signed soon after, to play meatpacker Henry Ribelow. The entire action takes place in a sixth-floor dance studio, which Henry has rented in the hope of finding himself a wife.
Compared to their experience with Sullivan and Gilbert, Syncopation has been relatively smooth sailing. In 1988, when they were about to take the former show into Washington, the Kennedy Center's then general manager, Roger Stephens, suddenly told them he'd decided to postpone their six-week run and to insert Lily Tomlin in their stead.
"Oh, boy," said Green, recalling the event. "I was ready to punch him in the mouth."
At a confrontational meeting at lawyers' offices in New York, Stephens insisted that he had never promised the producers that specific slot.
"Yes, you did," said Green.
"Are you calling me a liar?" demanded Stephens.
"So I said, 'I'm not calling you a liar, but you did promise us this slot.' I was as close to having a heart attack as I've ever been."
It was lawyer McKellar who managed to calm the roiled waters and find a solution, although Green concedes now that "it might have been better to pull the plug at that point because, though it was a nice piece, it didn't have the legs to do what we hoped."
After Washington, the show came to Toronto for an open-ended run where it faced competition at the then O'Keefe Centre from Me and My Gal, into which showman Garth Drabinsky had thrown half a million in marketing dollars. Says Green: "We just couldn't compete." The show closed after six weeks.
Green and McKellar naturally hope Syncopation will have a life beyond its Toronto run. "We'd like to carry it forward to regional theatres here in Canada and in the United States," says Green. "We'd like to conquer the world with this little piece."
Just in case it doesn't, they have a couple of other projects in development, including a feature film about Harry Houdini's attempt to debunk spiritualism, and a TV movie called Peter and the Wolves, which chronicles the Christmas Eve escape in 1984 of 12 wolves from the Toronto Zoo.
"It's been our conviction that we could take certain Canadian plays and turn them into successful films," says McKellar. "I remember telling this once to [the late]Mordecai Richler at a party and he said, 'sounds like a great way to lose money.' " That may be how prospective financiers view these projects as well, since Fundamentally Film has so far failed to move them from development to production. But both partners remain optimistic.
"We're not in this to make a fortune," says McKellar. "We're in this to do what we enjoy doing."
"Yeah," adds Green, "but at the same time, we don't want to lose our shirts." Syncopation opens tomorrow at Toronto's Winter Garden Theatre and runs until March 17. For information call: 416-872-1212