A producer seeks a Broadway comeback, mired in offstage drama

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A producer seeks a Broadway comeback, mired in offstage drama
Sidney DuPont, left, and A.J. Shively in the musical “Paradise Square,” at the Barrymore Theater in New York, March 14, 2022. With “Paradise Square” preparing to open in April, producer Garth Drabinsky is hoping to re-establish himself on Broadway after serving time in Canadian prison for fraud. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Richard Zoglin

NEW YORK, NY.- Ten days before opening night of his Broadway show, “Paradise Square,” Garth Drabinsky was sitting at a breakfast table at the Peninsula Hotel in midtown Manhattan, fending off a stream of cellphone calls from members of his production team.

That morning’s crisis: Chilina Kennedy, one of the show’s lead actors, had called in sick (and would be out for nine days after testing positive for the coronavirus). Drabinsky decided which of the two understudies should take her place. A few minutes later, he spoke with director Moisés Kaufman.

“You’re happy with the choice?” Drabinsky asked. He listened. “Yeah, right, but make sure that she can really deliver ‘Someone to Love,’” one of the musical’s big ballads. “And the comedy.”

The days before an opening are always stressful for a Broadway producer. But few have been under a harsher spotlight than Drabinsky, a storied Canadian impresario whose return to Broadway has generated the sort of drama that even he couldn’t have scripted.

First came the pandemic, which delayed the show’s Broadway opening by two years. Then an out-of-town run in Chicago in the fall drew mixed reviews and (hampered by the COVID-19 surge) disappointing sales. The show’s preview performances on Broadway have earned only around $350,000 per week at the box office, with most of the seats filled by heavily discounted or even free tickets. That’s not the best omen for a producer who is staking everything on his big comeback after an ignominious fall.

He was a brash outsider even during his heyday in the 1990s, when he took a string of Tony-winning musicals to Broadway, among them “Ragtime,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and a revival of “Show Boat.” Then, in 1998, his company, Livent, imploded, and Drabinsky was accused of understating expenses and inflating profits in order to disguise the company’s precarious financial state. He was eventually convicted of fraud and forgery in his native Canada, and served 17 months of a five-year sentence before being paroled in February 2013.

Now he’s back. And he hasn’t lost his salesperson’s bravado, his lawyerly verbosity or his passion for theater, even though his show has faced many challenges, including questions about its financial health.

As New York rehearsals started in February, stories began circulating about slow payments, contract problems and a budget ($13.5 million, according to Drabinsky) that seemed on the slim side for a big Broadway musical with a performing company of nearly 40 and a producer known for lavish spending. Actors Equity, the performers union, even instructed the cast not to show up for rehearsals one day, so that it could deal with a “failure to provide our members with contracts reflecting their agreed-upon terms of employment” and “a myriad of other significant contract violations,” according to an Equity statement.

“When Garth Drabinsky is involved, people are rightly concerned that all the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed,” said David Levy, an Equity spokesperson. The problems were apparently resolved, but it was hardly the sort of incident anyone wants at the outset of a Broadway run.

Drabinsky blamed a delay in delivering final contracts for the dispute, and misunderstandings about what the actors were owed when the show transferred to New York from Chicago. “The Chicago contract froze the deal for New York,” he said. “There was no variation allowed. They were asking for something we were not committed to give.”

What’s more, Drabinsky stressed, he is not in charge of the show’s finances — an arrangement made explicit by the limited partnership formed to bring it to Broadway. “I walked away from every element of fiscal control of this show,” he said. “I don’t sign checks. I don’t get involved. I never want to live through the horror of what I went through in 1998 again.”

Instead, he’s been working to get “Paradise Square” in shape for Broadway. The show began life nine years ago with a small-scale musical called “Hard Times,” written by Irish American musician Larry Kirwan, lead singer of rock band Black 47. It is set during the Civil War, in the gritty Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan, where Irish immigrants and freed Black Americans lived together — and where Stephen Foster (whose music formed the bulk of the score) resided during his final years. The show climaxes with the draft riots of 1863, when white working-class New Yorkers formed violent racist mobs after a draft lottery.

Drabinsky loved the concept but shied away from anchoring the show in Foster’s music, with its romanticization of the slavery-era South. So he set about reworking the piece, hiring composer Jason Howland to write a new score (only two Foster songs remain), a succession of writers to shift the story’s focus to the owner of a neighborhood saloon (played by Tony nominee Joaquina Kalukango), and a top-notch creative team, including Kaufman, as the director, along with choreographer Bill T. Jones.

