For Garth Drabinsky, the first sign that there was a rocky week ahead for him and his new musical, Sousatzka, came near the end of the show's opening night on March 23 at Toronto's Elgin Theatre.
There was a lot riding on this show. It was supposed to mark Drabinsky's triumphant return to the top of the showbiz heap after he had suffered the ordeal and disgrace of spending 17 months in jail, convicted of fraud and forgery in connection with the 1998 collapse of Livent (the theatre company controlled by Drabinsky and his former partner, Myron Gottlieb).
Minutes before the curtain fell on opening night, Drabinsky, who moves with the aid of a walker, went to the men's room, where he stumbled and fell, sustaining cuts to his head.
The 67-year old showbiz mogul – best known as the producer of movies including The Silent Partner and Tribute and expensive, award-winning stage musicals such as Kiss of the Spider Woman, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Sunset Boulevard, Ragtime, Show Boat and Fosse – missed the audience ovation and his planned appearance on stage during the final curtain call.
Instead, he was taken to the emergency room of St. Michael's Hospital, where he received stitches, before going on to the after-party at the Design Exchange on Bay Street. (Details of Drabinsky's misadventure were confirmed by the show's publicist, Carrie Sager of Flip Publicity.)
It wasn't until the next morning that it became clear Drabinsky had bigger problems: negative reviews from Toronto theatre critics and low ticket sales at the Elgin.
As the show is being sold through Ticketmaster and buyers choose their own seats online, it is possible to see the size of the audience at each performance.
When I checked several days ago, maps for remaining performances showed the house dominated by solid blue dots (each of which represents an available, unsold seat). The final Toronto performance will be Sunday's matinee; I am not surprised that the Toronto run has not been extended.
In a belated attempt to improve ticket sales, a promotion was posted online on Tuesday afternoon, describing the show as "the inspiring new musical all Toronto is talking about" – and counting the days, hours and minutes to go until the show bids farewell to Toronto.
"See it before it leaves Toronto," the promotion urges. "Buy one, get one free for the final week of performances. Tickets start at $60."
On Wednesday, an offer of free tickets went out to members of the Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts (TAPA) for two performances – Thursday evening and the final Sunday matinee. In the theatre industry, this practice is known as "papering the house."
Another challenge is that Drabinsky needs a new partner to replace Richard Stursberg, the former head of Telefilm Canada. Stursberg's company, Teatro Proscenium, had raised more than $10-million to stage Sousatzka in Toronto. But his commitment did not go beyond Toronto, according to Rick Chad, president of the Chad Management Group, who is leading the search for Stursberg's successor. Chad says Stursberg has agreed to stay until his replacement is ready to start work.
According to The New York Times, the cost of opening a musical on Broadway can be as high as $15-million. That raises a big question. Is it still possible for Sousatzka to open on Broadway and be embraced by New York audiences?
The show is based on the 1962 Bernice Rubens novel Madame Sousatzka, in which a determined piano teacher had come to London from Russia. It is not based on the 1988 Shirley MacLaine movie, in which the gifted young pianist was a Bengali boy. In the current musical, the teacher is a Holocaust survivor and the pupil is a black South African who has fled to London with his mother after his father was imprisoned for treason.
"The exercise of taking Sousaztka to Broadway is hardly bulletproof," says Barry Avrich, who made Show Stopper, the revealing 2012 documentary about Drabinsky. "The mounting costs and audience demographic shift will heavily impact its shot at overcoming the lack of momentum from lacklustre reviews in Toronto." Given the high cost of mounting a new production on Broadway plus weekly running costs of about $650,000, Avrich says: "A Drabinsky extravaganza needs to be an instant hit. And producing an instant hit is a fool's game." To be an instant hit, according to Avrich, a show has to be innovative in a way that strikes a chord. Other essential ingredients, he adds, are weak competition and an influx of tourists to drive ticket sales.
The hit musical Hamilton had proved itself off-Broadway, where it earned excellent reviews, before it moved to Broadway, Avrich recalls.
"If I were Garth Drabinsky – and he is a dazzling producer – I would study those reviews carefully before charging toward the Great White Way." An alternative: Take the show to London instead of New York.
Elizabeth Bradley, a former Torontonian who teaches drama at New York University, notes that there was recently a successful move of a show from Toronto to Broadway. That's Come from Away, the musical about airline passengers who wound up in Gander, Nfld., when flights were diverted because of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
"That show was so well-handled," she says.
A year ago, a lot of shows chose to avoid competing for Tony Awards with Hamilton, Bradley says, "so the musical pipeline got backed up." Currently, she adds, there is keen competition for any Broadway house for both plays and musicals. "Even some blue-chip projects can't get a theatre.' Another problem, according to Bradley, is that Sousatzka does not have a marquee-name star.
"Victoria Clark's big success was in Light in the Piazza, which was at Lincoln Center," Bradley notes, not around Times Square. "She is revered, but unlike Bette Midler or Josh Groban, she doesn't draw throngs of ticket-buyers. People will buy tickets to any show starring Midler [in Hello, Dolly!] or Groban [in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812]."
Then there is the issue of how Drabinsky is viewed in New York theatre circles. After a trial in Ontario in 2009, Drabinsky went to prison in 2011. He was released on parole in early 2013, and given full parole in 2014. (Gottlieb was also convicted and jailed and later given full parole.)
Still, Livent shows won many awards in the past. Kiss of the Spider Woman won 10 Tonys in 1993, including one for best musical, as well as lead-acting prizes for Brent Carver and Chita Rivera; Kiss also won for best director and best original score. In 1995 Show Boat won the Tony for best revival of a musical. And in 1999, Fosse won the Tony for best musical of the year.
Nevertheless, Bradley doubts that Sousatzka will find a happy ending on Broadway.
"Garth has diehard loyalists," Bradley says, "but notoriety is not necessarily a positive thing."