With two smash musicals, Garth Drabinsky is the toast of Broadway

MARCI MCDONALD November 7 1994


With two smash musicals, Garth Drabinsky is the toast of Broadway

MARCI MCDONALD November 7 1994



With two smash musicals, Garth Drabinsky is the toast of Broadway


Garth Drabinsky was not having a good day. It was not a day like some of his most notorious bad days—nothing like Dec. 1, 1989, when he walked out of his last Cineplex Odeon Corp. board meeting stripped of his chairman’s title and pride, ignominiously forced out of the company he had built into the continent’s second-largest movie chain.

No, for ordinary mortals this day would have been a triumph—an apotheosis of sweet revenge. Only two nights earlier, Drabinsky’s lavish $11.5-million revival of Show Boat had opened on Broadway to rapturous reviews and advance sales of $16 million that were already smashing all-time records for a single week’s box-office take. With sultry pop singer Vanessa Williams packing them in at his year-old, Tony-awardwinning production of Kiss of the Spider Woman six blocks away, Drabinsky had suddenly emerged as the toast of the New York City theatrical scene—hailed as the potential savior of the big-budget American musical.

In Toronto, his company’s production of The Phantom of the Opera had just celebrated its fifth anniversary in Drabinsky’s elegantly restored Pantages Theatre. And his initial $9-million Canadian Show Boat production was marking its first year in the city’s North York Performing Arts Centre—a testimonial to his efforts to turn Toronto into Broadway’s most important tryout town. On top of a Phantom road show in Alaska and his version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat starring Donny Osmond in Chicago, Drabinsky was now raking in $250 million a year, or 25 per cent of the total commercial live theatre receipts on the continent. The New York Times was phoning him to schedule a profile and The New Yorker had termed him an emerging “Canadian Ziegfeld.” Less than five years after his humiliating Cineplex exit, not only had Drabinsky orchestrated his own spectacular comeback, but he had done it on an entirely new stage—one where he was reaping more respect and creative kicks than he had ever known as a brash

young movie-house mogul.

Still, all this had not made Garth Drabinsky a happy man. Scarcely 48 hours after Newsweek's Jack Kroll had rhapsodized over Show Boat—“So THAT’S what a real show is”—its 45-year-old impresario was holed up in his New York hotel suite, nursing a cold and a sense of anticlimax. “Every time I have one of these openings, no matter how successful, I go through one of these postpartum depressions,” he moaned. “The body always breaks down afterward— there’s no more adrenaline pumping. You almost want to get under the covers and be alone and reflect.”

Not that Drabinsky had time to reflect for long. There were planes to catch—first to Vancouver last week to reveal, with appropriate hoopla, that Show Boat would be opening the new $24.5-million, 1,824-seat Ford Centre for the Performing Arts he is building there with architect Moshe Safdie. And, of course, there I were his regular Tuesday morning marketing meetings O to plot his ever-more-sensational two-page ad spreads: t “The Broadway critics can’t help lovin’ that Show Boatl" o and “New block of tickets now on sale!” As always, Drabinsky’s agenda was packed and his promotional machine was churning at full tilt.

But for a man who had never lived his life on a small scale, either in failure or success, Drabinsky’s career seemed suddenly, unaccustomedly placid. For the complex, tempestuous showman who had spent most of the past four decades battling tragedy—and, in the process, countless others along his path—triumph appeared to be an awkward fit. “Garth is at his best with his back against the wall,” says film producer Daniel Weinzweig, a former Cineplex vice-president who has known him since high school. Drabinsky’s wife, Pearl, a onetime high-school French teacher, agrees. After 23 years of marriage, she still marvels at “the ferociousness and the drive, the desire to prove himself over and over again. And,” she notes, “it’s never enough—never!”

Garth Drabinsky swoops down on his prestigious corner table at Prego, one of Toronto’s choicest midtown eateries, with a showman’s usual worries on his mind. “The sound system!” he anguishes. It takes a moment to realize that he is referring not to some distant theatrical bungle, but to the restaurant speakers over his chair, which he frets will interfere with taping an interview. The hands-on producer who likes to oversee every detail of his shows from casting to the captions on § a promotional video has turned his energies to oversee! ing a story on himself. And, as usual, he has an acute I grasp of both the concept and the pitfalls.

