A Home For Miss Saigon

A megamusical invades a pleasure dome

John Bemrose May 24 1993

A Home For Miss Saigon

A megamusical invades a pleasure dome

John Bemrose May 24 1993

A Home For Miss Saigon

A megamusical invades a pleasure dome

For David Mirvish, 1993 is the year of living dangerously. On May 26, in Toronto, the 48-year-old theatre producer is unveiling his $12-million version of Miss Saigon, the musical set against the final days of the Vietnam War. And although the show has become an established hit in several major cities since its 1989 London premiere, Mirvish has also risked $28 million by building a theatre especially for the production. Not only is The Princess of Wales the first privately built hall for live theatre to be erected in Canada in almost 90 years, but Mirvish went all out on the design of his new pleasure dome. In the midst of a punishing recessionary climate, he encouraged architect Peter Smith and interior design company Yabu Pushelberg to build a place of elegance and exquisite detail. He even hired one of his favorite artists, renowned American abstractionist Frank Stella, to decorate it. For the businessman and art collector, The Princess of Wales is a personal statement. “Suddenly I feel very lucky,” said the mild-mannered producer. “You try to accumulate bits and pieces of experience and emotions and ideas. But you very seldom get a chance to weave them all together. I don’t know if I’ll ever get such a chance again.”

Located on downtown King Street, The Princess of Wales fluidly combines the old and the new. It is a variation on the traditional tumof-the-century theatre, with its tiered horseshoe balconies, plush crimson velvet seats and sense of intimacy and comfort. But it also contains exciting strokes of contemporary art and design. There is a feast for the eyes everywhere—in Stella’s swirling, colorfully hallucinogenic dome above the 2,000-seat auditorium, in the artist’s balcony decorations and murals and throughout the lobbies, with their sensuous tile and mahogany surfaces, hand-blown glass stair posts and ingenious wall lights draped with metal mesh. Even the washrooms are exquisite—sanctuaries of black marble, mosaic tile and soft lighting. "When you’re pouring that much concrete into the ground,” said Mirvish, “you know it’s going to be there for quite a few years, so why not make it as beautiful as possible?”

So far, The Princess of Wales has drawn a chorus of raves. “It’s wonderful,” said Bruce Kuwabara of the Toronto firm Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects. “It’s theatrical in every respect. The theatre design and the building are very handsome and urbane.” Kuwabara reserves his highest compliments for the lush and innovative interior design of the front lobbies, which, he said, “mediate between the street and the theatre. They induce a dreamy quality, like floating in space.” American singer Tony Bennett, visiting Toronto recently to perform with Count Basie’s band, toured the Princess with Mirvish. “It’s spectacular,” Bennett said in an interview. “And to have Frank Stella commissioned to decorate the whole building and do these magnificent 3-D paintings!”

The man who created that Stella shrine, David Mirvish, became a friend of the painter while featuring his work in the art gallery that he ran from 1963 to 1978. “I really feel that Frank is our equivalent of Picasso or Miró,” the youthfully earnest Mirvish said. “In his genertion, he has the same range of inventiveness—he has changed the way we look at things.” Mirvish remains an art lover who owns one of North America’s strongest collections of modern paintings. But since the early 1980s, he has

focused more on theatre. He has produced shows in partnership with his father, Ed, who made his fortune with his garish 45-year-old discount department store, Honest Ed’s. In 1985, David Mirvish took over as head of the family’s theatrical enterprises—a mini-empire including the eminent Old Vic in London, Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre and, just down the street, the new Princess.

The younger Mirvish was involved in the most minute decisions during the construction of The Princess of Wales. He contends that the theatre’s $28-million price tag is actually a bargain by contemporary standards: 2,800-seat Roy Thomson Hall, located nearby, cost $39 million 10 years ago. Mirvish attributes his low costs partly to the fact that he was his own boss. “I have no committees or boards to answer to,” he said. “I made decisions in the field every day. If I hadn’t done that, it would have impacted on price.”

