Welcoming Back an Old Friend
Photo of the Toronto Centre for the Arts by selosa
On Thursday, Cameron Mackintosh’s revival of My Fair Lady makes its long-awaited Toronto debut. Just as significantly, however, its arrival brings a new lease on life for one of the city’s finest major theatres.
The 1,850-seat main stage at the Toronto Centre for the Arts is back in business after what was essentially an eight-year hiatus. It first opened in 1993, the cornerstone of what was then the North York Performing Arts Centre, and won immediate plaudits for its unusual intimacy and flawless acoustics. For five years the venue symbolized the ebbing fortunes of Toronto’s mid-90s theatre boom (a point Richard Ouzounian made in last Sunday’s Star). Moreover, while its inaugural productions reinforced Toronto’s claims to being the world’s third-largest theatre centre, its unexpected downturn mirrored the demise of the company, Livent, and the man, Garth Drabinsky, who were largely responsible for that success.
The centre was conceived by Mel Lastman, erstwhile mayor of North York before it was annexed by the megacity (and before Lastman brought his unique brand of politicking to bear on the rest of Toronto). He needed a similar, gregarious personality to help realize his vision—and found an ideal partner in Drabinsky, who was busy creating a theatrical empire on the strength of his production of The Phantom of the Opera. These were heady times for commercial theatre in Toronto: while Phantom was doing sell-out business at the newly restored Pantages Theatre, Ed and David Mirvish were enjoying similar success with their production of Les Misérables. It was a time of boundless optimism for the city’s impresarios; given that context, opening a 3,000-capacity performing arts centre north of the 401 must’ve seemed like a natural progression.
Livent was charged with programming the centre’s bill of fare—and as was typical of Garth Drabinsky, it opened with a bang: Harold Prince’s majestic 1993 revival of Show Boat. Show Boat was followed by the Canadian premiere production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Sunset Boulevard, and later by Ragtime, the latter of which firmly established Drabinsky’s credentials as a leading force in commercial theatre production. The newly rechristened Ford Centre for the Performing Arts was beginning to look like a very good idea, indeed.
Ragtime was an artistic triumph—yet it was also the beginning of the end for Livent in general and for Drabinsky and his business partner, Myron Gottlieb, in particular. The two were dismissed from Livent in August 1998 with allegations of “financial irregularities” swirling around them. Two months later the company went bankrupt, marking an abrupt and dramatic end to Livent’s brief reign atop the theatrical world. (It’s a strange coincidence that the opening of My Fair Lady coincides with Drabinsky’s latest bad press. The Livent debacle could well become one of the most egregious instances of white-collar crime in Canadian history; we’ll be following the story intently through to its conclusion.) The Ford Centre, meanwhile, remained open, yet quickly floundered without Livent’s leadership. The main stage theatre, which was designed with long-running, big-scale musical theatre in mind, was forced to make do with the occasional touring production. Soon those disappeared, as well. The centre’s other two spaces—a 1,000-seat concert hall and a small “black box” theatre—found uses, but the jewel in its crown was basically forgotten.
Eight years later, Aubrey Dan is trying to resurrect its fortunes. Dan may not be Garth Drabinsky (a good thing, surely, in light of this week’s developments), but he’s certainly plotted a memorable opening year for his own fledgling theatrical company, Dancap Productions. Its two biggest hits, Avenue Q and Jersey Boys, are still to come. Mackintosh’s revival of My Fair Lady, meanwhile, is a robust and energetic production; we saw it in 2003 in London’s West End, and we can’t wait to see it again next week. Yet Dan’s greatest gift to the city may not be a musical at all, but rather a new lease on life for one of its finest performance spaces. To that end, My Fair Lady is a perfect vehicle for the reopening, a grand and glorious old-fashioned musical à la Show Boat that’ll fit into the main stage theatre like a hand inside a glove. You’ll have to excuse us if we’re just as excited about the venue as about what’s happening on its stage.
Photo of the main stage auditorium by ecila photography.