I “It’s a story about a guy who’s got two shows on § Broadway playing at the same time,” he says, waving off

Show time

Drabinsky with Rebecca Luker, who plays Magnolia in the Broadway Show Boat (1); with Tony Bennett at the New York opening (2); with Chrétien last week (3); with Prince in 1989 (4); Lauren Bacall (5) and Raquel Welch (6) at the Broadway première; with Lloyd Webber and Osmond (7), and his family—Pearl, Alicia and Marc (8)—at the première: smashing all-time records

for the firstborn son of Phil Drabinsky, a cautious engineer who had built up a modest airconditioning business.

Those harrowing two months in hospital left one leg, from the knee down, virtually useless. And for five summers, a series of operations gave Drabinsky an intimate acquaintance with the degradation of pain. “I remember screaming at nurses, screaming for morphine,” he once told Maclean’s. “It was embarrassing, because whatever self-pride you had, you’re reduced to a shrivelling idiot.” Later, he was so overcome with fury at the unfairness of it all that he took off his brace and hurled it at his

University of Toronto, he met resistance. “I was not very receptive,” admits Pearl Drabinsky. “But this man—his middle name is tenacity. There is no ‘no.’ ” Within six weeks, he had declared his intention of marriage, even then with a theatrical flourish. “My parents were in absolute terror,” she recalls. “When he met my mother, he knelt on one leg and kissed her hand. She almost passed out.”

Their marriage, she admits, has been “difficult.” In a speech two weeks ago at Beth Sholom Synagogue, Drabinsky conceded publicly that he had left her largely alone to raise their two children, Alicia, an 18-year-old freshman at

'My experiences were so dark there was

nothing I could do but fantasize’

questions about his Cineplex debacle. “No Canadian has ever had two shows on Broadway playing at the same time.” Cineplex is history, he insists. Besides, it is a history that he himself will tell in his upcoming autobiography, due out in February. Conceived six years ago when he was still the toast of the movie industry, the book has been through not only a major change in story line, but at least she drafts, three titles and two co-authors. The project started when he wangled a copy of a proposed unauthorized biography. “I thought, Whoa,’ ” he says. “ ‘I better take control of this, my life.’ ”

Personally selecting Toronto writer Gina Mallet, Drabinsky worked with her through five drafts and his changing fortunes, postponing publication twice. By 1992, Garth: The Story So Far had become Garth: Live Entertainment, featured prominently in McClelland & Stewart’s fall catalogue. Then, suddenly, the title was pulled from the company’s lists. “I have total control of the book,” Drabinsky told The Globe and Mail at the time. Since then, he has bought out Mallet and hired former Toronto Life editor Marq de Villiers to rework the tale, retitled Closer to the Sun—a reference to the Greek myth of Icarus, whose wings and overweaning ambition were seared when he tried to fly too high.

Those close to the project estimate that the literary outing has cost Drabinsky nearly $200,000. “He’ll never make a cent from it,” says one insider. In fact, the book has been a sometimes painful personal odyssey. But it has produced a surprisingly candid self-portrait that makes clear why “driven” is the adjective others use most frequently about Drabinsky, and why “control” is the noun that most often punctuates his own conversation.

Not surprisingly, the autobiography begins at the moment he first knew he had no control himself: at the age of three in a polio quarantine ward of Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Numbed with fever and pain, he watched nurses wheel off other kids around him, many of them in iron lungs—and many of whom would never be seen again. It was the year Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was being tested. But by the time the serum was released, it was already too late

kid brother, Sheldon, nearly blinding him.

Still, his iron-willed mother refused to let him complain or feel sorry for himself. She made him walk to school—no special treatment. That intransigence, he admits, may have contributed to his intolerance of others’ lapses. “Garth is the most difficult boss in the world,” acknowledges Lynda Friendly, one of his executive vice-presidents, who has known him since they were 17. “He expects his workers to work to the same degree he does. He knows everyone’s job almost better than they do. Nobody cares as much as Garth and sometimes it’s not so good.” Should someone fail to meet his standards, she says, “Garth will deal with you in his own way.”

