Is Garth Drabinsky yesterday's man – or does the former Livent CEO have what it takes to create a hit musical this millennium?
In a fourth-floor rehearsal room of the Elgin Theatre on Thursday, Mr. Drabinsky, now creative producer of a company called Teatro Proscenium, tried hard to persuade the press that he still had the magic while introducing a few numbers from his forthcoming musical Sousatzka.
When he mentioned his producing past, Mr. Drabinsky did so only in positive terms – noting, for instance, that it was 20 years to the day since Ragtime, the last original musical he produced in Toronto, had its world premiere.
But in a half-hour interview after the presentation, the 67-year-old impresario was less eager to talk about the negative legacy of Livent – and wouldn't answer questions about his trial for fraud and forgery, his prison sentence, or how Sousatzka's story of "genius, sacrifice and the redemption of the human spirit" might resonate with his own life.
"I'm here to talk about Sousatzka; I'm here to talk about producing and creativity," he said, in his first interview with The Globe and Mail in "15 or 20 years" by his estimation. "There's been enough written about my past – I never walked away from my past. The history is written and we move forward."
Musical theatre has, indeed, moved forward in the nearly two decades that Mr. Drabinsky – recently free from parole and employed by a company built around him, but that keeps him at arm's length from the finances – has been out of the business.
Although confined to Canada during that time, and still unable to enter the United States due to unresolved legal issues, Mr. Drabinsky does not seem to have built strong ties to the Canadian musical-theatre community that has made great advances since Livent filed for bankruptcy in 1998.
In the meantime, American commercial producers such as Kevin McCollum (Rent, The Book of Mormon) and Junkyard Dog (Memphis) have started to tap into this country's talent of Canadian composers and lyricists. The Drowsy Chaperone became the first Canadian-written musical to find success on Broadway in 2006.
This year, Ride the Cyclone, by B.C.'s Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, was named one of the top 10 shows of the year in the New York Times, while Torontonians Irene Sankoff and David Hein's Come From Away has sold out its entire pre-Broadway run at the Royal Alexandra.
Sousatzka, however, is a throwback to the 1990s – with the feel of a Hollywood movie shooting only in Canada. Like Livent's old Broadway-bound productions, the musical's core creative team and most of its stars have all been flown in from the U.S. or Britain. The 47-member ensemble of actors and singers is about half Canadian – but only one of the 10 actors playing principal roles is (former National Arts Centre ensemble member Ryan Allen).
Mr. Drabinsky is unapologetic about that, noting the great number of Canadians working as associates or understudies on the show – and wouldn't discuss whether future Teatro Proscenium productions might involve Canadian directors, composers, choreographers, lyricists or playwrights. "This isn't about nationalism; this is about art," he said.
Broadway, as always, preoccupies Mr. Drabinsky. He feels that New York needs more of the old-school, hands-on "creative" producing that he used to be involved in. While he acknowledges "pockets of greatness" such as Hamilton in the current musical-theatre landscape, he believes there's too much derivative work based on previously recorded material.
With his inability to cross the border – at least "not yet," he emphasizes – Mr. Drabinsky has formed this opinion from afar, his live theatrical experiences have been largely limited to whatever his erstwhile rivals at Mirvish Productions have produced or presented in Toronto. "That was the only game in town, so there was no other access to it," he said, adding that he kept abreast of trends through cast recordings, reading articles and talking with old friends in the industry. "YouTube, thank God, helps a great deal."
Sousatzka, which Mr. Drabinsky originally began working on five years ago while in prison, is based on a 1962 novel Madame Sousatzka about a piano teacher and her star pupil by the Booker Prize-winning Welsh author Bernice Rubens. During a very slick presentation that included choreographed numbers, Richard Maltby Jr., the show's lyricist, explained its revised story – which Mr. Drabinsky worked on and believes speaks to the refugee crisis today.
In 1980s London, Madame Sousatzka (played by Tony winner Victoria Clark), who escaped the Warsaw Ghetto, tutors a 16-year-old piano prodigy from South Africa named Themba (newcomer Jordan Barrow). During their sessions, music triggers memories, and the journey of the characters, Mr. Maltby Jr explained, is this: "They own their past; they own who they are."
Whether Mr. Drabinsky wants to own his past, it's not actually truly past. Livent's creditors are still on their quest to try to recover money – and, in February, the Supreme Court of Canada will hear an appeal of a ruling that ordered accounting firm Deloitte & Touche to pay $118-million in damages for negligence in its work as auditor of the theatre company.
And while his parole ended in October, Mr. Drabinsky is still subject to some of its conditions as he awaits a hearing next year with the Ontario Securities Commission, which is seeking to impose regulatory sanctions on him.