There’s nothing more seductive in showbiz than a good comeback story.
That’s why so many eyes here and in the United States are on the March 23 opening of Sousatzka – the first musical-theatre production of a new company called Teatro Proscenium.
It’s not the Tony-winning lyricist Richard Maltby Jr., the Oscar-winning composer David Shire or the Broadway boldface star Victoria Clark that are attracting attention to this New York-aimed musical premiering in Toronto – but a familiar, infamous name credited as “producer” on the project.
“Garth Drabinsky Poised For Comeback With Broadway-bound Sousatzka,” “Garth Drabinsky Seeks Fresh Success In Stage Comeback,” “Garth Drabinsky Seeks To Move Forward With Comeback Musical Sousatzka,” are just a few of the headlines I’ve seen in recent months.
I looked through The Globe and Mail’s archive and discovered that I’ve used the c-word as well in regard to Drabinsky – reporting on his “attempted comeback” last year.
But you know when you hear a word over and over and suddenly it starts to sound like it’s in a foreign language and you stop being sure what it means any more?
With “comeback” being thrown around so much lately, I had to turn to the dictionary to remind myself exactly what it means – and it, of course, implies a person’s return to an activity in which they have already been successful.
Are arts journalists being flim-flammed by Drabinsky again? Why is it the dominant narrative that his past as a theatre producer could be considered a success?
By most measures, Drabinsky’s initial and most prominent venture into producing musical theatre with Livent in the 1990s would be considered one of the great crash-and-burn failures in theatre history.
The Toronto-based live-entertainment company he formed with Myron Gottlieb went public with aspirations of world domination in 1993 – but had filed for bankruptcy protection by the end of 1998, saying it had racked up a whopping $334-million in debt.
(That’s still a stunning sum when you’re talking about theatre; it’s more than five times the annual budget of the Stratford Festival, or 26 times the cost of one Hamilton.)
Drabinsky and Gottlieb had been locked out of their Livent offices by new management a few months earlier – and, in 2009, they were sentenced to jail, having been found guilty of orchestrating a fraud that saw Livent’s financial statements misstated every quarter between 1993 and 1998.
The legal and financial mess Drabinsky and Gottlieb wrought is still being untangled – with the Supreme Court about to rule on whether it will uphold a 2014 Ontario Superior Court ruling that saw audit firm Deloitte LLP ordered to pay $85-million in damages for its role in the affair.
Everyone is, of course, aware of this on one level – but it’s as if in many minds, his fraud was unrelated to his work as a producer of shows such as Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime in Toronto and on Broadway, rather than directly connected to it.
Of course, theatre exists both as an art form and as a business – and Livent’s collapse doesn’t take away from audiences’ enjoyment of those shows or individual artists’ achievement in writing, directing, choreographing or performing of them.
(I can’t speak for any of this personally. I moved to Toronto only in 2003 and so only saw the negative legacy of Livent: audiences missing great big shows that likely were always too expensive to make financial sense; young artists graduating from musical-theatre school into a disappeared industry; a big, white elephant of a theatre in North York built for a business that was based on fraud.)
But producing is the most business-oriented of the roles on a theatrical production – and, while Drabinsky surely had creative input into Livent’s output, ultimately the buck stopped with him.
Perhaps the reason for the “comeback” narrative is that people think Drabinsky was successful for a while and went astray only later on.
Last week, I spent some time reading through Ontario Superior Court Justice Mary Lou Benotto’s 2009 reasons for decision in the case that sent Drabinsky to jail – as well as the court of appeal decision that upheld hers in 2011.
Once you’ve done that, it’s hard to find a way to describe any of Drabinsky’s producing activities in a positive way after reading about the creative accounting Livent employed: expense rolls; show-to-show transfers; construction companies buying large blocks of tickets, then being reimbursed for the cost through false invoices.
Indeed, Benotto compares Livent’s theatrical achievements to the athletic “achievements” of the likes of Ben Johnson or Lance Armstrong. She wrote in her judgment: “The exponential growth of [Livent] was analogous to an athlete taking a performance-enhancing drug. The result may be spectacular, but the means involve cheating.”
Would any sports journalist say Johnson was seeking “fresh success” as a sprinter? Or describe Armstrong as a cycling powerhouse, the way a Canadian Press reporter recently wrote that Drabinsky was looking to “reassert his role as a producing powerhouse”?
In the end, the analogy of the juiced-up athlete has its limits. You lose your records and your medals when you test positive for drugs, but Livent’s Tony Awards are still sitting on a shelf (though whose shelf they’re on now, I’m not quite sure).
What I don’t get is why, given the huge, bright-red asterisk on Drabinsky’s theatrical past, he is so front-and-centre in the marketing for Sousatzka, rather than, say, Maltby or Victoria Clark?
Visit the show’s website and you’ll find a picture of Drabinsky that’s four times the size of the photos of Clark.
Touting Drabinsky’s involvement in Sousatzka is the decision of the company that’s employing him as a “producer,” even as it keeps him away from the purse strings – Teatro Proscenium. If they think the brand is still strong, that’s their decision.
I guess they’re not followed on Twitter, like me, by angry people claiming to still be owed money by Drabinsky.
When it comes to arts journalists, however, we should be more careful in our language. I for one will no longer call Sousatza a “comeback” – except perhaps as regards the artists involved.
In Drabinsky’s case, I think it’s his chance to prove himself again in theatre for the first time.Report Typo/Error