Drabinsky’s rages are described by those who have witnessed them as of an epic magnitude. One former staffer expresses admiration for his brilliance, but winces at the memory of being verbally “annihilated.” Still, Drabinsky himself seems genuinely astonished at the extent of his reputation for outbursts. “I never internalize anger,” he says, “because I think internalizing it is crazy. All you do is suffer.”

He has always thrown himself relentlessly into life, even into sports. Weinzweig recalls watching him play squash: “He couldn’t get to the ball with two good legs, so he’d literally throw himself into the walls. His energy is unbelievable.” But what his unwieldy flesh has been unable to accomplish, he made up for with the knife-edge of his intellect. At North Toronto Collegiate, he not only scored top marks, but won the presidency of the student council. Already, he was learning to work his considerable charm.

But when he tried it out on an intense brunette beauty in a dining hall at the

Brown University in Providence, RI., and Marc, 16, who is still in high school. “I was quite angry that he didn’t give me more credit,” she says. “Of course, I was alone in raising the kids. I had to give up my career to do it.” Yet, she remains a staunch admirer. When they married, she “had no idea what he would become,” she says, “a garbageman or president of the United States.” But at 12, Drabinsky had discovered the movies. ‘That was my escape,” he concedes. 5 “You fantasize out of your experience and I my experiences were so dark that there was I nothing I could do but fantasize.” He can still 1 recall the first film that made him cry: West Side Story with Natalie Wood. Beneath the showbusiness tycoon lies an unrepentant romantic, who admits, “I still break down a lot. I always say to my people, if you can’t make me cry, we won’t make money—and it’s true. The great musicals have all been criers.” I During the first readings $for Show Boat in late 11991, when bass Michel î Bell broke into 01’ Man 1 River, he “looked around z and everybody had lost it,” he says. “I knew there and then, this show had it.”

In the late 1970s, as an entertainment lawyer, Drabinsky had teamed up with CITY-TV’s Moses Znaimer to mount Tom Stoppard’s Travesties in Toronto. Then in 1978, he headed for New York with a $1million production called A Broadway Musical. On opening night in the cloakroom of Sardi’s restaurant, he listened to the devastating I reviews. Then, he announced to the

1 hushed cast party that he was clos-

2 ing the show. “It was a terrible 1 night in my life,” he says. “It was as I if you’d been punched so deep in

the solar plexus that you were bending over and retching.”

It would take another 15 years for him to return to Broadway. But Drabinsky, the impresario, is not unaware of the potential in that personal comeback tale—a plot line that he already seems to see, klieg-lit, on a larger stage. Walking out of a Toronto sound studio late one night after correcting the most minute details of a promotional Show Boat video, he spells it out again for a reporter. ‘To come back and fight the drama of the movie business and to bring this show to Broadway—it’s a great story. It reads like fiction, but it isn’t.”

In 1978, Drabinsky hurled himself into producing a $6.6-million movie, The Changeling, starring George C. Scott, which then ranked as the biggest-budget Canadian feature in 2 history. For the financing, he called Myron 1 Gottlieb, president of Merit Investment Corp., I who put together the first public film prospectus

approved by the Ontario Securities Commission. Nor would it be their last exercise in brinkmanship. Although he would not sign on full time as Drabinsky’s vice-chairman and chief administrative officer at Cineplex until 1985, their partnership had already been forged. Now president and chief operating officer of Live Entertainment of Canada Inc., or Livent, as their firm is known, Gottlieb’s office and title may be more modest than Drabinsky’s, but their shareholdings are equal. And theirs seems a perfect symbiosis of personal styles. Says Gottlieb: “It’s always been my choice to be in the background.”

Drabinsky founded Cineplex in 1979 with his mentor, veteran Canadian film distributor Nat Taylor, whose lifelong dream had been to build cinemas with multiple screens. After their initial venture in Toronto’s Eaton Centre, Gottlieb helped finance a $2.5-million private placement to permit expansion. Ten backers each took a $250,000 piece of the action, including Gottlieb himself and a group of Toronto real estate investors who would later play key roles in the unravelling Cineplex drama: venture capitalist Andy Sarlos and Rudy Bratty, the lawyer and business partner of developers Marco Muzzo and Alfredo (Fred) DeGasperis.

