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Producer Adam Blanshay, CEO of Just for Laughs Theatricals, at the St. James Theatre in New York, where the Woody Allen musical Bullets over Broadway will be launched in March. (Eric Thayer for the globe and mail)
Producer Adam Blanshay, CEO of Just for Laughs Theatricals, at the St. James Theatre in New York, where the Woody Allen musical Bullets over Broadway will be launched in March. (Eric Thayer for the globe and mail)

How a theatre fan from Montreal became a Broadway power broker Add to ...

It’s lunchtime at Bond 45, the upscale Italian eatery just around the corner from Times Square that’s frequented by Broadway’s biggest movers and shakers and is the setting for martini-throwing producers in the NBC series Smash. The CEO of Just for Laughs Theatricals is at his regular table, ignoring the off-menu salad he ordered – and holding back tears.

Even if the Canadian producer wasn’t sitting there, you’d know it was his table: “Adam Blanshay” is engraved on a nameplate affixed to the floor, alongside one for Tony winner Michael Cerveris, and another for David Furnish (an executive producer on husband Elton John’s Billy Elliot).

JFL Theatricals, a new division of the Montreal comedy powerhouse that Blanshay launched just last January, has hit the Broadway jackpot with the first two shows it’s ever co-produced. Both the $13.5-million (U.S) crowd-pleasing musical Kinky Boots and the $3.1-million critic-wowing double bill of Twelfth Night and Richard III (imported from England) have beat long odds to turn a profit on the Great White Way – a place where, by some estimates, a mere one one in eight shows ever manages to make its way into the black.

There’s beginner’s luck – and then there’s rolling a 64-sided die and predicting the number it lands on. “Not many startups can project a profit after a year of operations,” the 32-year-old producer tells me as we sit down to talk about the next big New York projects that JFL Theatricals will be co-producing. Both are movies-turned-musicals, and both are good bets to be Tony contenders this spring: Rocky the Musical, whose final fight scene, in the show’s tryout in Germany, is a coup de théâtre that’s been compared to the chandelier scene in Phantom; and Bullets Over Broadway, Woody Allen’s adaptation of his own love letter to 1920s theatre.

So, why has the conversation taken an emotional turn. And why are Blanshay’s eyes welling up?

Because for him, Kinky Boots (with its score by Cyndi Lauper and book by Harvey Fierstein), now a member of the million-dollar-a-week club alongside the likes of Wicked and The Book of Mormon, is about more than the weekly grosses. It’s about audiences from near and far flocking to see a musical that tells the story of an intrepid drag queen who helps save a struggling, small-town shoe factory; it’s about a message of acceptance finding enormous resonance. And it’s about how much has changed since Blanshay was a gay teenager searching for acceptance.

Cue those tears.

But let’s start with the business, before the personal. In fact, Blanshay, born and raised in the affluent Montreal enclave of Westmount, is part a pack of Quebec cultural entrepreneurs who have suddenly and somewhat surprisingly become behind-the-curtain stars of a whole lot of Broadway theatre. Even before JFL Theatricals came into being, Blanshay had been involved in a number of productions (not all of them successful, by any means) on the Great White Way. The same June evening that Kinky Boots nabbed the Tony for best new musical, the statuette for best musical revival went to a production of Pippin centred around the circus choreography of Montreal’s Les 7 doigts de la main. And, just last week, Cirque du Soleil announced its own new division dedicated to developing musicals for New York and beyond.

At the same time, over in London – where the financial risks and rewards involved in commercial theatre are a fraction of those in New York – JFL Theatricals, which Blanshay co-owns with the founder of the Just for Laughs comedy festival, Gilbert Rozon, is invested in a half-dozen shows, ranging from a revival of Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts to the upcoming I Can’t Sing: The X Factor Musical in the West End.

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