(Mirvish, interestingly, is opening his own original musical here within days of Drabinsky's "Ragtime." His production, an adaptation of Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" written and directed by John Caird with music and lyrics by Los Angeles songwriter Paul Gordon, also may move to Broadway next year.)
One of the things that drew Drabinsky to "Show Boat" is that, as Harold Prince says in his production notes, "it is the first great contemporary modern musical. The first to merge the traditional, happy-go-lucky naivete of Broadway musical comedy with serious themes."
Drabinsky first saw "Show Boat" in 1990 at the London Palladium. "It was not a good production," he recalled. ". . . However, I did take away a huge understanding of the import of the show . . . the exploration of racism, miscegenation, alcoholism, family breakdown and so forth."
He found an enthusiastic partner in Prince, who has refashioned the narrative and reintroduced songs left out of some past productions.
The announcement that Drabinsky would stage "Show Boat," however, triggered a short-lived but vehement protest by some Toronto black activists, who complained that the musical would reinforce racial stereotypes. The protests were based mainly on reading the novel from which the play was drawn, and dissolved soon after the production opened here. When "Show Boat" moved to Broadway, it won raves from the black media.
Like "Show Boat," "Ragtime" also deals with the corrosive influences of racial intolerance. The saga of three families in turn-of-the-century New York, "Ragtime" also follows the struggles of poor immigrants and newly industrialized workers.
" 'Ragtime' is a story about rebirth, about living with change and the forces change unleashes . . . a story that speaks to our lives today," Drabinsky told the cast on the first day of rehearsal.
Drabinsky and Prince also are developing a musical based on the case of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager who was lynched by the Ku Klux Klan in Georgia in 1915 for a murder he did not commit. The case led to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, an organization that has honored Drabinsky for his charitable efforts.
Drabinsky shrugs off questions about the commercial viability of "serious" musicals.
" 'Show Boat' right now is being booked to the year 2000. So I don't know what's risky and what isn't risky. I've seen fluff fail big time," he said.
The financial health of Livent is a frequent topic of speculation in Toronto's theatrical community, especially given Drabinsky's penchant for expensive promotion and high ticket prices. Perhaps unfairly, he has not fully shaken the reputation gained a decade ago as the high-flying executive of debt-ridden Cineplex Odeon.
Livent last year wrote off $8.9 million (Canadian) in pre-production costs on its critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful production of "Kiss of the Spider Woman," and Drabinsky admits that the Canadian production of "Sunset Boulevard" is unlikely to turn a profit. Still, Livent had enough hits in the pipeline to report a net income of almost $11.8 million (Canadian) in 1995.
"I'm not going to bat a thousand. The company will not bat a thousand. . . . There are going to be other disappointments over the years. When you have enough winners, you don't worry about the odd one that doesn't do as well as you would have liked," he said.
Right now, he has no plans to change his commercial formula.
"I look for shows that can contribute constructively to an enlightened form of argument on the problems that plague society today."
Beyond that, there is one more criterion.
"They really have to make me cry a lot, I guess. That's a fundamental point. If I can't shed tears in the course of 2 1/2 or three hours, then I don't think a musical's going to work for me."
* "Show Boat," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. Opens next Sun., 4 p.m. Regular schedule: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. Also Nov. 25, 8 p.m. Dark Nov. 28. Holiday schedule: Dec. 23, 25-28 and 31, 8 p.m.; Dec. 26 and 28, 2 p.m.; Dec. 29, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Ends Feb. 23. $35-$75 (Dec. 31, $55-$95). (213) 628-2772.
"Ragtime" opens Dec. 8 at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts in North York, Toronto. (416) 872-2222.