A new breed of entrepreneur is turning a profit from theatre
Patricia Keeney SmithAugust31981
King of the middle of the road
A new breed of entrepreneur is turning a profit from theatre
Patricia Keeney Smith
If winter is the season of discontent, then summer is the time for sentiment. This is the giddy season, when a fluffy cloud covers the country’s theatres, raining down buckets of boymeets-girl, happily-ever-after, broken dreams and someday-the-sun-willshine. The climate suits theatrical producer and composer David Warrack perfectly. It is rare at any time of year that a Warrack production isn't playing somewhere in Canada, but this summer he has surpassed himself by producing four shows in Toronto at once. At the glitzy Imperial Room in the Royal York Hotel, the supper revue We Got Love mixes schmaltzy standbys with 12 new songs by David Warrack; the popular cabaret Toronto, Toronto is in its 10th month; Madly—In All Directions, a oneman show about Stephen Leacock, is playing at the Adelaide Court Theatre and Happily Ever After, a feminist musical which opened last summer at the Charlottetown Festival, is ensconced at the Tarragon, one of Toronto’s most distinguished alternate theatres. From champagne and chandeliers at the Imperial Room to the plastic seats and health-food cookies at the Tarragon, the range is remarkable, though not, perhaps, as broad as it seems. The common ground is entertainment, ribtickling and tear-jerking rather than
profound, occasionally titillating but rarely offensive and, for the most part, solidly bankable. At 36, Warrack is king of the middle of the road, a beaming Calgary boy who truly believes in the optimistic medicine he dispenses. “I’m solidly middle class,” he grins, and so is the largest theatre audience in the country. The keys to Warrack’s kingdom are the sturdy old-fashioned ones. Tease for Two, the show about his own life that he wrote, produced and starred in across Canada in 1975-’76, recalls the breezy sophistication of Astaire and Rogers in the ’30s. In a series of comedy songs, the suave piano man woos and wins a lovely lady, who turns out to be—guess who?—his own wife. Tease, along with two of his other shows, Sweet Reason and Flicks, share the distinction of being among the longest-running shows in the country.
In Canada’s welfare state of subsidized theatre, Warrack’s commercial achievement is exceptional. On 75 per cent of shows, his backers see a profit. After paying off pre-production costs, the cast of Toronto, Toronto got a 50per-cent raise, rare in a profession where love usually has to substitute for money. He’s not yet in the financial league of Ed Mirvish, the real estate magnate, who may one day be the name behind Toronto’s version of Broadway or the West End. He’s much closer to a new breed of producers such as Mon-
treal’s Maurice Podbrey, Toronto’s Peter Peroff and Edmonton’s Joe Shoetor who are proving, on a small scale, that commercial theatre can work in Canada. Warrack is a devout free-enterpriser, prone to such laments as, “It’s appalling that half the population of this country is either salaried by the government or on the dole.” While not opposed to subsidized theatre, which is the source of much of the country’s theatrical talent, Warrack believes that Canadian theatre must become more self-sufficient to survive.
For Warrack, survival means a cheerful frenzy of activity that can leave others exhausted, but seems somehow to sustain him. A typical stretch had him driving to London at 11 at night for a rehearsal of We Got Love and arriving three hours later, looking dapper in a dark three-piece suit, cracking jokes and ordering drinks, while stage manager and director sat bleary-eyed in crumpled blue jeans. He worked all night on musical arrangements and straight through the next day. The care and feeding of shows takes Warrack much further than most producers: “I’m not like the generals during the war who sent their foot soldiers over the hill; I go in with them.” Warrack recently wrote a short operatic spoof which was performed by the Canadian Opera Company (COC) ensemble at a gala benefit for the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York. The young singers panicked when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and his escort arrived 45 minutes late, and the show had to compete with a delayed full-scale banquet. According to Shawna Ferrell of the COC ensemble, Warrack’s supportive presence and knowing wink to the cast saved the show. Says Barry Belchamber, who plays Stephen Leacock in the Warrack production: “David always has time, and when he believes in a show, the support is total.”
Yet his time may well be spread over too many projects. Warrack has always been more of a commercial than a critical success. Heinar Piller, a friend and fellow producer, calls him a workaholic who can’t say no, and would prefer to see Warrack spending less time on producing and more time on his writing. Warrack’s musical versatility is rooted in solid conservatory training. He has been a singer and performer in piano bars across the country; loves and
understands opera well enough to have discussed with opera director Lotfi Mansouri the possibility of writing an opera for the COC, and has written a full-scale musical, Drummer, which was performed in Banff, and a mass for the CBC. Once on the commercial merrygo-round, however, it’s hard to get off. Especially since, with the exception of occasional bloopers such as the Leacock show, which has already lost Belchamber and Warrack $10,000 each, he’s so good at making money. Barbara Cooper, a pleased backer of Toronto, Toronto who runs Cooper Communications, applauds Warrack’s talent for putting together the right package. She regards him as a “brilliant facilitator, able to bring the elements together—casting, set, publicity and, always, appropriate budget.”
David Warrack’s income will reach six figures for the first time this year, but the golden years are recent. As he ruefully puts it, “Some people think I was born in 1972 ” with Oops at Toronto’s Theatre-in-the-Dell, a revue that was written in less than two weeks. In fact, he was born into a comfortable middle-class home in Calgary. David made his radio debut at 5 singing The Blue Skirt Waltz. At 7, he began piano lessons—the condition upon which his mother married his father was that their children take music. Comedy writing began in high school, with an old bus and a pet skunk, when he and his fellow folk-singers rode the fair circuit from Calgary to Regina, doing threeminute medleys with 38 instruments. “It wasn’t a show, it was a track meet,” he recalls. Warrack came to Toronto in 1967 with a suitcase full of short revues and no one to produce them. After studying political science and then music at the University of Toronto, he went into business himself, playing piano on the club circuit from 1968 to 1972,
starting with seamier bars and working his way up. Choosing show business also meant changing wives: “My first wife thought she was marrying a professor.” Warrack’s present wife, Kathy, knows that she’s linked to a one-man extravaganza, and copes admirably, perhaps because she’s also an artistic consultant who shares office space and much business with him. In 1979 they bought a house for $135,000. It has got the comforts they have worked toward and are still paying for—swimming pool, space for a studio, live-in nanny for Gordon William, 19 months, and Cayleigh Ann Martha, 1V2 months. Neighbors tend to be fans of his shows, like the doctors next door who let him know that Princess Margaret had been to see We Got Love.
These days, Warrack is pursuing many paths, both commercial and creative, and it is impossible to tell which will win out. Some predict he will be writing the new big sound musical, a musical theatre requiring operatic voices in a demanding form like Sweeney Todd. It will combine a broad American feel with the intimacy of British music hall, and probably surpass both. Globe and Mail critic Carole Corbeil may dismiss Love as “the purest of blancmange,” but the Sun’s McKenzie Porter hailed Warrack’s Tut, Tut, as a combination of “Noel Coward and Cole Porter.” According to Heinar Piller, “when David has something to say, he says it with great talent; when he has nothing to say, he possesses the craft and gloss to make that shine.” Doubtless he will remain in the middle kingdom of musical theatre, in between highbrow of opera and lowbrow of rock and roll. Others, he says, may “work in the avant-garde and wait for the rest of the world to catch up.” In the meantime, David Warrack will be keeping them entertained. 0
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