Still, $28 million is a considerable investment. But Mirvish expresses confidence that Miss Saigon will help to pay for it. The show, written by the French team of lyricist Alain Boublil and composer Claude-Michel Schönberg, the creators of the spectacularly successful Les Misérables, has played for 314 years in London, two years in New York, one year in Tokyo and half a year in Chicago. “You can’t build a new theatre without a strong show to drive it,” Mirvish told Maclean’s. “That’s the history of theatre. Richard D’Oyly Carte built the Palace Theatre in London off the success of Gilbert and Sullivan. When he didn’t have a strong show, he lost his theatre.”

Mirvish anticipates a two-year run in Toronto, where ticket sales have so far been phenomenal. With prices ranging from $25 to $91, and assuming full houses, the Toronto production will reap $1.2 million in revenues each week. But even if the musical lasts for the projected two years, it will not pay for the theatre entirely. “Eventually we will need a second hit show,” Mirvish said, adding, “if one exists—that’s the real question.” At the moment, there is none on the horizon, but Mirvish accepts the risk with the calm optimism of a person who comes from a monied background—and whose earlier risks have largely paid off.

Mirvish is that rare creature—a businessman with a deep knowledge and love of the arts. The only child of Ed and his artist wife, Anne, David decided to forgo university when he finished high school and, instead, opened his art gallery. He chose a site on Toronto’s Markham Street, in the shadow of his father’s department store. The David Mirvish Gallery represented some of the great modern American abstractionists, including Helen Frankenthaler and Stella. Although the gallery became highly successful, Mirvish lost interest and closed it in 1978, using the space to open a bookstore specializing in art.

Ed Mirvish’s interest in theatre began in 1962, the year that he used $215,000 of his retail profits to buy the elegant but decaying Royal Alexandra, built in 1907. After five years, it was making a small profit, thanks to subscription sales that at their peak drew more than 50,000 subscribers to six or seven shows a year. Then, in 1982, Ed acquired Britain’s Old Vic for just over $1 million—and spent more than $4 million restoring it. That venture has never made money, but between 1989 and 1991, when renowned director and author Jonathan Miller headed the theatre, it won a host of Olivier Awards. Now, Ed, 78, speaks of Miller with a kind of curious admiration. “There was no commercialism in that man,” he said, with the baffled air of just having met someone with three heads.

David, who has three children ranging in age from four to 16 with his wife,

Audrey, took over the two theatres just when subscription sales at the Royal Alex were sinking. Tracing the problem to the declining quality of their imported road shows, Mirvish decided to produce his own, including two which he took south of the border. And he invited to Toronto such esteemed foreign companies as the Berliner Ensemble. In 1991, Mirvish also staged Tomson Highway’s Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing—and upstaged critics who had chided him for not taking a chance on Canadian talent.

Such projects added to Mirvish’s rapidly growing expertise as a theatre producer. But the show that made The Princess of Wales and Miss Saigon possi-

ble was Les Misérables, the blockbuster hit based on Victor Hugo’s novel of love and politics in 19th-century France. Les Miz ran in the Royal Alex and toured the country between 1989 and 1993. “Les Misérables taught us so much,” Mirvish recalled. “It taught us the skills we needed to operate on a large scale. And it showed us that you could run a show for a long time—that there was a huge audience beyond

Toronto.” Les Miz ultimately sold 4.5 million tickets and became the most successful musical in Canadian history. For the Toronto performances, a third of the audience came from the city, and another third from the rest of Canada. The rest came from American border states whose vacationers, according to numerous market surveys, prefer Toronto to New York and Chicago because of its clean, safe streets and diverse cultures.

Mirvish says that once he had decided to mount Miss Saigon, he really had no choice but to build a new space to accommodate it. The Mirvishes’ Royal Alexandra was too small to hold the show’s battery of special effects—particularly the helicopter that descends during the last act. At first, Mirvish planned to build only a temporary theatre for Miss Saigon: it would have cost around $10 million and he planned to tear it down after the musical had finished its run. But then, fate intervened in the person of the Mirvishes’ archrival in Canadian commercial theatre, Garth Drabinsky.