The themes of racial justice and the immigrant experience have long attracted Drabinsky, and their currency has only grown in the years of development, which included a 2019 workshop production in Berkeley, California. “When the show began to parallel what was happening today in America and the world, it was sort of freaky,” he said. “And it hasn’t stopped changing. Even to the point that days before our first preview, Russia invades Ukraine. Three million immigrants are now looking for a new home.”

Drabinsky also made an effort to diversify the creative team, hiring Christina Anderson, a Black playwright, to revise Craig Lucas and Kirwan’s script, and composer-lyricist Masi Asare, who collaborated with Nathan Tysen on the lyrics.

Still, suspicion of Drabinsky runs high in the Broadway community, where many were burned financially by his company’s bankruptcy.

Yet some people clearly are willing to give him another shot. The list of more than 30 producers for “Paradise Square” includes few established Broadway names but many who have confidence in Drabinsky’s record as a dedicated, hands-on producer. Among them are Joe Crowley, a former Queens congressman who was brought into the project by Kirwan; Matthew Blank, the former head of Showtime who is now interim CEO of AMC Networks; and Richard Stursberg, a former top executive at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

“I liked the dynamic of this motivated producer, needy of success, putting it all on the line,” said Jeffrey Sine, another producer, whose Broadway credits include “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.” “I think people deserve a second chance.”

Or third or fourth. Drabinsky, 72, grew up in Toronto. At age 4 he contracted polio and spent much of his childhood in hospitals, distracting himself with music on his transistor radio — everything from ’50s rock ’n’ roll to Charles Aznavour. He earned a law degree but soon turned to the entertainment business, building the Cineplex Odeon chain of movie theaters, before resigning in 1989 amid concerns about the company’s financial health.

He reemerged as a theater mogul, parlaying a long-running Toronto production of “The Phantom of the Opera” at his Pantages Theater into a far-flung company, Livent, that owned theaters (in New York, Chicago and elsewhere) and produced the shows that went into them. He pioneered a new business model for Broadway: Rather than cobbling together investors for each new show, Livent was a vertically integrated company that used the profits from its theaters and touring shows to finance the new work.

But it all came crashing down in 1998 after the struggling company was bought by Hollywood agent Michael Ovitz and investment banker Roy Furman, who discovered bookkeeping irregularities. Drabinsky was fired; bankruptcy followed; and fraud charges were brought against Drabinsky and his longtime associate Myron Gottlieb, in the Southern District of New York and (after Drabinsky fled to Toronto) in Canada.

Drabinsky doesn’t like to talk much about that time. His finances were decimated and his reputation a shambles. A rare bright spot was the Orthodox rabbi who began visiting him in prison. “It came at the time when I was at my absolute lowest emotionally,” he said. “It gave me a bit of a second wind.” He said he and the rabbi have met regularly for lunch ever since.

Two years after his release from prison, he received a diagnosis of stage 4 melanoma, cancer of the skin that had metastasized to his lungs. (After a year of immunotherapy, he said he is cancer-free.) He returned to producing with the musical “Sousatzka” (backed by a Canadian company in which he has no financial interest), but that closed in Toronto after poor reviews. And still, Drabinsky was unable to travel to the United States because of the pending indictment against him in New York. That changed in July 2018, when New York prosecutors dismissed the charges, noting that he had already served time for essentially the same crimes.

“Paradise Square” is the sort of serious, original musical that Broadway claims to want more of. Yet without a major star, or a pre-sold brand to market (and little advertising thus far), it faces a tough road. Much is riding on critics’ reactions, which will come after Sunday’s opening. But Drabinsky remains upbeat, citing the “wonderful” audience response and positive tweets.

“I made the decision, in terms of marketing, that our best course was to ensure that we filled the previews to capacity at whatever average ticket price we could get and let word of mouth take over,” he said.

Drabinsky's showman’s optimism is bolstered by a sober, even sentimental, belief in redemption. “There is a spirit in the soul of this country,” he said, “that allows somebody the opportunity to come back and work hard and be able to deliver a cultural work hopefully that will be meaningful. It’s one of the things that fills my heart every day.”

Whether “Paradise Square” fills the seats at the Ethel Barrymore Theater will decide if Drabinsky has a future on Broadway — or whether it’s back to square one.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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