COVER

THE MAGIC MUSICALS

HIGH-POWERED MARKETING HAS HELPED TO WHET A GLOBAL APPETITE FOR LAVISH MEGAMUSICALS

PAMELA YOUNG March 27 1989
COVER

THE MAGIC MUSICALS

HIGH-POWERED MARKETING HAS HELPED TO WHET A GLOBAL APPETITE FOR LAVISH MEGAMUSICALS

PAMELA YOUNG March 27 1989

Billboards portraying a waifish little girl etched against the tricolor flag of France urge one and all to “fight to get a ticket” to the blockbuster musical, Les Misérables. Midnight-black posters emblazoned with yellow feline eyes announce the return engagement of Cats, a stage musical that grossed more than $40 million in its original 1985 Toronto run. And vastly outnumbering both the waifs and the cat’s eyes are the ghostly white masks associated with The Phantom of the Opera, the latest superhit by Cats’ composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. Those promotional campaigns, as box-office business already indicates, have helped to whet the public appetite for Canadian productions of lavishly staged, mainly British musicals. Last week, Les Misérables opened with nearly $9 million in advance ticket sales. And the massively marketed Phantom has already chalked up $15 million—six months before its Toronto opening.

That box-office boom is but one reflection of a pattern in which glossy musicals, often akin to grand opera, have generated a global business of unprecedented proportions during the 1980s. Price seems to be no object. Single-ticket rates for the three big Toronto shows, including service and handling fees, range from a low of $29.50 for a second-balcony seat at Les Misérables to a high of $79.75 for Phantom—and those top-price seats are nearly sold out. By the standards of New York City and London—where ticket scalping often multiplies the admission price—those Toronto rates are relatively modest. London, where the current boom began, has supplanted Broadway, the traditional leader, as the chief purveyor of musical extravaganzas. In Canada, Toronto was among the cities that used to be just another stop for road-show productions assembled elsewhere. Now it is the place to mount imported megamusicals with Canadian casts and production crews.

Boom: And by the end of this year, Toronto will open or reopen several new centres designed to stage such shows. One is the Pantages Theatre, where Phantom will open in September. The former vaudeville house, which had been split into six small cinemas, is now being restored as a 2,100-seat theatre by its owner, the Cineplex Odeon Corp. A second restoration project nearing completion will yield two more midsize theatres, the Elgin and the Winter Garden, which will be operated by impresario Marlene Smith, who, with Cats in 1985, was the first to coproduce a major imported musical with Canadian personnel on and behind the stage. The musicals boom is echoing offstage as well: spin-off merchandising and corporate sponsorship of shows have expanded dramatically, notably in the case of Phantom.

The most lavish show onstage now is the $4.5-million production of Les Misérables, which father-and-son impresarios Edwin and David Mirvish (page 45) are coproducing at their Royal Alexandra Theatre with one of the world’s top producers, London’s Cameron Mackintosh (page 44). Adapted in France from Victor Hugo’s classic novel, the intense but melodic musical tells the heroic story of ex-convict Jean Valjean against the tumultuous backdrop of postrevolutionary France. Although London critics panned it when it opened there in 1985, the show has gone on to spectacular success, travelling to cities from Osaka to Tel Aviv, and still playing in London and 11 other locations. Richard Jay-Alexander, the New York executive producer and associate director of the Toronto show, explained why he believes that the 19th-century melodrama has international and almost timeless appeal. Said Jay-Alexander: “Every population has had struggle or turmoil of some sort and, as a result, they embrace Les Misérables as their own story.”

The Mirvishes were so keen to stage Les Misérables—commonly abbreviated in North America as Les Miz—that they decided to suspend their annual subscription series at the Royal Alexandra for at least a year to allow for its extended run. Said Ed Mirvish: “It was too important a show for us to pass up.”

Aimed: The musical version of Hugo’s story, by composer Claude-Michel Schönberg and librettist Alain Boublil, began in France as a record album that sold more than a quarter of a million copies before it opened onstage at the Paris Palais des Sports in September, 1980. There, it played to a total of more than 500,000 people. More in the tradition of opera than the Broadway musical, Les Misérables is entirely sung. Unlike many Broadway shows, in which songs aimed at the hit parade were injected into the plot, musical themes in Les Misérables are linked and recur—an operatic style that has led some North American drama critics to complain that it lacks memorable hit tunes. Some music critics disagree, as did producer Mackintosh when he first heard the recording of Schönberg’s music in 1983. After obtaining additions from the composer, Mackintosh mounted Les Misérables in English translation at London’s Barbican Theatre in 1985.

