COLUMN

An Olympian extravaganza

Garth Drabinsky says that Toronto will profit from his $6-million version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera

DIANE FRANCIS February 6 1989
COLUMN

An Olympian extravaganza

Garth Drabinsky says that Toronto will profit from his $6-million version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera

DIANE FRANCIS February 6 1989

An Olympian extravaganza

Garth Drabinsky says that Toronto will profit from his $6-million version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera

COLUMN

DIANE FRANCIS

Toronto is the latest Canadian city to bid for the Olympics in 1996. In this case, it may be a long shot. Athens is the favored site for that year, the 100th anniversary of the first modern Olympic Games, held in 1896. Cities bid for the Games because they bring in huge amounts of government money and tourist dollars, and leave behind buildings and facilities that only such special events justify. While Toronto’s bid is up in the air, another event is quietly under way that may reap as much benefit as an Olympics. It is Cineplex Odeon Corp.’s The Phantom of the Opera extravaganza, which is to begin a five-year run in Toronto and across Canada this fall. The lavish $6-million musical is not only one of the most expensive stage productions ever mounted here, but it promises to reap a windfall in tourism without any government assistance.

Phantom is a masterpiece of British composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, creator of Cats, Starlight Express, Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, among others. It has broken box office records in London, New York City and Tokyo. It is the story of a hideously disfigured former composer who lives in the sewers beneath the Paris Opera House, whose performers he terrorizes. Special effects leave audiences breathless, as does the lavishness of 173 ornate costumes and 19 separate scene changes. Excitement has already travelled to Toronto and, by last week, silver-screen conglomerate Cineplex had already sold more than $12 million worth of tickets.

By the time the show opens in September, predicts Cineplex founder and president Garth Drabinsky, about $25 million worth of tickets will have been sold through mail-order campaigns, radio and television spots in major cities and promotions by sponsors. About 10 per cent of the house has been purchased by sponsor American Express, which is offering tickets to its Canadian cardholders and travel-service clients. Another sponsor, Pepsi-Cola Canada Ltd., will contribute millions for the theatre

concession and rights to use Phantom logos to sell its products. Besides those two, a host of other merchandisers will be selling everything from mugs with Phantom masks that glow in the dark to Phantom perfume and sweat suits. With such hustle, the economic multipliers are quite impressive.

Drabinsky said that “it will be a $70-milliona-year business. Some 16,000 per week will see it, one-third non-Torontonians, and they will come in twos, stay in a hotel for $130 per night, eat out and shop. They could drop $250 per person.” That amounts to $1.25 million per week, or $65 million in annual tourist dollars to Toronto alone. Said Drabinsky: “The market we are drawing from is 20 million in population and is within a day’s drive of Toronto. The area is from Montreal to Detroit, and Ottawa to Pittsburgh. We are advertising through aggressive radio spots in all of these areas. All this is without word of mouth, which will be the best salesman of all.”

Not only that, but Cineplex is investing about $18 million to create a stunning setting for this stage gem. Since June, some 100 workmen and dozens of architectural draftsmen have been transforming a complex of six shabby downtown movie theatres back into a fully restored

2,100-seat house for the fall gala opening. At great expense, its former elegance is being recreated, complete with its translucent dome surrounded by plaster swirls and hanging boxes providing the best seats in the house. The original theatre, called the Pantages, was built for vaudeville in 1920 with 3,500 more closely spaced seats. Drabinsky’s promise to create a splendid and permanent facility to house Phantom and subsequent theatrical productions was part of the reason he won the rights to stage Webber’s creation.

The arrival of Phantom in Canada is a remarkable story of business twists and turns that began when Cineplex was contacted in 1987 by a widow who had inherited half the Pantages theatre and shared it with Drabinsky’s archrival, Famous Players Corp. The two operated six cinemas in it, but had tangled over leasing arrangements for three years. She offered to rent her half to Cineplex and, five hours later, Drabinsky flew to her home on a remote island in upstate Michigan to sign the deal. Not surprisingly, Famous Players sued to remove Cineplex, but lost the case.

While still in litigation with Famous Players, Drabinsky and his architects decided that the building should be restored to its former glory as a legitimate theatre. Then, in January, he saw Phantom in London for the first time. Recalled Drabinsky: “I had the most inspired evening I have ever had in a theatre, and we didn’t get great seats. I was now convinced it was going to be the most successful musical in the history of live theatre.”

By February, Drabinsky had bought Famous Players out of its half of the theatre and, by June, he snared Phantom. Bridget (Biddy) Hayward is director of the theatre division of Webber’s public company, which owns the copyrights to his works, called The Really Useful Group in London. Said Hayward: “Garth had access to a theatre we thought was suitable. Garth is a great believer in marketing and merchandise. This is probably where the Canadians have been the most successful. It is through sponsorship, through their relationship with American Express and Pepsi-Cola.”

The Really Useful Group insists on creative control, and world-famous director Harold Prince has begun scouring North America looking for Canadian talent to fill the 35 cast positions. The female lead is Rebecca Caine, a striking Toronto-born brunette who starred in London’s Phantom, and the male lead will be Ireland’s Colm Wilkinson, who must submit to three hours’ worth of makeup for each performance to transform himself into the facially deformed Phantom.

The show opened in Vienna last December and in May it is to open in Los Angeles, then Toronto in September and possibly Australia and Sweden. Said Hayward: “Phantom is quite extraordinary and opened with a $21-mülion advance in New York. No show in New York has ever opened with a $21-million advance. Phantom is absolutely unique.” Having sold more than $12 million worth of tickets eight months before the curtain is due to rise in Toronto, Drabinsky is clearly prepared to host an Olympian extravaganza of his own.