Drabinsky was soon being lionized for his lavishly refurbished theatres with their marble floors and concession counters peddling cappuccino and popcorn drizzled in real butter. Later, even his enemies would concede that he helped salvage the movie business from the onslaught of the home video, by offering filmgoers a sense of occasion. “He’s always been a tremendous showman,” says Weinzweig. ‘Today, we call it marketing, but it’s old-fashioned showmanship and it’s a lost art that he’s revived.”

But back in the Cineplex boardroom, showmanship was wearing thin. Creditors were lining up, back rent at the Eaton Centre was unpaid, and, during a trip to New York, Drabinsky got an urgent call from Gottlieb. “I told him, You’d better get back here,’ ” Gottlieb recalls. “ There is a mutiny.’ ” At a stormy board meeting, Drabinsky fought off demands for his resignation and, instead, one of the coup leaders, Sarlos, stepped down. Now 12 years later, Sarlos is back as a Uvent director, singing Drabinsky’s praises as “probably the most brilliant impresario in North America.” Ironically, the man who came to Drabinsky’s defence would later help vote him out of Cineplex: John Daniels, then chairman of Cadillac Fairview, his landlord at the Eaton Centre, whose major shareholder was the Bronfman family.

Drabinsky convinced the Bronfmans and his bankers that the reason for his balance-sheet woes was that Hollywood’s distributors were freezing him out because of a tacit deal with the country’s two major theatre chains, Famous Players Ltd. and Canadian Odeon. “I was in extremis at the time,” he admits. I said, ‘Look guys, I can build the best theatres in the world, but I’m only going to have bums in the seats unless I can get product.’ ” He took his evidence to the federal government. And on the eve of a combines investigations hearing, six distributors signed a deal to supply films to Cineplex, effectively breaking the chains’ duopoly. “Very

Drabinsky boils the brutal power struggle down to a single sentence: “The fact of the matter is: I wasn’t going to kowtow to MCA—now or ever—and of course they didn’t like it.” After the final, bitter showdown, the Cineplex-Odeon board allowed him and Gottlieb to buy out the company’s live entertainment division—a generic name they kept. Says Gottlieb: ‘We didn’t exactly have time to think up a new name on our way out the door.”

few people in any country,” he says, “had ever brought the film industry to its knees.”

Soon afterward, the Bronfmans came on board, buying an initial 10 Cater increased to 30) per cent of Cineplex shares for $3 million. Then, through an intermediary, he bought out the Odeon chain. For two years, Drabinsky snatched up U.S. movie houses at a breakneck pace: by the late 1980s, he owned 1,800 screens in six provinces and 20 states, from Maryland to California. He boasted of logging more than 500,000 km a year in the company jet—a high-flying lifestyle for which he was later lambasted. “How do you get to all the small towns where we worked without a plane?” he bridles. “All I ever did was work.”

In 1986, a friend alerted Drabinsky to the fact that MCA Inc., the entertainment conglomerate, which owned Universal Studios, wanted to open a cinema on their lot. He flew in, ridiculed their plan as “mediocrity” and promised a showcase. In the process, he charmed MCA president Sidney Sheinberg, to whom he turned out to be distantly related. Insiders say that Sheinberg, who had also played mentor to film-maker Steven Spielberg, saw himself in the brash Canadian upstart with the big dreams. “There was an affinity,” Drabinsky concedes, “no doubt about it.”

Sheinberg introduced Drabinsky to his own boss, MCA chairman Lew Wasserman, then considered the most powerful man in Hollywood. A onetime talent agent, he had helped engineer the ascension of his former client, Ronald Reagan, to the White House. When Wasserman offered to invest in Cineplex, Drabinsky leaped at the injection of capital and clout. At the time, he says, “All my film buyers thought I was out of my mind. They said, You’ll get killed.’ ”

But Drabinsky was confident he could play in the big leagues. When Cineplex had taken over half of Toronto’s Imperial She theatre, he

1 wasn’t going to kowtow to MCA—and they didn’t like it’

constructed a dividing wall between his and Famous Players’ portion of the building, denying Famous Players access to the main entrance—and effectively forcing its cinema to close. And he had met his deadline to transform the building into the Pantages by calling on contractor Marco Muzzo to bail him out with drywall. “Marco came to our rescue when nobody else could produce,” says Gottlieb. “Marco was down there with Garth in the middle of the night with truckloads of drywall coming in.”

