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opinion

In the wake of the disappointing Toronto reception to the musical Sousatzka in March, the question emerges: Did Garth Drabinsky and his partner, Richard Stursberg, make a mistake when they chose it over Hard Times: An American Musical?

Last fall in the rehearsal hall of the Elgin Theatre, they not only staged a workshop production of Sousatzka – they also presented a staged reading of another show they were interested in producing. Hard Times, written by New York novelist and playwright Larry Kirwan, is the story of legendary composer Stephen Foster. When it was produced off-off-Broadway five years ago, it received a rave review in The New York Times.

In the theatre, there are some shows that are virtually review-proof, but Sousatzka is not one of them. The outcome at the Elgin: negative reviews and rows of empty seats. Which leaves the key question: Did the show lose money in Toronto, and if so, how much? Drabinsky did not respond to my requests for that information.

In the mind of the 67-year-old showbiz mogul, Sousatzka must have seemed like the perfect vehicle to mark his return to theatre after spending 17 months in jail and one year on day parole. (He and his former partner, Myron Gottlieb, had been convicted of fraud and forgery in connection with the collapse of Livent, the company they co-founded.) To those who have known Drabinsky for years, as I have, it is clear why Sousatzka resonated with him. It deals with issues he has often spoken about passionately – racism, social justice and the Holocaust. And it was set within living memory of many people in the audience.

The appeal of Hard Times is different. It is the story of a composer (Foster) who was born in 1826 and died in 1864. It was originally produced for just two weeks in September, 2012, at the tiny Cell Theatre on 23rd Street in New York. The songs include audience favourites Oh! Susanna and Old Folks at Home.

The biggest problem with Sousatzka was the script. Still, it might have been a hit if Drabinsky had secured a leading lady whose name alone would be enough to draw audiences. Victoria Clark, who played the title role, was a Tony winner, she was the right age, and she gave an excellent performance. But there are only a handful of stars in the same age bracket who could have made this show a box-office success despite its flaws, and Clark is not one of them. (The list includes Glenn Close and Jessica Lange.)

It was amazing that Stursberg, former head of Telefilm Canada and current chief executive of Teatro Proscenium, was able to raise more than $8-million to stage Sousatzka in Toronto. But it could cost that much again to fix the show and move it to Broadway. Taking the show to London's West End would be less expensive, but London may be a faint hope because it is often harder to find wealthy people there willing to invest in theatre than it is in New York.

The March 23 opening of Sousatzka at the Elgin was a traumatic experience for Drabinsky. He fell while in the men's room, and missed taking a bow during the curtain call. Then he was taken to hospital to have a head wound treated, and turned up late at the after-party with a conspicuous bandage on his head.

You can never rule Drabinsky out, but this time he may have painted himself into a corner. The situation reminded me of a famous quote from Little Caesar, a 1931 gangster movie starring Edward G. Robinson. "Mother of mercy," he says, "is this the end of Rico?" Now the question is, "Mother of mercy, is this the end of Garth?"