Although Les Misérables has in some ways an unusually sombre plot—many of its main characters die in the course of its 2-1/2 hours—it is also a dynamic, magnificently choreographed work of stagecraft. Much of the action takes place on a revolving stage that makes rapid-fire set changes possible, and its 37 cast members make a total of 700 costume changes. The most dramatic piece of staging occurs when two enormous piles of timber, shutters and rubble glide in from the wings, coming together to form the rebels’ barricade. Every production is modelled on the London show. Despite that, the Toronto production’s Canadian cast adds its own flavors in performance. Their range spans the professionalism of such widely experienced performers as Michael Burgess, Thomas Goerz, Janelle Hutchison and Graeme Campbell—there are no star billings in the cast lineup—to the chipper enthusiasms of nine-year-old Illya Woloshyn and the four other youngsters who alternate in children’s roles. Lorretta Bailey, who moved from Edmonton to Toronto to play the role of Eponine, a streetwise tomboy, explained that the cast had to develop their own interpretations of their roles within the show’s highly structured staging. Said Bailey: “There is freedom, but it is within a very specific form.”

Fit: In September, when The Phantom of the Opera casts its expensive shadow over Les Misérables as Toronto’s newest megamusical, its theatre will be part of the attraction. Cineplex Odeon calculates that Phantom will help cover the $ 18-million cost of restoring the gilded Pantages theatre, which first opened in 1920. In its refurbishing, technicians scraped the plaster down to the original coat of paint to return the intricate mouldings to their original bright pastels. Acquiring the building was a coup for Cineplex’s president, Garth Drabinsky, who finessed his main rival in the cinema business, Famous Players Corp. In 1987, when Famous Players was operating the building as a complex of six small theatres, Drabinsky managed to rent half of the structure from a woman who was part-owner of the building. After Famous Players lost a lawsuit to dislodge Cineplex, the rival corporation agreed to sell its half to Drabinsky. For Cineplex, the Pantages and Phantom made a perfect fit, financially as well as dramatically. Said Drabinsky: “The timing was impeccable because it enabled us to do Phantom, and basically out of the profits of the show to easily retire the cost of acquiring the theatre and to deal with its restoration.”

The ornate Pantages will be a fitting showcase for the Phantom plot’s setting in the Paris Opera. Based on a turn-of-the-century horror story by Gaston Leroux, the story is part thriller and part love triangle, in which a beautiful young opera singer is torn between a dashing nobleman and a disfigured musical genius who exerts a Svengali-like control over her career. Lloyd Webber wrote the show for his wife, Sarah Brightman, who starred as the singer Christine Daaè in the original 1986 London production and who later took the role to Broadway. With its quasioperatic score and its stage trappings of shimmering candelabras and opulent curtains, Phantom is rich in splendor—and enlivened with a few thrilling frights, including an episode when a massive chandelier threatens to crash into the audience.

Cost: The price tag for so much spectacle is high: the Toronto production will cost $6 million to mount, and the top ticket price of $75, plus service fee, is unprecedented for Toronto musical theatre. By comparison, the most expensive seats to the $4.5-million production of Les Misérables sell for $50 plus service. But Phantom’s strong advance ticket sales—Drabinksy fully expects to exceed the show’s Broadway advance of $21 million by the Sept. 20 opening night—indicates that many theatregoers are willing to splurge on the gothic musical. In New York, where Phantom has been running for 14 months, the show is sold out to January, 1990. Said Mackintosh, the producer behind Cats, Les Misérables and Phantom: “One reason for Phantom’s enormous success is that the show delivers what people imagine in spades.” He added that it was like going to a great restaurant: “You know that the food is going to be good and you’re going to pay a lot of money for it. The only surprise is in the presentation.”

But Phantom may also remind some theatregoers more of a department store than a restaurant. A souvenir kiosk in the Pantages lobby will be selling everything from Phantom towels to Phantom perfume. All items bearing the show’s logos are licensed by Lloyd Webber’s London-based company, The Really Useful Group. A Phantom mug features the trademark mask logo that glows when hot or cold liquid is added. And Toronto producers are introducing a line of Phantom clothing and merchandise, including T-shirts, sweat suits, loafer shoes, wallets, bookmarks and leather jackets, priced from $265 to $500, manufactured by the leather goods firm Roots Canada. Merchandising spin-offs for musicals began when Cats’ producers decided to borrow a formula that worked for rock concert promoters and studio executives of such films as Star Wars. Before that time, said Drabinsky, producers were “not living in the world of merchandising exploitation.” He added, “They didn’t understand how to take advantage of the goodwill that they were creating with their asset.”