For two years, Drabinsky’s alliance with MCA seemed headed for a happy ending: he was even mentioned as Sheinberg’s possible heir. But there were darker rumblings behind the scenes. Drabinsky had signed on as a partner in the studio’s planned $255-million theme park in Orlando, Fla. But he began to balk when his share of the costs soared to $94 million from $65 million. “It put horrendous pressures on us,” says Gottlieb. He claims the Bronfmans “would complain to us, but wouldn’t take a position against MCA.” Meanwhile, MCA officials were putting increasing pressure on Drabinsky. When they

discovered that he had made a secret deal to buy out the Bronfman interests, which would have given him majority control over their 33-percent voting rights, Sheinberg considered it a personal betrayal. And the war was on. The attempt by Gottlieb and Drabinsky to buy out MCA met with ever-increasing hurdles. For financing, they had turned to Sarlos and Erin Mills Development Corp., whose partners included Bratty, Daniels, DeGasperis and Muzzo. “It wasn’t that we couldn’t get the money,” says Sarlos. “MCA just didn’t want to sell.”

For $88 million, including their joint $8-million golden handshake, they got the Pantages Theatre and the Canadian rights to The Phantom of the Opera. But they were left with a staggering bank debt. In May, 1993, Livent went public with a successful $30-million share offering, of which more than $20 million went to pay down debt. And Gottlieb predicts that Show Boat’s $9-million Toronto production will have recouped its costs by mid-1995. Based on record advance sales, the Broadway version will have done the same before the end of next year.

When Drabinsky walked out of Cineplex, he admits, “It was tough going.” But his mother had taught him: never complain. One former executive recalls phoning him with condolences that day: “And Garth said, You know, the Eighties were my decade to revitalize the movie business. The Nineties will be my decade to do the same for live entertainment.’ He was already on to the next step—no looking back!”

On the night of his ouster from Cineplex, Drabinsky addressed the Phantom cast after the show. “I had to do it,” he says. “I said we were all one family and we’d have to stick together.” Some actors had tears in their eyes. Others were more jaded. “When he said we were all one family,” remembers one, “there was a clear sense that he was the father—and that this was a position which would not be voted on.” He had bought the show’s rights after slipping into a back row of the London production during his darkest Cineplex days; he remembers being struck by the image of the tortured theatre genius forced to cower behind a mask in the shadows because of his disfigurement. The way he recounts the anecdote prompts a reporter to ask if he felt some identification. “I don’t feel myself deformed,” he says quietly. “But I can relate to those feel-

ings of weakness and vulnerability, because I’ve felt that.”

Even last year, at the moment of his greatest triumph, when his risky production of Hal Prince’s Kiss of the Spider Woman won seven Tony awards, he felt those pangs again. Hauling himself up the stairs to receive the Tony for best musical, he agonized over whether the TV cameras were picking up his halting progress. “Accepting that Tony award, almost cringing—not too many people have to worry about that,” he says. “People say they don’t notice the limp, but I always notice. At the end of the day, you can’t run to the bank and ignore what you see in the mirror. There’s no way you’re going to eliminate that with any amount of wealth or power or anything else.”

In 1987, the Montreal World Film Festival presented Drabinsky with a special “Renaissance Man of Film Award.” And in his acceptance speech, he made clear he already saw himself in mythic terms. Putting his Cineplex career “in direct line with the remarkable designers and builders” of the amphitheatres of ancient Greece, he lamented the lack of recognition for “the great impresarios.” At the time, Drabinsky had to content himself with obscure movie-house tycoons as his examples. But now, he can invoke more commanding role models. ‘When Ziegfeld’s name was on a production, you knew something was going to happen,” he says.

