Theatre

Do-it-yourself Broadway, or: Why wait around for the roadshow?

RON BASE November 14 1977
Theatre

Do-it-yourself Broadway, or: Why wait around for the roadshow?

RON BASE November 14 1977

Do-it-yourself Broadway, or: Why wait around for the roadshow?

Theatre

On Broadway, where money makes more noise than a boisterous audience at a hit comedy, the sound in producer Philip Langner’s 47th Street office was deafening. A couple of young Canadian entrepreneurs, Moses Znaimer and Garth Drabinsky, sat quietly in expensive three-piece suits, eyeing the autographed pictures of George Bernard Shaw and Katharine Hepburn, and pushed a $50,000 bank draft across Langner’s desk. The cheque was a down payment on a piece of Broadway’s most valuable real estate this season: a play entitled Golda that, before its opening November 14, appeared to be a cast-ingold hit—script by William Gibson (Two For The Seesaw), direction by Arthur Penn (Bonnie And Clyde), acting by Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker), and life story by former Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Those ingredients had been mixed together to produce a one-million-dollar Broadway box office advance, one of the largest reported in years.

Still, the offer accompanying the $50,000 cheque was audacious. Znaimer and Drabinsky wanted the rights to pro-

duce an all-Canadian production of Golda that would open in Toronto, then Ottawa. Montreal, and Vancouver. Despite Golda's preordained success, no one could remember anyone offering to lay hard cash on the line for a play that hadn’t even opened. Most Broadway hits finally end up in Toronto and other Canadian centres only after they have exhausted themselves in New York for a couple of years. Znaimer didn’t care to wait that long.

A year ago his girl friend, actress Marilyn Lightstone, gave him a copy of Golda, Meir’s best-selling autobiography. A former CBC Wunderkind who since 1972 had wheeled and dealed an independent Toronto television station, C ITY-TV, into the black, Znaimer, 35, saw possibilities in the book: a terrific part for actress Lightstone, not to mention a tidy profit for himself.

When Znaimer investigated, it turned out Golda's rights had been snapped up by 51-year-old Philip Langner, head of New York’s Theatre Guild, and a veteran producer who spent four years convincing Meir that her life story should be dramatized. Znaimer was undeterred. He phoned a friend. Garth Drabinsky, a 29year-old lawyer, movie producer (The Silent Partner) and partner in a previous theatrical venture, and intrigued him with the idea of mounting a Canadian production o ('Golda. “1 became reconciled a long time ago that the big deals are not going to come my way,” Znaimer says. 'Tm going to have to go out and get them.”

The two arrived in New York armed with $50.000 and a little luck: Golda was dangerously close to exhausting its $500,000 budget, and under the terms of his agreement with the play’s backers, Langner had to make up any overruns from his own pocket. Initially reluctant to sell off Canada, always considered in the show business mind to be something akin to Cleveland in the North American domestic market, Langner soon found the deal offered by the two smooth-talking Canadians irresistible. It had taken Znaimer just five weeks in New York during August and September to transform himself from an unknown Canadian nuisance into a Very Important Producer, flying off to previews in Baltimore and Boston, taking part in the skull sessions that eventually reduced the play's length by 30 minutes.

Still, heady glamour has not snuffed out sound business sense. Znaimer and Drabinsky were able to build a fail-safe clause into the contract they negotiated with Langner: if Golda flopped, they would forfeit the $50,000 but be able to bail out of further commitments up to 48 hours after the play premiered. However, the chances of failure seemed remote, and as the play was prepared for its Broadway opening, plans were going ahead for its Canadian debut next July at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre with Marilyn Lightstone as Golda, directed by CBC drama chief John Hirsch. Meanwhile, visions of similar ventures are dancing in Znaimer’s head. “There is no reason w hy we have to have Broadway in New York,” he says. “We can have it right here.”

How major commercial Canadian productions will fare in a country that insists on propping up its theatrical community on the rickety balsawood superstructure of government grants remains to be seen. But at least Znaimer is refreshingly candid about his intentions: “We are not doing this out of any sense of sacrifice. We expect to make a pot full of money.”

RON BASE