Theatre

Bullish on Broadway

With a new theatre and Ragtime, Garth Drabinsky takes Manhattan

Brian D. Johnson January 26 1998
Theatre

Bullish on Broadway

With a new theatre and Ragtime, Garth Drabinsky takes Manhattan

Brian D. Johnson January 26 1998

Bullish on Broadway

With a new theatre and Ragtime, Garth Drabinsky takes Manhattan

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Theatre

Garth Drabinsky needs to be convinced. After years of enduring a chippy relationship with the Canadian media, he is not eager to be interviewed by a journalist who has occasionally failed to cast him in the most flattering light. “No publicity is better than more aggravation,” says Drabinsky, explaining that he has had his fill of Canadian magazine articles describing him with words like “abrasive.” And when the producer of such mega-musicals as Show Boat and Ragtime finally does agree to meet Maclean’s in New York City, he lays down some ground rules: no personal questions, and nothing about his turbulent past as the boss of Cineplex Odeon. “My life,” he says, “has evolved.

It’s gone on.”

ON ASSIGNMENT IN NEW YORK CITY

It certainly has. A decade after being ousted from his Cineplex Odeon empire, Drabinsky, as chairman and CEO of Toronto-based Livent Inc., has risen phoenix-like to become the toast of Broadway. In 1993, his Kiss of the Spider Woman swept the Tony Awards. Box-office revenues from his acclaimed revival of Show Boat are expected to reach $860 million by the year 2000. And, after triumphant runs in Toronto and Los Angeles, on Jan. 18 a New York production of Drabinsky’s Ragtime opened in an opulent new theatre that he has built on Broadway. Erected from the salvaged ruins of two faded playhouses on 42nd Street, the Lyric and Apollo theatres, his 1,813-seat Ford Center is the new crown jewel in the current revitalization of Manhattan’s theatre district, g In the U.S. media, meanwhile, this 48-year-old Canadian is being § hailed as a savior of the American musical—for mounting lavish | shows with social themes that restore a lost grandeur to the medio urn, for presenting them in plush surroundings that recall Broad-1 way’s golden age, and for changing the way Broadway does ? business. Exerting quality control over every aspect of a produc-1 tion, he pays top dollar to attract creative talent. He fine-tunes full £ productions of shows in other cities before brav5 ing Broadway. Tapping public and private funds, 2 he has built theatres in New York, Toronto and Vancouver, and is currently restoring Chicago’s historic Oriental Theatre. On top of that, he is developing five new musicals. Drabinsky’s expansionist zeal—the quality that makes some Canadians squirm— seems right at home in America.

Garth is on a roll. And as he fielded questions last week from behind a marble desk in his office at the Ford Center, there was nothing abrasive about him, except for a voice rendered gruffer than usual by a heavy cold. “It’s the damn weather changes in this city,” he says, “and the fact that I haven’t slept for three months probably has something to do with it.” Toronto-born Drabinsky, who commutes between his home town and a condo in New York, maintains a gruelling regime of 16-hour days. The week before Ragtime’s Broadway opening—and the the crucial New York reviews—the pressure was starting to get to him. “Opening nights are something that I loathe,” he says. “It’s not a bar mitzvah. It’s exactly the opposite. I find the whole experience incredibly agonizing.”

But after raves in Toronto and Los Angeles, Ragtime’s success seems a safe bet. The show—a spectacle about American Dreamers at the tumultuous turn of the century—zings along as a stunningly synchronized, and syncopated, pageant. The songs, by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty, swing from cool ragtime to scorching gospel with acrobatic ease. And, with the new theatre, Drabinsky is reviving not only the spirit of old Broadway, but also the architecture. Although the Lyric and the Apollo were demolished to make way for the Ford Center, some key features were incorporated into the new building, including the Lyric’s facades, domes, boxes and proscenium arch.

On the marquee that hangs outside Drabinsky’s office window— and on all manner of merchandise in the gift shop downstairs—the Ragtime logo depicts a star-spangled banner coiled around the outthrust arm of the Statue of Liberty. Drabinsky, it seems, is engaged in the proverbial sale of refrigerators to Eskimos: a Canadian selling America to Americans.

But his affection for the product seems genuine. “I love the dramatic element of American history,” he says. “I love that it’s born out of passion. The divisiveness and the issues—they’re important for the world, not just for America. They’re so in your face.” Adds Drabinsky: “As much as I am so proud of being a Canadian, and do everything I can to promote Canada around the world, I feel very much a citizen of this country as well. I’m comfortable here. I continue to be inspired by stories emanating from the history of this country—but I will get involved only if I see a universality to them.”

Being Canadian, in fact, may have given Drabinsky a certain edge in distilling America’s essence. “It’s given me a perspective,” he says. “It’s a lot easier to stand back and look at the richness and the optimism of America, the powers and ills of America, with a bit of distance.”

He certainly had the wherewithal to notice an obvious opportunity that had eluded everyone for two decades. Rereading E. L. Doctorow’s jazz-inspired bestseller, Ragtime, Drabinsky realized that the 1975 novel—a crazy quilt of historical fantasy—was a musical waiting to happen. It had not occurred to Doctorow. “I’d never dreamed about this material in these ways,” says the author, who disliked Milos Forman’s 1981 movie adaptation. Doctorow, who collaborated on the stage version, adds that the show is “more or less like an extract. And what they’ve landed on is the American allegory implicit in the text.”

