For three days last week, musical-theatre producers and investors from Canada, the United States and as far afield as Europe gathered in a fourth-floor rehearsal room of the Elgin Theatre on Yonge Street in Toronto.
Teatro Proscenium LP, a new theatrical-production company, had invited them see the results of a six-week workshop of a new musical called Sousatzka, adapted from Bernice Rubens's 1962 novel about a Russian-American piano teacher and a child prodigy (and later turned into a movie starring Shirley MacLaine).
The theatrical talent both on and off stage was certainly designed to impress. Victoria Clark (Tony winner for The Light in the Piazza) played the title role, while Montego Glover (a Tony nominee for Memphis) and Tsidii Le Loka (the original Rafiki in The Lion King) were also in the cast.
Craig Lucas (also a Tony winner for The Light in the Piazza) wrote the adaptation – which moves part of the action to South Africa, while the songs were by the composer/lyricist team David Shire and Richard Maltby Jr., whose Broadway outings are 1983's Baby and 1996's Big. Two designers who just won Tony awards for Hamilton were also involved – Paul Tazewell (costumes) and Howell Binkley (lighting).
At the centre was a Canadian with a less sterling reputation than the artists he had assembled: Garth Drabinsky, the former Livent impresario, convicted of fraud and forgery in 2009 and still on parole.
Depending on who you talk to, Drabinsky might be described as anything from the "creative consultant" to the "artistic producer" of Teatro Proscenium, LP – which wants to produce Sousatzka at home in March, then export it to Broadway or London's West End.
"[Sousatzka] is entirely Garth's project – he invented it, he is shepherding all the artistic decisions," said Maltby, also known for supplying the English lyrics for Miss Saigon. "He's a much more hands-on artistic producer than anyone I've ever worked with, even Cameron Mackintosh."
One producer familiar with the project estimates Sousatzka will cost at least $16-million (U.S) to get to Broadway. Can Teatro Proscenium raise that kind of money when the first news of the workshop leaked out under the headline "Convicted felon's new musical could be a big hit" in the New York Post?
Reached briefly by phone this week, Drabinsky declined an interview, saying he plans to continue his policy of not talking to the press: "You haven't seen me give an interview in 20 years – or close to."
While on the line, however, he could not resist setting straight the New York Post article he deemed "erroneous" – although not, he made clear, the "could be a big hit" part of the headline.
"[The musical] really has nothing to do with the movie," Drabinsky said. "I was involved in the financing of the movie way back at Cineplex – but it's really an adaptation from the book and it's entirely different."
As compelling as the story of Sousatzka might be, people are more interested right now in the drama of Drabinsky's attempted comeback. Livent was considered North America's largest live-theatre company in the 1990s, producing musicals in Toronto and New York such as Phantom of the Opera, Ragtime and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Then Drabinsky and his former business partner Myron Gottlieb were convicted in 2009 for misstating Livent's financial position.
So how has the producer – stripped of his Order of Canada in 2012 and disbarred in 2014 – managed to attract and pay for Tony-winning talent 18 years after Livent went bankrupt, and with the legal repercussions of its collapse still making their way through the courts?
In part, it is because Richard Stursberg, the former head of CBC's English services who worked with Drabinsky on a reality TV series called Triple Sensation at the public broadcaster, is in charge of the money. He is chief executive officer of Teatro Proscenium – a limited partnership that was incorporated on Dec. 6, 2013, and is developing multiple musicals at the same time. Stursberg calls Drabinsky – despite the messy legal collapse of Livent – "without any question, the greatest producer of musicals in the history of the country."
According to Stursberg, Teatro came out of conversations he had with people who feel similarly (and are now limited partners in the company) when they realized Drabinsky wanted to get back on Broadway. "Since he had the appetite, we had to figure out how can we do this, bearing in mind all the baggage and history and whatnot," he explained.
That "whatnot" includes parole conditions that the Ontario Securities Commission says prevent Drabinsky from "owning or operating a business or being in a position of responsibility for the management of finances or investments for any other individual, charity, business or institution." Those conditions end in September, but the 66-year-old's legal troubles are not finished.
He is still awaiting a hearing with the OSC in February, 2017, on its bid to impose regulatory sanctions on Drabinsky based on his criminal conviction. At a prehearing conference held on June 27, he agreed that "until the conclusion of the commission's proceeding," he will "not own or operate a business" or "be in a position that that would entail the management, control or administration of finances or investments of any other individual, charity, business or institution."
