TORONTO — Could a couple of witches and a fearless hobbit put Toronto back on the legit map?
The recent announcement that the C$28 million ($23 million) tuner “The Lord of the Rings” would have its world premiere in Canada, rather than London or Chicago, provided a welcome burst of world-class publicity to the city’s tattered image. (Think the SARS crisis and early closings for “The Producers” and “Hairspray.” )
Equally good is the news that the first stop on the national tour of “Wicked” has sold out its entire seven-week Hogtown stand, well before the official March 31 opening. Tuner has grossed $1.13 million for its first eight previews, a whisker away from the $1.20 million it brings in each capacity week in Gotham.
And even though “Mamma Mia!” will close May 22 on its fifth anniversary, that’s nothing to be ashamed of; it will have played 2,044 performances to 2.8 million patrons, resulting in a gross of $200 million.
All of this is a far cry from last summer, when both “The Producers” and “Hairspray” were forced to shutter far earlier than expected.
From 1989 on, Toronto had cultivated a reputation as “Broadway North,” the home of long-run hits and big out-of-town tryouts.
“The Phantom of the Opera” lasted an entire decade (1989-99), and shows like “Miss Saigon,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Lion King,” all chalked up multiyear runs.
Garth Drabinsky’s Livent empire used the city as its launching pad for “Kiss of the Spider Woman” as well as”Show Boat,” “Ragtime” and “Fosse” before sending them on to Broadway.
But the unceremonious dethroning of the megaproducer in summer 1998 ended that, and no major commercial properties have started here since then.
In walked David Mirvish, head of Mirvish Prods. The country’s leading legit producer, Mirvish was content to bring in existing hits and was doing very well. The spring of 2000 provided him with a one-two punch, as “The Lion King” and “Mamma Mia!” opened a month apart and immediately played to capacity.
What was supposed to have been a 26-week run for “Mamma Mia!” turned into a five-year money machine, as the original Canadian company toured North America, while another Canuck cast kept the home fires burning to SRO attendance.
The aftermath of 9/11 created a slight downswing in Toronto tourism, but by 2002, things were getting back to normal, when Mirvish announced that he would be mounting a Canadian production of “The Producers.”
Originally, the Toronto version was due to open in early 2003, but the schedule of the show’s creative team caused a delay, and that spring was when it all started to go wrong.
The exaggerated panic over the SARS virus turned Toronto into a tourist ghost town. The war in Iraq kept Americans at home, and the Canadian dollar started an upswing,which meant the favorable exchange rates that drew people north were a thing of the past.
In a bold move, Mirvish closed “Mamma Mia!” in Toronto and moved it to Vancouver, where it sold out for eight weeks.
“The Producers,” however, had opened in December to tepid reviews and never really caught on.
The same fate awaited his Toronto production of “Hairspray.” Even though it opened in May 2004 to enthusiastic reviews, it was fighting “The Producers” and “Mamma Mia!” for the still-diminished tourist market.
When audiences failed to materialize, Mirvish closed “Hairspray” at the end of November, causing widespread speculation that Toronto was finished as a major legit location and would just be another touring stop in the future.
Chicago’s sudden dominance in the out-of-town market only fostered that perception, serving as the tryout home for hits like “Movin’ Out,” “The Producers” and “Spamalot.”
In the middle of all this came “The Lord of the Rings.”
Producer Kevin Wallace had planned to open the show in London in the spring of 2005, but none of the venues large enough to hold his show were available, so he looked to North America.
Chicago then put on a full court press, wanting this hot property to solidify their position as the No. 1 North American theater city outside of Gotham.
“I knew that if Chicago grabbed ‘Lord of the Rings’ away from us, that would be it,” Mirvish says. “And Toronto would be finished as a major theater town. I couldn’t let it happen.”
Mirvish lobbied hard and came up with several things that were irresistible to Wallace, including major corporate sponsorship and support from the Canadian government, which will provide a total of $7.5 million in loans or in-kind donations.
Wallace liked the level of commitment the Canadians were willing to bring to the table and signed the deal.
“I remember when ‘Phantom of the Opera’ ran here for 10 years,’ recalls Wallace. “It was a proud city, and it was looked on as the third-largest theater city in the world after New York and London. Well, since SARS, the city had been sleeping in on its potential, and it needed a major theatrical event to wake it up again.”
The show will go into rehearsal on Oct. 24 and is skedded to start previews in February 2006 with the opening night set for March 23 at the 2,000-seat Princess of Wales Theater.
Toronto has exclusive world rights for nine months and North American for 18 months. Mirvish calculates the show can play to 832,000 patrons a year at capacity and have an economic impact on the city conservatively estimated at $600 million.