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Theatre & Performance Why was Dear Evan Hansen a commercial flop in Toronto? Audiences just didn’t like it enough

Dear Evan Hansen will close at the Royal Alexandra Theatre this week.

Matthew Murphy

David Mirvish has made a pair of costly musical mistakes that are now coming to a head for the Toronto theatre producer.

In short, he vastly overestimated the commercial appeal of Dear Evan Hansen – and significantly underestimated the same for homegrown hit Come From Away.

Dear Evan Hansen, which won the Tony Award for best musical over Come From Away in 2017, will close at the Royal Alexandra Theatre this week after a money-losing, 4½-month run – the shortest for a “sit-down” Mirvish production this century. (A “sit-down” is industry jargon for an open-ended run of a commercial show, normally one that originated on Broadway or in the West End.)

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Sales for the original U.S. musical about teen suicide and social media were disappointing enough that Mirvish had to shorten the show’s run. At one point it was on sale into September, and he had hoped it would extend into 2020.

Dear Evan Hansen is a milestone musical – and the Toronto production is even better than Broadway

Read more: Dear Evan Hansen has disappointing showing at Dora Awards

Meanwhile, Come From Away, which Mirvish booted out of the Royal Alex earlier this year and shipped across town to the Elgin Theatre (owned and operated by the Ontario Heritage Trust), will return to its old home on King Street West in December to continue its record-breaking run for a homegrown musical in Canada.

It cost $1-million to move Come From Away, plus another $600,000 to reconfigure the Elgin and now $1-million to move the show back.

Matthew Murphy/The Canadian Press

The reason why that musical about the “plane people” who were diverted to Newfoundland after 9/11 had to be diverted to the Elgin in the first place is that, before it reopened in Toronto in February, 2018 (following a short pre-Broadway stop in the city), Mirvish had already promised New York producer Stacey Mindich the Royal Alex for Dear Evan Hansen.

No Mirvish production had run more than a year in Toronto in a decade, so it seemed a safe bet that Come From Away would close by March, 2019. But it turned out to be a bad one – and Mirvish isn’t shy about how much it cost: $1-million to move Torontonians Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s hit initially, plus another $600,000 to reconfigure the Elgin and now another $1-million to move the show back.

As for Dear Evan Hansen’s curtailed Toronto run, the producer said he’ll “just about break even” on the Canadian-cast production, which cost about $7.5-million to get on its feet.

Despite all this, Mirvish presents as upbeat over all. Having a show run much longer than you expected is not, after all, actually a problem: Come From Away is, in fact, on track to be Mirvish’s longest-running show since Mamma Mia! closed in 2005.

“We didn’t make the brightest financial decision, but I think artistically we did do the right thing,” said Mirvish, who still loves Dear Evan Hansen and notes that 200,000 people will have seen the musical written by Steven Levenson with music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (otherwise best known for the film The Greatest Showman) in Toronto by the time it closes. “We proved that the Elgin could be a good home for Come From Away … and we’ve also proven that we keep our word: We promised this building to Dear Evan Hansen and we gave it to them.”

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It is not really known why Dear Evan Hansen did well in New York but not in Toronto.

Matthew Murphy/Handout

Maintaining Toronto’s reputation as a welcoming place for sit-downs is a top priority for Mirvish. He’s not in the business of creating hits from scratch.

Theories abound as to why Dear Evan Hansen did not become a hit in Toronto the way it continues to be in New York. Is the show somehow better on Broadway, even though the creative team is the same in both cities? Is there something about the story that appeals more to Americans than Canadians? Was the marketing too mysterious?

All we know for sure is that while Dear Evan Hansen had the sizable advance (about $11-million) and the positive reviews (save for an outright pan in the National Post) to kick-start a profitable run in Toronto, it was unable to keep the sales momentum going.

In other words, word of mouth – still the most important marketing tool in theatre – was not strong enough. Early audiences may have liked it, but apparently not sufficiently to urge friends and family to go.

While I had heard that audiences weren’t exiting the show in Toronto as excitedly as they do in New York, there’s data to show this clearly.

After each performance, Mirvish e-mails ticket buyers and asks them to rate the show they just saw out of five. Dear Evan Hansen got an average 4.4 rating, according to numbers posted on the producer’s website.

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Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away both got a score of 91 on the website Show-Score.

Matthew Murphy/Handout

That may seem quite high, but think of this more as an Uber rating than the star rating of a furrow-browed critic. By contrast, Come From Away has a 4.9 rating, while The Lion King, back in Toronto on tour for the umpteenth time, has a 4.8.

Said Mirvish: “Shows that run a long time are up around 4.7 or 4.8.”

In New York, the website Show-Score – a kind of Yelp for Broadway – allows audiences to rate shows out of 100, and there you’ll find Dear Evan Hansen and Come From Away are tied with a 92 score. (The Lion King scores 91.)

Why do audiences in New York rate Dear Evan Hansen higher than Toronto ones do? Mirvish, quoting Shakespeare in Love, said: “It’s a mystery.”

Having seen both original casts, I’m not inclined to think one was significantly superior. And to the theory that Toronto doesn’t have a commercial-sized audience for a sophisticated musical on serious themes, I think that overestimates the sophistication and seriousness of Dear Evan Hansen and ignores the fact that shows such as Billy Elliot, which is set against a long and bitter miners’ strike, and even the terrorism-themed Come From Away have succeeded here.

When I saw Dear Evan Hansen in New York after reading the rave Broadway reviews (“one of the most remarkable shows in musical theatre history”), I was initially turned off by its sympathetic presentation of a teenage fabulist who gets attention by making up stories in the wake of a classmate’s death. I felt the character who actually takes his own life was given short shrift.

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The production should have been brought to the Princess of Wales Theatre instead of kicking Come From Away out of the Royal Alex.

Matthew Murphy/The Canadian Press

On second viewing, I knew what to expect and found myself less bothered by this – and saw the show as an imperfect but ambitious piece of young-adult drama trying not to judge or punish its teenage anti-hero too much.

Expectations always play a role in how a show is received; perhaps they were just too high in Toronto. Dear Evan Hansen built a fan base off-Broadway in New York before transferring to Broadway; here it came in as the show that beat Come From Away at the Tonys.

There certainly were some producing boo-boos, too. Dear Evan Hansen’s New York team should have accepted or suggested to take the Princess of Wales Theatre instead of bumping Canada’s most successful musical ever out of the Royal Alex. The overarching narrative then would have been about former rivals becoming friendly neighbours, and Come From Away’s sellout crowds would have seen a giant Dear Evan Hansen ad down the street upon exiting.

It also seems like an unforced error to have allowed the touring production of Dear Evan Hansen to play Buffalo, a cross-border city not far from Toronto, in May and announce 2020 dates for Rochester, N.Y.

The angsty questions about Toronto as a commercial theatre industry that followed the early closings of Mirvish productions of The Producers and Hairspray in 2004 seem generally absent this time around, however.

It’s Dear Evan Hansen’s producers planning to open the show in the West End in November who should feel a little bit of angst.

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Because, for better or for worse, Toronto’s commercial tastes are closer to London’s than any American city. Mirvish hosted long-running productions of Dirty Dancing and We Will Rock You, shows that never dared to try to crack Broadway. And the last Mirvish musical to fail in Toronto, much more expensively, was The Lord of the Rings, which went on to do the same in London. It will certainly be interesting to see what happens next overseas.

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