Teatro's structure avoids breaking these conditions. Sturberg is the CEO, while Douglas Sedore, who works for Middlefield Properties, one of the limited partners in the venture, is the chief financial officer. Garth Drabinsky's brother, Cyril, is on the board, but Drabinsky, although the company is centred around his talents, is an employee.
"Doug Sedore and I sign all the cheques," Stursberg said. "[Garth Drabinsky's] not operating the business; I'm operating the business. He is, literally, the creative consultant. We have him on a contract."
Other partners in Teatro Proscenium include Stageventures, a consortium of investors led by Bernard Abrams that largely invests in Las Vegas shows, but has Broadway credits from Bonnie and Clyde to a revival of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying; Toronto lawyer Arthur M. Kraus; and Rick Chad, who runs Chad Management Group.
Chad, the only limited partner who spoke to The Globe and Mail on the record, said he was comfortable putting money from his family trust behind the Drabinsky brand – which he does not see as tarnished. "The money is being managed by numerous people – and we're using Garth as a resource," he said. "I've known Garth through his ups and downs for many years and worked with him at Livent. … I perceive him as actually being a very honourable man."
Conversations with producers and investors who have stayed away from Teatro (and did not want to go on the record) suggest there is still some concern about getting involved in a Broadway-bound venture with Drabinsky – who is the subject of an arrest warrant in the United States. ("Nothing will be forever," Chad said, mysteriously, of Drabinsky's inability to cross the border.)
But Adam Blanshay, who manages Just For Laughs Theatricals out of New York and London, said that many are willing to give Drabinsky another chance – and he, for one, recalls fondly the creative work that came out of Livent in the 1990s.
"That positive reputation hasn't necessarily vanished," said Blanshay, who along with Gilbert Rozon from JFL was invited to the Sousatzka workshop, but did not attend. "I'm sure people who engage in business with him will be so much the wiser. I wouldn't personally hesitate to discuss a project with him."
In addition to the question of whether Sousatzka will find backers is whether it would find enough audience to pay them back.
It seems an unusual choice of source material. Neither the book Madame Sousatzka, nor the film has high name recognition – and the musical's current title is hard to spell or pronounce. (Its musical possibilities have been mentioned before: the late Globe and Mail movie critic Jay Scott compared the main character to Auntie Mame in his 1988 review of the film.)
Through a casting call earlier this year, it was clear that in this adaptation, the piano prodigy is a black South African named Themba – with parents described as "anti-apartheid activists." The casting of Le Loka and hiring of Lebo M, who did the arrangements for The Lion King, to work on the music for scenes set in Africa, suggest Drabinsky may be fighting old battles. (The Lion King beat Ragtime for the best musical Tony in 1998 – shortly before the Toronto production company's house of cards began to collapse.)
Has Drabinsky kept up with Broadway trends since Livent's heyday in the 1990s? Maltby suggested Sousatzka will be not be a throwback to the megamusicals of the 1990s – despite its literary source, globe-spanning plot and a cast of 37. "If that's what [Drabinsky's] famous for, everybody will be astonished at the focus and the simplicity of it," he said. "It's going to be very modern – the days of gigantic sets has sort of passed. … [Director Adrian Noble, former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company] is doing it much more like a Shakespearean play."
Maltby has remained loyal to Drabinsky; he directed Fosse, a show that originated with Livent and won the Tony for best musical in 1999. ("The day after we opened in Toronto, the Mounties moved in, so it was a tumultuous trip to New York," he recalled.)
Likewise Noble, who was a judge on Triple Sensation, and Graciela Daniele – who previously worked with on Ragtime – and is the choreographer for Sousatzka.
As with most of Livent's old shows, the creative team of Sousatzka is almost entirely U.S. and British talent – although Stursberg said about 50 per cent of the cast will be Canadian. (Stratford Festival star Tom Rooney participated last fall in a reading of Hard Times, a Teatro Proscenium project inspired by a song by Stephen Foster.)
Sturberg, who would not discuss specifics, said Teatro Proscenium has raised "significant money," and he believes Sousatzka's workshop presentations will attract enough investment to get it up in the new year. "I think it's fair to say that people were very excited and very moved, thrilled, by what it was that they saw," he said.
As for any questions investors might have about working with a "convicted felon," as the Post put it – they disappear when they see the quality of the work and the calibre of the talent, Strusberg said. "Surely, this is exactly what people want. A thing where Garth's creativity is not lost, but, at the same time, all of the arrangements with respect to financing and structure of what's going on respect exactly what it is that needs to be done – from the point of view of investors, quite apart from the issue of parole."