Today, as one of the few producers with the stomach for the high-roller stakes of a Broadway musical, others, too, are hailing him as a throwback to another, more grandiose era. With 71 actors and $600,000 in payroll and other running costs each week, Show Boat is one of the costliest productions in history. At the Mississippi-style gala after its opening, James Hammerstein, son of Oscar, the musical’s legendary co-author, marvelled at Drabinsky’s gumption. “All shows used to be this big a long time ago,” he said. “But I’m surprised he’s mounted such a large and lavish production.” Show Boat’s veteran director Hal Prince calls Drabinsky “a creative producer at a time when most people just come in with buckets of money. And he has taste.” Not that Drabinsky’s hands-on approach has not occasionally grated. “Granted, he is sometimes a bull in a china shop,” Prince concedes. “But I’m Hal Prince. He is smart enough to spot my volatility and move back.” His admiration was forged when Drabinsky gambled on Kiss of the Spider Woman at a time when New York critics had just savaged Prince’s faltering workshop production. “Nobody in the U.S. would have gone near it,” Prince says. “It was an act of great bravery and courage, and as far as I’m concerned, it made him a contender.”

Now, Drabinsky has just won the rights to Ragtime. “When you talk to people about your work, you can tell pretty quickly when it’s bullshit,” says its author, E. L. Doctorow. “And he passed the test.” Next fall, Drabinsky will move Show Boat to Vancouver to open his

new Ford Centre, and replace it with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. Already, a year from its opening, he has begun the Ontario ad campaign.

In fact, it is in his high-voltage marketing that Drabinsky has most left his mark on the theatrical scene. With his rivals, Ed and David Mirvish, the producers of Miss Saigon, he has turned Toronto into the second-

Some cynics muttered that Drabinsky might be drumming up the controversy

hottest theatre town in North America. But many give most of the credit to Drabinsky. “I think the Mirvishes viewed the market as Toronto,” says Edgar Dobie, managing director of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Co., in New York. “Garth viewed it as all of Canada and anywhere within a five-hour drive.”

Drabinsky routinely runs ads not only in U.S. border cities, but in Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Now, he hopes to do the same in Vancouver, already teasing future audiences from Seattle. In fact, in recognition of the estimated $200 million a year in visitors’ income that Phantom has generated in Toronto, the

Tourism Industry Association of Canada named Drabinsky man of the year—an award presented last week at its annual convention in Vancouver by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. But on Broadway, he has ruffled feathers with his lavish ad campaigns a year ahead of a production and his nerve in raising the top ticket price for Show Boat to $75, currently the highest ticket price on Broadway.

“What Garth has done here is that he’s kind of broken the mould,” says Dobie. “And a lot of people don’t like it.” Drabinsky credits his movie experience with helping him mine the profit possibilities of live theatre. He tries to control every aspect of a show, right down to the concession and ubiquitous souvenir stands, which last year contributed $14 million—or 11 per cent of Livent’s revenue. In fact, so innovative has his marketing been that, last year before its Toronto opening, when a group of black activists first protested that Show Boat’s historic story line was racist, some cynics muttered that Drabinsky himself might be drumming up the controversy as a publicity stunt. But on the eve of the show’s debut in New York—where there had not been a peep of protest—excerpts from a new book on Ontario premier Bob Rae by Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom suddenly revealed that some officials from the provincial government’s Anti-Racism Secretariat had secretly funnelled $200,000 to groups behind the Coalition to Stop Show Boat.

Rae has dismissed the report as “pure speculation.” But within days of its release, Drabinsky had filed a notice of claim against the province. In the course of the controversy, he had found himself an initially reluctant champion of freedom of expression—and the target of pickets with anti-Semitic placards outside his house. “The shocking thing is that the funds would be used to promote antiSemitism,” he says. “It’s just a grotesque example of a government out of control. And our intent is to make sure such a thing never happens again.”

Clearly, Drabinsky is relishing the prospect of the fight. For a man with a disconcerting surfeit of success on his hands, the suit seems to offer a welcome new battleground. Already, his ebullient public relations man, Dennis Kucherawy, seems to be suggesting that Garth Drabinsky sees himself in a new role—one again drawn from showbiz fantasy. “Did you see him on TV talking about the suit?” Kucherawy exulted. “He was talking real quiet—sort of like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry.” □