THEATRE

Betting on a resurrection

MARTIN KNELMAN May 23 1994
THEATRE

Betting on a resurrection

MARTIN KNELMAN May 23 1994

Betting on a resurrection

THEATRE

MARTIN KNELMAN

When Martha Billes moved from Toronto to Calgary in 1978 and got involved in the oil business, she noticed a difference in the collective psyche. Financial caution was no longer the ultimate virtue. “In the oil patch,” says Billes, whose father was one of the co-founders of the Canadian Tire empire, “you see a property and you think, Wow, maybe one in five will be a winner.’

And then you go right ahead and take the high risk.” Billes, a major shareholder of Canadian Tire, felt a similar rush of long-shot fever in the late summer of 1991, when Toronto producer Marlene Smith showed up at Billes’s cottage on Ontario’s Lake Simcoe with tapes of a musical written by a couple of unknowns in their mid-20s. Smith referred to them as “The Boys,” and brought one of them, Andrew Sabiston, along. The show they had written was about Napoleon Bonaparte.

Billes had been one of Smith’s investors for the 1987 Canadian tour of the musical Cats, but Napoleon—a home-grown creation—was a chancier venture. Since Billes did not have a stereo system at the cottage, she had to sit in her car listening to the tape. The feisty entrepreneur has a reputation for tough-mindedness, but this was a case of love at first hearing. “I thought, ‘Right.’ You hear the right vibrations and you know there’s oil coming through.”

Instead, what Billes and the 33 other investors went on to encounter was underwhelming response from the critics, rows of empty seats at

Napoleon’s backers look to London for an afterlife

Toronto’s Elgin Theatre—and, late last week, a decision to close the show on May 29, three months ahead of schedule. Attendance had averaged a disappointing 30 per cent of the Elgin’s 1,500-seat capacity. But Smith and her associates are still busy raising the $6 million they need for a London production now scheduled to open in the fall, and are on the verge of announcing a British director. “There’s a great appetite for new shows in London,” she said. “We’ve received overtures from four major theatres.” Smith told Maclean’s she felt badly about closing early in Toronto. “But we’re thrilled we have a chance to go to London earlier than planned,” she added. “We looked at Toronto as a try-out town, like New Haven in the old days. Now, we know what we have to do to the show.” Meanwhile, Billes and other investors who put up the more than $4.5-million cost of developing and staging the Toronto show remain upbeat about Napoleon s prospects for conquering the world. They appear confident that when the musical opens in London this fall, it will enjoy the kind of huge success that will make Toronto feel ashamed of failing to support it. They are true believers who can almost see the black stuff gushing out of the ground even while those around them act as if the well were dry. “Nobody is abandoning us on the investors’ side,” says Sabiston, 28, who wrote the book and lyrics in collaboration with music composer Timothy Williams, 27. “We knew we could count on them even at our darkest hour.”

Investors are increasingly aware that there is money to be made in entertainment. And enough people with cash are prepared to bankroll stage productions that Garth Drabinsky’s Live Entertainment Corp. of Canada (.Phantom of the Opera, Show Boat) began selling shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange one year ago. Still, it takes a certain personality to put money into song and dance instead of pork bellies. Within the industry, people who invest in theatre are fondly called angels. And Smith, the energetic 60-year-old producer who first became interested in Napoleon in 1988, notes that “angels take risks. They don’t have to. But deep down they’re hams. They love show biz.” Nine years ago, Smith and her partner, Ernie Rubenstein, and then-partner Tina VanderHeyden, helped turn Toronto into Broadway North by staging Cats at the Elgin (it ran from 1985 to 1987 before touring the country). A Rosedale doctor’s wife and mother of four, Smith was hooked on theatre early on: her father, George Deller, built and ran the fabled Palais Royale Ballroom on Toronto’s waterfront. And she has always moved in circles where there is money to invest.

For help with fund-raising for Napoleon, she recruited her son, real estate developer Geoffrey Smith. Many investors bought more than the $75,000 minimum stake of three units. Some of the money came from acquaintances who had invested in smaller Marlene Smith productions, including Ain’t Misbehavin' and Little Shop of Horrors. But unlike Cats, which was backed largely by a group of Smith’s friends, Napoleon attracted a diverse group of investors.

About half the money was raised by the investment house of Sanwa McCarthy Securities Ltd. Says senior partner Leighton McCarthy: “Frankly, I didn’t think a couple of young boys could produce a world-class musical. But they gave me a tape, and when I listened to it, I realized this was a high-risk venture that might succeed.”

