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COVER STORY

He Just Keeps Rolling Along

Garth Drabinsky, the man who changed the way Americans see movies, is now reinventing the stage musical (here comes his lavish 'Show Boat'). If only he could learn to take no for an answer.

November 10, 1996|Craig Turner | Craig Turner is The Times' Toronto bureau chief

TORONTO — Except for the day he was struck with polio as a 3-year-old, Nov. 27, 1989, marked the worst 24 hours of Garth Drabinsky's lifetime.

On that afternoon, Drabinsky's partners in Cineplex Odeon Corp., which he had built into the second-largest film exhibition company on the continent, orchestrated his firing. He had changed the way Americans went to the movies, but his extravagant spending and determination to have everything his way alienated most of his fellow directors, most notably those from MCA, the Hollywood entertainment giant.

Used to dispatching orders with imperious aplomb, Drabinsky had the terms of his departure dictated to him like a surrendering general. All that was left to him and longtime business associate Myron Gottlieb were the Pantages Theater in downtown Toronto, just restored to the gilt-edged grandeur of its 1920s heyday, and its new production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera."

When the curtain fell on that evening's performance, Drabinsky summoned the "Phantom" troupe backstage and explained what had happened.

Long afterward, Drabinsky would write with characteristic vitriol of "those dark days of corporate double-dealing," but what came through that night was his pain, not his anger. They were a family, he told the group--though he made clear that he was the father--and they would persevere. He and Gottlieb already had formed a new company, Live Entertainment Inc., or Livent, to keep the play in production.

Seven years later, Drabinsky has indeed persevered--and more.

Livent's production of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein classic "Show Boat," as reinterpreted by director Harold Prince, arrives at the Ahmanson Theater next Sunday, laden with five Tony Awards and some of the most ecstatic critical notices in recent memory. Less than a month later, on Dec. 8, Livent's original musical adaptation of E. L. Doctorow's novel "Ragtime" premieres here in Toronto in what is shaping up as one of the most anticipated offerings of both the U.S.' and Canada's theater seasons.

But "Show Boat," which also is playing on Broadway and in Chicago, and "Ragtime" are just part of the Livent empire. The publicly traded company today accounts for about one out of every five dollars spent on commercial theater box office in North America. Moreover, from a suite of Toronto offices ornamented with pieces from his acclaimed collection of contemporary Canadian art, Drabinsky now seeks no less than to reinvent the American musical theater.

Drabinsky's rapid comeback from fired film executive to world-class theatrical impresario might strike some as improbable. It is in fact typical of a life story worthy of melodrama, beginning with a childhood spent in a long, painful but ultimately successful battle to stave off paralysis.

In his 20s, Drabinsky discarded a promising law career to make movies, producing what at the time was the most expensive film in Canadian history--a horror movie called "The Changeling" with George C. Scott, in 1978. Shifting to film exhibition at Cineplex Odeon, he pioneered the multiplex and upgraded theaters all over North America, by some accounts saving the industry from the threat posed by the home videocassette recorder. Now at Livent, he says with offhand bravado, he has set a course to "build a fiscally strong, healthy company and produce great work that will hopefully last a generation."

"He never takes no for an answer and he's never met a hurdle he can't climb," summarizes Canadian film producer Robert Lantos, who has been Drabinsky's sometime associate and sometime competitor.

*

There is little doubt about the source of this determination; Drabinsky, 47, carries the reminder of his childhood polio in his scarred and weakened left leg. He recalls that when he walked on stage to receive his first Tony Award, for "Kiss of the Spider Woman" in 1993, all he could think about was whether the television cameras captured his limp. But the virus also taught him, in the words of his autobiography, "Never give up. Never yield. Always dig deeper."

The aggressive personality born of those childhood struggles runs counter to some of Canada's most beloved national stereotypes; Drabinsky is brash, uncompromising, impolite, entrepreneurial and intensely competitive--the un-Canadian. In one memorable incident while he was still at Cineplex Odeon, Drabinsky secretly bought the front half of a building that housed a competitor's multiplex. He sent in a stealth team of carpenters to wall off the theaters from the door to the street and then commenced negotiations to buy the rest of the building. He got it.

Toronto's clubby arts and business communities often regard such sharp competitive instincts as unwholesome anyplace but on the hockey rink. So, for a long time Drabinsky was something of an outsider to these worlds. Of late that has changed somewhat; success apparently breeds welcome. He's even enough of a celebrity to appear in radio commercials for a local newspaper.

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