Offer: At the same time, corporate sponsors lined up to participate in the commercial spin-offs. American Express of Canada offered its cardholders a chance to buy tickets three weeks before the Phantom box office opened. Pepsi-Cola Canada Ltd., the Canadian division of the American soft drink company, has launched a massive Phantom marketing campaign—its largest ever in Ontario—which includes four 15-second TV commercials filmed at the show’s London production. Each one ends with the taunting slogan: “Face the music: the phantom is coming.” Pepsi is also sponsoring giveaways and a billboard campaign. “Frankly, this is bigger than the Skydome for us,” said Pepsi spokesman Roger Baranowski, referring to the new domed stadium that will open in Toronto later this year. But Pepsi officials acknowledge that their aspirations go beyond merely capitalizing on Phantomania. The company has its sights set on the concession licence for Cineplex Odeon’s cinemas—currently held by CocaCola Ltd.—which sell 40 million soft drinks a year.

Family: A few doors away from Phantom’s Pantages, the public and private sectors have joined forces to create a new theatre complex. The Ontario government is involved in restoring two former vaudeville houses—the 1,500-seat Elgin Theatre and the 950-seat Winter Garden Theatre directly above it—and adding new lobby and workshop space to turn them into live theatres. Marlene Smith, who coproduced Cats in the Elgin before its restoration, will be the operator of the theatres, which will be finished before the end of this year. Smith and her partner, Ernie Rubenstein, have yet to announce which shows will open the Elgin and the Winter Garden, but Smith has said that she plans to stick “pretty much to family musicals” at the larger downstairs theatre. Her company, Theatrecorp, will strike a balance between producing its own shows and booking outside productions.

Other spaces for musical performances are in the works, including a midtown opera and ballet centre. And Cineplex’s Drabinsky has announced that he intends to seek approval from his shareholders to build a new downtown theatre with about 1,600 seats. Cineplex’s growing live entertainment division has already presented Cabaret, starring Joel Grey, and Macbeth, with Glenda Jackson and Christopher Plummer, at Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre. And this fall, the company is coproducing The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. That concert of vocal and orchestral arrangements of his works will feature a 12-member chorus and two soloists, including Sarah Brightman. The show will open in Vancouver in the fall and, if successful in British Columbia’s largest city, will then tour North America.

With Les Misérables and Cats already in town and Phantom on the way, large musicals have established themselves as lucrative fixtures in Toronto. But many of the theatres that specialize in more serious or experimental dramatic fare are losing subscribers and facing serious financial problems. In 1988, the socially committed Toronto Workshop Productions suspended operations due to a shortage of funds and has yet to resume activity. The Canadian Stage Company—itself formed last year by the merging of two groups, Centre-Stage and Toronto Free Theatre—and Theatre Passe Muraille are carrying daunting deficits. And late last year, officials at Factory Theatre’s bank informed management its line of credit would not be extended unless it raised $100,000. And while the theatre has since raised that money, it remains vulnerable.

Patrons: Many of the people who run such theatres say that the publicity generated by the large musicals is drawing patrons away from smaller houses. Said Jackie Maxwell, artistic director of the Factory Theatre: “What Phantom spends on advertising is more than my entire annual budget. How can we compete with that?” But Bill Glassco, the Canadian Stage Company’s coartistic director, says that the megamusicals are only part of a larger phenomenon. “The city is changing, becoming bigger, faster,” said Glassco. “There are more and more distractions. Serious, not-for-profit theatre is getting lost in the whirl.”

Meanwhile, the flood of musicals from London seems destined to continue. Aspects of Love, Lloyd Webber’s first musical since Phantom, premieres at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre on April 12. For Lloyd Webber, it will be a modest undertaking compared with the extravagant scale of Phantom. Aspects is a more intimate story about relationships within an artistic circle of Londoners. Adapted from a short novel by David Garnett, the show was to have starred former James Bond star Roger Moore, but he withdrew a month before the production’s opening because, he admitted, he was not equal to the singing demands of his role. Fans of the London megamusical will have to wait until September for the next one, when Miss Saigon opens. Written by Les Misérables composers Boublil and Schönberg, it is a retelling of the Madame Butterfly story set at the end of the Vietnam War. Whether dealing in matters of love and war or turning slighter stuff into song, stage musicals have often captured the public’s imagination by marshalling the heavy artillery of emotion. Now, with grand-scale productions reinforced by strategic marketing operations, the megamusical is proving to be an even more formidable conqueror of popular taste.