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Theatre rivals find a new horse race

Theatre producer Marlene Smith confirmed this week she is planning to return to the Elgin Theatre next year. And that is not good news for Garth Drabinsky, who was her rival in the heyday of Broadway North.

Dancer is the name of the song-and-dance show Smith and John McKellar are producing on a budget of about $ 1 million. It’s about horses and one horse in particular. That’s Northern Dancer, the celebrated Canadian four-legged creature that made history winning the Kentucky Derby in 1964.

Smith and producing partner McKellar (another veteran of this city’s art world elite) are putting money down to secure a hold on the theatre for May and June 2016.

But that means the theatre won’t be available for Drabinsky, the embattled tycoon who spent 17 months in jail after being convicted of fraud in the 1998 collapse of Livent.

Drabinsky had been planning to open two Broadway-bound new musicals over the next two years. Hard Times was set for the Elgin in June 2016, in the same time frame now booked by Smith. And he recently presided over a workshop production of this show at the Elgin’s rehearsal hall.

Based on Stephen Foster songs, Hard Times has a script by Craig Lucas (who got a Tony nomination for Prelude to a Kiss) and choreography by Bill T. Jones (who won a Tony for Spring Awakening).

In 2017, according to showbiz insiders, Drabinsky plans to launch another Broadway-bound musical, based on Madame Sousatzka, the 1988 movie he produced.

Without naming names, Brett Randall, general manager of the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre, explained how it works when a producer puts a hold on a date. No deposit is required, but another producer can come along seeking the same date and agree to secure it by making a deposit. The producer who previously had a hold is then told there is a challenge and has a chance to keep the booking by putting money down.

You wouldn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to surmise that Smith and McKellar seized the chance to grab the Elgin and that Drabinsky let it go.

It would take backers providing well over $ 10 million to launch Drabinsky’s two shows.

The Elgin switch seems like a replay of a showbiz rivalry that goes back to the 1980s. Smith and her partners produced Cats at the Elgin before the historic pair of stacked theatres were restored by the Ontario government, at which point the long-closed Winter Garden, atop the Elgin, was reopened after decades of gathering dust. Then Smith and Ernie Rubinstein, her business partner at the time, became managers and programmers of the building and opened The Wizard of Oz downstairs in late 1989.

That was just months after Drabinsky restored the Pantages Theatre, a short walk north of the Elgin, and opened Phantom of the Opera for what turned out to be a record-setting 10-year run.

Smith had previously made plans for a fresh production of Buddy, the musical about Buddy Holly, which was to have opened at the Winter Garden last fall, but it didn’t work out.

Smith is confident and enthusiastic about Dancer, which had a previous incarnation in a workshop at a National Ballet studio. The show has book and lyrics by Jim Betts, with music by Marek Norman. They are both veterans on the creative side of Canadian musical theatre, each with a strong track record.

“The horses are played by dancers,” says Smith, “plus there are seven people onstage.”

In the days when Drabinsky was running Cineplex and later Livent, he was known for flamboyance and massive attention-seeking, but since getting out of jail he has shunned media, trying to keep plans under wraps.

The opening of Hard Times, at the Elgin or elsewhere, would represent the beginning of the spectacular third act that Drabinsky and his allies are aiming for. And 2016 looms as a big year for him, since it would mark the end of the sentence he began serving in September 2011. He began day parole in February 2013 and was granted full parole in early 2014.

Last fall at Soho House, friends and relatives celebrated his 65th birthday. The theme was “The best is yet to come.” Earlier this year, actors were invited to a series of auditions for him even though, oddly, they were not told of any specific show or role.

Launching Broadway shows is a huge challenge, but Drabinsky faces other big problems.

Smith, on the other hand, who has been mostly enjoying life away from theatre for years, is still very upbeat but can’t resist a chance to get back into the game. And after all, she is betting on a horse that is known as a winner.


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