July 21, 2000
Our National Crisis: Live theatre - THE COMMENTARY
By Joseph Planta
- Second in a series.
VANCOUVER -- Continuing the series I started two weeks ago, today a look at theatre in the country and this town, focusing primarily on the Livent factor.
Musical theatre really took off in the late 1980ís when Garth Drabinsky, facing the coup on his helming of Cineplex Odeon, took to the boards and created a company called Livent. They immediately took control of the Pantages Theatre in Toronto and staged the Canadian production of Broadwayís then phenomenon, The Phantom of the Opera. Tickets sold and Garth was on top again, after falling to shame after his debacle at Odeon. He built Odeon up in the early Ď80s and once up and running was dethroned, much to his own personal bitterness.
Here he was, Livent had a hit with Phantom and soon productions were touring Canada and around the world. Drabinsky turned Livent into a winning production house for touring Broadway shows, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Aspects of Love and of course Show Boat.
What Drabinsky had that the folks on Broadway didnít was the chutzpah to take not-so theatrically inclined performers and drafting them onto the stage in title roles that would definitely sell tickets. With Joseph, he took Donny Osmond and sort-of revived his career as he sold out across the world when he toured in that show. With Phantom he took a KISS singer, whose name escapes me and that run in Toronto lasted over ten years.
Next, bored with just staging revivals, Drabinsky enlisted the help of legendary 20-time Tony winner Hal Prince and the equally legendary song team of John Kander and Fred Ebb (not to mention scribe Terrence McNally) and staged the successful production of Kiss of The Spider Woman, not only in England but to raves on Broadway. Starring Chita Rivera, followed by Vanessa Williams, Kiss spent a couple of years on Broadway and established Garth Drabinsky and Livent as a real player in the theatre community of Broadway.
With Liventís Broadway success, they built theatres in Vancouver and Chicago. Both were sponsored by the Ford company, thus got the name: Ford Centre for the Performing Arts. It was Drabinskyís vision that in both Vancouver and Chicago, touring companies could have a home. Here in particular, he felt that Vancouver with its burgeoning cosmopolitan setting, could be a springboard for him to try new product and sell tickets. With the successful production of Show Boat, which was this townís Ford Centreís inaugural production, the local theatre scene felt the choking away of business.
5 years ago, local producers like TUTS or Royal City Musical Theatre were up in arms wondering how they could compete with Drabinskyís national production house. Livent had big names, big stars and big budgets, but with their production of Sunset Boulevard which made its way to this town in late 1996, it was clear Drabinsky had peaked. Diahann Carroll had been cast in that production and while PR was at an all time high, ticket sales were hardly brisk. It was also around the time of the 3 Tenorsí ill-fated New Yearís eve gala. Ticket prices for ďbigĒ shows were high, even though the product was relatively thin.
With that, Drabinsky put in a couple road companies of mediocre shows and the audiences failed to show up ready to buy tickets. Livent focused itís work on creating the gigantic Ragtime, Parade and Fosse for Broadway audiences and local folk began noticing those local productions by TUTS and especially those Royal City Musicals at Massey Theatre in New West.
Livent was soon taken over by Mike Ovitz and his gang and soon after brought about charges against Drabinsky and his right hand man, Myron Gottlieb. They were cooking the books and Drabinsky, the flamboyant impresario was sent into exile. (He emerged a couple weeks ago with plans to re-stage some other play, but it wonít be the same. His image is tarnished.)
To think that theatre was controlled by Drabinsky and his Livent is absurd. The most they did was establish our nationís footing on Broadway as a player. He helped them appreciate their tastes for big budget shows, and with his demise saw their exit, as musicals arenít the biggest draws currently on Broadway. In this country he profoundly affected our theatrical tastes. We seem to enjoy the big budget, big star draws, but we are really after substance.
I have it on good authority that Stratfordís attendance is at an all-time high. Perhaps it was Drabinsky, but Iíd rather hope it was the Canadian taste for theatre.
The Ford Centre now sits empty and the big dreams of Garth, modelled after those of Ziegfeld, have faded. TUTS with their upcoming productions of South Pacific and West Side Story continue to fill our appetites for musical comedy, as are the Dean Regan pieces stages by the Arts Club. (Currently, Hotel Porter, Reganís latest, bows at the refurbished Stanley, which is doing briskly since the Arts Club fixed it up a couple of years ago.)
This fall road companies of Chicago, Cabaret and Beauty and The Beast hit this town. I donít know about sales for those shows, but if they sell out itíll be the desire Livent created in this town a decade ago. If they flop, itíll be because our tastes have matured or inmatured. Theatre isnít high up on our list, perhaps because weíre watching TV more or on the Internet more. There is a great market out there, but there is a greater need for an audience.
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An archive of Joseph Planta's previous columns can be found by clicking HERE .