Part of the risk has to do with the stiff competition in Toronto. The city has become the third-biggest commercial theatre centre in the English-speaking world, behind London and New York City.

Four big musicals were already running when Napoleon opened—Miss Saigon, Phantom of the Opera, Crazy for You and Show Boat—all hustling to keep seats filled. Napoleon had the smallest budget, notes CBC-Radio’s Toronto theatre critic Richard Ouzounian, “and there was a question whether this might be the one show too many.”

That did not deter Robert Acheson, who was a senior vice-president at Sanwa McCarthy (he has since moved to Jefferson Partners Capital Corp.) when it took over fund-raising for Napoleon. He put up $170,000 for the show. “I’m a risk taker,” says Acheson. “And I felt the show had an excellent chance of success. I brought friends in, too. Napoleon was a tough sell. Of course, I could have been wrong, big time, but I think the best time to buy something is when others are hanging back.” Acheson, who regards himself more as an entrepreneur than a broker, got hooked on theatre in the mid-1970s while living in London. A friend asked him to be a silent partner in an investment in a littleknown composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Acheson got his money back but wondered why there was never a huge payoff—until he read the front-page news that his friend had been arrested at Heathrow airport while attempting to abscond with funds.

With Napoleon, Acheson worried for a while that he had made a mistake. He admits that during the flawed preview performance, “I thought I was kissing my money goodbye.” But by opening night two weeks later, the show was much improved and he had regained confidence. “I have no doubt that Napoleon is going to take London by storm,” says

Acheson. “When it does, there will be one hell of a return on capital.” Indeed, the promise of an international afterlife was one of the most appealing features for investors: they bought a stake not only in Napoleon’s Toronto run, but also in additional productions, including the one planned for London. Their backing also includes some protection in the form of tax write-off allowances.

Although so far Napoleon has not proved that it has legs, history suggests that big musicals take a long time to be developed. Two years ago Garth Drabinsky’s production of Kiss of the Spiderwoman went through its own growing pains. Kiss got so-so reviews and played to small houses during its summer-long run at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre. But it did moderately well in London’s West End, and then moved to Broadway, where it earned seven 1993 Tony awards and is still running a year later.

Maybe it was unrealistic to assume that Napoleon could compete with megashows that had the stamp of international success on them before they arrived in Canada. But it was the made-in-Canada nature of

Napoleon that appealed to many investors. Sabiston and Williams were both raised in Victoria, and most of the crew and cast are Canadian, with the notable exceptions of French actor Jérôme Pradon in the title role and Briton Aline Mowat as Joséphine. “I’m fed up with Canadians who think everything is better when it comes from somewhere else,” says Barbara Lewis, a Port Credit, Ont., widow who invested in Napoleon. “Why are Canadians so insecure about promoting our own?” According to investor Nicholas Ross, a senior partner in the accounting firm of Ernst & Young, the backers were so supportive that when Smith and Rubenstein sought additional financing of $500,000 in April, “most of the investors stepped right up to the plate and put up the extra money.”

The extra money was used partly to finance a TV ad campaign, which paid off only slightly in improved attendance, and partly to pay for rehearsal time to introduce changes. “It’s brighter, tighter and more emotionally involving now,” says Ouzounian, who recently rereviewed the show on radio. “The scenes flow better and the ending has been improved.” The love story

has been strengthened and the running time has been cut by 20 minutes to just over 2xk hours. The changes were implemented under Glenn Kotyk, a choreographer who stepped in after the original director, John Wood, was “released from his contract.” And confidence soared when EMI’s original cast album instantly became a strong seller: last week, Toronto’s biggest HMV outlet listed Napoleon as No. 8 on its top-60 list.

Now, everyone’s sights are set on London. It seems unlikely that many Canadian cast members will go with the show. But Napoleon will still be regarded as a Canadian cultural export, and several of the Toronto investors will fly over to wave the maple leaf, including Barbara Lewis. “I know I could lose the money I’ve put into Napoleon, but I don’t think I’m going to,” she says. “There are bound to be glitches at first, but by the time Napoleon goes to London it is going to be fantastic.” Certainly it seems a shrewd move to take the show to London rather than to New York first, given the British fondness for historical epics and the fact that no single review in England can doom a show the way a negative notice from The New York Times can. There is no guarantee the show’s investors will strike oil, but at least they are drilling in the right patch. And to some ears, the vibrations sound promising. □