The tough, outspoken head of Toronto’s Live Entertainment Corp. (and former head of CineplexOdeon) and producer of the long-running hit Phantom of the Opera, Drabinsky had coveted the rights to Miss Saigon. Outmanoeuvred by Mirvish, he tried another tactic. In 1991, Toronto City Hall had assured Mirvish that he would be able to sidestep certain rarely enforced bylaws requiring him to furnish a minimum amount of on-site parking for his theatre. But Drabinsky insisted that Mirvish be forced to obey the rules to the letter. Mirvish was in a spot. To press ahead in a legal fight with city hall would delay his project by months.

Mirvish decided to back off the bylaws dispute and build a four-floor parking garage beneath his new theatre. That added nine months and $4 million to his project. And the “temporary” theatre

was starting to look a lot more permanent. Mirvish used the delay to reconceive his project—as a work of art in itself. “Suddenly a window had opened and I was talking to people like Frank Stella and interior designers Glenn Pushelberg and George Yabu,” he said. “We were drawing as we were building.” As for Drabinsky, Mirvish said magnanimously: “I think he did me a favor. He helped me build a better theatre. A more beautiful theatre.” Mirvish sent Drabinsky an invitation to Miss Saigon’s opening night. Drabinsky has accepted.

The Princess of Wales Theatre (the name bears the offi cial approval of Princess Diana, whom the Mirvishes much admire for her work with AIDS patients) recalls the old Princess theatre that graced the area until its demolition in 1930. The new structure boasts state-of-the-art technical capabilities, which Miss Saigon required. Cameron Mackin tosh, the British co-producer of the show, remarked that "if Les Misérables is a Cadillac, then Miss Saigon is a Ferrari." Indeed, Les Misérables has only 12 automated effects, while Miss Saigon has 72-including the helicopter landing on the roof of the American embassy and a full-size 1959 Cadillac that appears to float on a cloud. Seven computers

control much of the show, with its 500 lights. There are fully 52 technicians (versus a cast of 46), some of them working in cramped, blinking control centres that resemble the insides of a modern submarine.

Beyond the footlights, all is comfortable elegance in the audi torium, designed, like the rest of the theatre, by Toronto architect

Peter Smith. Mirvish and Smith decided on a tra ditional form of seating-two stacked, horseshoe shaped balconies that wrap around the side walls towards the stage. Smith points out that the blank side walls of so many modernist theatres simply copy the seating arrangements of cine mas, where the viewing experience is much more passive and isolated than with live theatre.

“The horseshoe balconies give some segment of the audience a closer connection with the performers,” he said, “and that way reactions get transmitted around the wings and back to the body of the balcony. It’s a way for members of the audience to see and relate to each other.”

Floating high above the auditorium is the great decorative ring designed by Stella. He says that he got the idea for the dome, a tangle of phallic shapes and colored dots, while watching the rings that he blew while smoking a cigar. Art students and graduates applied Stella’s images to the dome, working from an enormous scaffold. For the sweeping murals in the lobbies, the artist constructed energetic collages out of odds and ends in his studio— old milk crates, honeycomb aluminum, bits of Sty-

rofoam—then photographed them, blew the images up and printed them on a machine used to make billboard art. Stella said that the murals reflect “the way people mill around. They are bustling and active, like a crowd.”

Meanwhile, Stella’s pale moulded plaster balcony decorations, which resemble enormous curls of white chocolate, seem to have enhanced the hall’s acoustics. Created by Canadian sound engineer John O’Keefe, the acoustics have won favor with as demanding a critic as Miss Saigon’s composer, Schönberg. “The auditorium has a warm and generous sound,” he said. Added Boublil: “You never know why you have a sound like that. The Opera Bastille in Paris doesn’t have it. It’s a miracle!”

Schönberg also praises The Princess of Wales for its unique design and personality. “In so many modern theatres, you don’t know where you are in the world,” the composer said. “It could be Sydney, New York, London. But this theatre doesn’t look like any modern theatre anywhere.” That quality came about because one man was able to follow his own vision and taste. David Mirvish has devoted the past decade to putting the dreams of others onstage. Now, with the sumptuous Princess of Wales, he has built the stage of his dreams.

JOHN BEMROSE