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Losses in the limelight: The education of Aubrey Dan

Aubrey Dan, President of Dancap Productions poses for a portrait, with his trademark hat, outside the Elgin Theatre in Toronto,

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail/Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Want to make a quick $10-million in the theatre? Start with $50-million.

That's the costly lesson Toronto impresario Aubrey Dan has lately learned.

No amount of money can guarantee a hit show. Top-flight talent, marketing moxie, a great musical score, the right venue – all are necessary, but ultimately, the magic elixir that yields a box office smash remains elusive. Only the rich and the intrepid usually come to play.

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As Mr. Dan's former rival David Mirvish says: "The theatre is not a business. It's a disease."

Vowing that his Dancap Productions would go head-to-head with Mr. Mirvish in Canada's theatre market, Mr. Dan burst into the competitive arena in 2007 with $50-million of his own money.

That ambition, at least for now, has been dashed. After sustaining estimated losses of $40-million, Dancap will suspend operations this fall.

Mr. Dan blamed a tough economy and a shortage of Broadway "product" as well as what he called the Mirvish organization's control of downtown theatres (the Royal Alexandra, Princess of Wales and the Ed Mirvish), but he was somewhat the author of his own misfortune in this regard.

The Dancap saga might well have had a happier ending. (Mr. Dan declined repeated requests for interviews.) When Mr. Dan threw his signature Fedora into the ring, Mr. Mirvish actually proffered an olive branch.

He was about to stage We Will Rock You, a hit London show based on music of the band Queen. Seeking to spread financial risk, he invited Dancap to become a co-producer. Mr. Dan declined. He'd seen the show, and didn't like its prospects.

Then perhaps Dancap might lease a Mirvish theatre for its own productions?

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Again, Mr. Dan demurred. He wanted to fly solo.

That vote for stubborn independence proved characteristic of Dancap's modus operandi – and, arguably, fatal.

We Will Rock You ran 16 profitable months at the Canon (recently renamed for the late Ed Mirvish), and another year at the smaller Panasonic Theatre.

And although he mounted some hits, including the musical Jersey Boys, which ran for two years and significantly raised Dancap's profile, Mr. Dan never really gained traction.

Multiple sources say the problems were as much internal as external – that while Mr. Dan hired knowledgeable professionals, he frequently spurned their advice.

"That happened all the time," said Young In Turner, Dancap's former advertising manager. "He surrounded himself with good people, but sometimes chose not to listen."

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Ms. Turner left the company last year. "I just felt I wasn't being heard or he wasn't trusting my instincts."

"Aubrey never thought he needed help," adds veteran Toronto producer Marlene Smith. "He thought he knew everything. There's no point surrounding yourself with good people if you don't listen to them."

Mr. Dan's background in pharmaceutical sales may not have helped. The son of Leslie Dan, founder of generic drug giant Novopharm, Mr. Dan spent almost 20 years in that fiercely competitive milieu and seemed to bring the industry's aggressive habits to bear on the essentially collaborative theatre culture.

That combative instinct was nowhere more evident than in his attempt to win control of the Canon Theatre.

Without it, Dancap had to lease inferior venues – the 3,000-seat Sony Centre (too large); the Elgin/Wintergarden (too small); and the Toronto Centre for the Arts (too far from downtown).

In 2008, Mr. Dan paid $12-million for a 12.5-per-cent equity stake in New York-based Key Brand Entertainment, which had acquired the Canon and the Panasonic. But the Mirvish organization had a contract to manage the Canon until 2015, as well as a first right to bid for the building if it were sold.

When Key Brand decided to sell, Mr. Mirvish bid $35-million for both the Canon and the Panasonic.

"Dancap could then have made a higher offer," Mr. Mirvish says. "It didn't. So it's incorrect to say Aubrey 'lost' the theatres. He never had the theatres."

Mr. Dan sought an injunction to block the Canon sale, arguing Key Brand had pledged control to him. "Going to court is like going to the bathroom," he explained at the time. "It's necessary. You gotta do it."

The court dismissed his claim and an appeal. Mr. Dan sued for damages.

At mediation, Mr. Mirvish offered to lease the Canon to Dancap for any 20 weeks a year – for 10 years.

Had he taken it, Mr. Dan would have secured the downtown venue so crucial to success.

He refused it, proceeding to arbitration against Key Brand, where he lost again.

A complaint to Ottawa's Competition Bureau accusing Mirvish Productions of monopolistic practices was rejected.

"I have 208 weeks to fill in my theatres and I fill 130-35 weeks with my own shows," Mr. Mirvish said. "So I have 70 other weeks to rent and I'm actively looking for people to rent them. I don't call that a monopoly."

At Dancap, Mr. Dan rode a steep learning curve.

Although he promised to use only Actor's Equity talent – generally deemed superior to non-union performers – he later opted for cheaper, non-Equity casts, which critics panned. He scored a box-office success with South Pacific, but brought the show back a year later with disappointing results. This year, he bought the rights to the family musical Shrek, but didn't run it in Toronto during March break.

In an industry that prizes savoir-faire, Mr. Dan sometimes appeared insensitive to protocol. Until his staff put a stop to it, he often mingled with cast members before the curtain rose. "Actors liked seeing Aubrey backstage," says Eric Goldstein, former company manager for Jersey Boys. "But … Aubrey had to be reminded fairly often that people had to get ready and focus."

Last year, Mr. Dan became lead investor/producer of Prince of Broadway, a new musical based on the work of director Hal Prince. He formally withdrew last month, citing a failure to find other investors and a New York theatre willing to book the show.

"Aubrey was driven by his passion for the theatre – the art, not the business," said Simma Levine, a New York booking agent. "He's got to be commended for that. But this business is about your reputation and your relationships and he didn't really understand that."



Total number of musicals mounted in Canada: 26

Biggest hits: Jersey Boys, South Pacific (2010)

Biggest flops: The Toxic Avenger, Nine to Five, Come Fly Away.

Broadway investments: 16 shows, including Memphis (a Tony award winner), In the Heights and The Farnsworth Invention

London's West End investments: six shows, including Wicked, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Ghost the Musical

Years in business: five

Estimated financial losses: $40-million

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About the Authors

Based in Toronto, Michael Posner has been with the Globe and Mail since 1997, writing for arts, news and features.Before that, he worked for Maclean's Magazine and the Financial Times of Canada, and has freelanced for Toronto Llfe, Chatelaine, Walrus, and Queen's Quarterly magazines. More

Banking Reporter

James Bradshaw is banking reporter for the Report on Business. He covered media from 2014 to 2016, and higher education from 2010 to 2014. Prior to that, he worked as a cultural reporter for Globe Arts, and has written for both the Toronto section and the editorial page. More

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