In 2006, Toronto’s future on the North American theater circuit seemed singularly grim. Not was only the shadow of the 2003 SARS epidemic still hanging heavily on the city, but the memory of the sit-down productions of “The Producers” and “Hairspray” that folded in record time that year added to the grief.Then, adding insult to injury, was the rise of Chicago as North America’s No. 2 theater city, a title Toronto had laid claim to all during the 1990s with its long runs for “The Phantom of the Opera,” “The Lion King” and “Mamma Mia!” The Windy City swooped in and got the first sit-down productions of “Wicked” and “Jersey Boys,” both of which did very nicely. In 2006, in a flamboyant attempt to regain lost glory, Toronto threw its mojo behind the ill-starred “The Lord of the Rings.” It cost $28 million, attracted critical derision and closed with embarrassing speed. To many observers, that meant curtains for Toronto’s major legit ambitions. But then, things started turning around. A production of the Queen tuner, “We Will Rock You,” lasted for two years. Andrew Lloyd Webber brought his London version of “The Sound of Music” to Toronto, and it filled houses for 18 months. “Jersey Boys” arrived in a Canadian production that ran 24 months, and the repeat business for such shows as “Wicked” grew ever stronger. “When we were planning ‘Wicked’s’ first North American tour in March 2005, we chose Toronto as our launch city because of its sophisticated audiences and passionate, intelligent theater community,” says producer David Stone. “We have since returned to Toronto twice and each engagement has been a resounding success, not only from a box office perspective but also from the overwhelmingly supportive audience reaction. It has become one of the cities to which we most look forward to returning.” In fact, “Wicked’s” 2010 run in Toronto broke all B.O. records in the city’s history. “The era of shows running four, five or 10 years is over,” insists John Karastamatis of Mirvish Productions, the city’s major commercial producer. “But you can still enjoy great successes. The trick is trying to decide how long a show should run.” In 2011, Toronto’s version of “Billy Elliot” bucked the trend across North America. Whereas productions in Chi and San Francisco closed ahead of sked, Toronto’s version held over, from its originally scheduled June to Labor Day. “The Lion King’s” return engagement played to 99% for 12 weeks and the advance sales for “Mary Poppins,” skedded to start in November, are equally strong. A sit-down run of “War Horse” begins in February, the Broadway-bound “Private Lives” began its tour in Toronto in September and all the signs are that the city everyone had written off is now writing its own ticket once again.
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