The musical weaves the class upheaval of turn-of-the-century America into a tale of emancipation in three-part harmony. The social panorama is vividly unfurled in the opening number: the white gentry with their lace parasols, the earth-toned underclass of African-Americans, and the grey influx of anxious immigrants. In the course of the play, a heroic individual emerges from each group. Mother (Marin Mazzie), a compassionate WASP, pries a measure of autonomy from her Victorian husband. Coalhouse Walker Jr. (Brian Stokes Mitchell), a black piano man, becomes a strident revolutionary after a mob of bigots trashes his beloved Model T Ford. And Tateh (Peter Friedman), an impoverished Jew who has fled Latvia with his daughter, goes from hawking silhouette portraits on the street to making motion pictures on the beach.

Meanwhile, real-life characters flit in and out: magician Harry Houdini, glamor queen Evelyn Nesbit, an-* archist Emma Goldman, activist Booker T. Washington, tycoon J. P. Morgan—and industrialist Henry Ford. Although Ford’s role is not major, it presents an unintended irony in light of the blue oval Ford sign that looms so prominently outside the theatre. And, aside from the exploding trunk employed by Houdini in his aerial magic trick, the Model T is the show’s gaudiest prop. “Isn’t it nice to know,” Drabinsky hastens to point out, “that I made a decision to produce Ragtime before I had any inkling that Ford was involved with me.”

Still, Ragtime’s Model T has a strong resonance. It is not just a prop, but an icon. The musical’s big anthem is, after all, Wheels of a Dream—an apt metaphor for a show that celebrates the eternal combustion of the American Dream while lamenting the unjust fate of those it has left in the dust. Ragtime is a tragedy buffered by optimism, a fast-moving vehicle with room for liberal sentiment and entrepreneurial élan.

Between its period setting and its pre-millennial staging, it is also a tale of modern times that neatly brackets the 20th century. Drabinsky conceived of Ragtime as a kind of sequel to Show Boat which, at the time of its 1993 debut, was the first Broadway musical to take on big social issues. The early 20th century was “a fascinating period in American history,” says the producer, who is now creating Parade, “the third arm of what I call the Trilogy of America.” Parade is an original musical based on the story of Leo Frank, a New York Jew wrongly convicted of a 1913 rape and murder in racist Atlanta. Broadway veteran Hal Prince will direct, Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) has written the book, and Drabinsky says Canadian actor Brent Carver (Kiss of the Spider Woman) will play the lead.

Livent is also developing four other new musicals: The Sweet Smell of Success, based on the 1957 movie about the vicious power of gossip columnists; Bob Fosse: A Life in Song and Dance, about the life of the legendary choreographer; a revival of the 1940 Broadway classic Pal Joey, and The Seussical, based on the Dr. Seuss children’s books. Meanwhile, Livent’s Toronto production of Phantom of the Opera has entered its ninth year, and—along with its Canadian touring version—it has grossed $600 million. Livent itself, the only publicly traded company of its kind in North America, expects $425 million in revenues this year.

But Drabinsky is clearly out to make more than a financial statement. Ideas matter to him, the bigger the better. And he thrives on being able to collaborate intimately with artists. “He was certainly more involved in the creative process than you’d expect a producer to be,” recalls Doctorow. “But he created an atmosphere that made me feel welcome.”

Drabinsky, who started out producing movies (The Silent Partner, The Changeling) in the 1970s, says his stage collaborators value his expertise. “I think they respect my eye, and my analysis of performance. It’s an eye that’s been trained by sitting in a dark room watching 300 movies a year, sitting in the editing room studying the microcosm of entertainment.” He stresses the phrase as if chiselling it in stone.

Drabinsky, of course, is also quite literally carving a legacy in stone, by building and restoring theatrical monuments. While preserving certain features from the Lyric and Apollo, New York’s Ford Center also upstages the past with a grand lobby, with staircases curving around a floor that has an exquisite mosaic at its centre—the classical masks of comedy and tragedy rendered with 172,800 pieces of hand-cut marble from all over the world. Richard Blinder, the theatre’s architect, says Drabinsky was “incredibly involved in the details—he wanted the very best of everything.” Then, mentioning Disney’s renovated New Amsterdam Theater across the street, he adds that Broadway “has been managed by three old family corporations, and these two newcomers bring in two new theatres. It changes the nature of what New York theatre is all about.”

Disney is Drabinsky’s biggest rival, and the yellow marquee for The Lion King fills the view from his office window. “But I don’t believe that we’re competing,” he says. “I think the greatest thing in the world is that when 1,800 people walk into that theatre every night, if they turn their backs they see the marquee of Ragtime, and vice-versa. These two shows will fuel each other for an incredibly long time. Fiddler on the Roof and Hello, Dolly! were across the street from each other for years and years.” Then he adds, “The south part of Broadway is now anchored by the two most exciting theatres in the city. And you need the critical mass of 20 or 30 shows pumping away to keep bringing the hordes of people who come to the city every year for Broadway. That’s the miracle of what Broadway’s all about.”

Writing a New Yorker profile of Drabinsky last year, John Lahr astutely observed: ‘What he wants is not to make history with shows of wealth but to make wealth with shows of history.” Back in the days when Drabinsky promoted classical grandeur by gracing Cineplex trailers with Greek columns and anointing popcorn with real butter, his claims of grandeur may have seemed exaggerated. Now, with Garth’s miracle on 42nd Street, he has built a world to match the scale of his ambition. □