When it comes to its future as a home for sit-down productions of big musicals, Toronto is in step with Mark Twain, who said: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Since the premature back-to-back closings of local versions of “The Producers” and “Hairspray” in 2004, naysayers have intimated that 9/11 and the SARS epidemic killed the once-thriving market for long-run musicals in Toronto.
Despite being largely viewed as a victim of critical drubbing, the commercial failure and truncated run of massive stage epic “The Lord of the Rings” was interpreted as a further nail in the coffin of the city’s legit rep.
But the obituaries may have been premature. The recent news that Canadian productions of two British hit tuners, “We Will Rock You” and “Dirty Dancing,” will be launching in March and October, respectively, seems to have breathed optimism back into the Toronto legit musical scene.
In years past, musicals did very well in Toronto. “The Phantom of the Opera” lasted 10 years, “Mamma Mia!” played for five and “The Lion King” ran four. Then, suddenly, it all seemed to change.
Shows like “Wicked” and “The Color Purple” picked Chicago as their sit-down city of choice, and Toronto seemed relegated to being merely a stop on a road tour.
Even in the bleakest of times for sit-down musicals in Toronto, however, one person never lost faith: David Mirvish, the leading producer staging musicals on this scale in the city during the current decade.
“I really wasn’t discouraged,” he admits, “because I understood the problems we were facing. Outside of New York, no one else matched the 33-week run we gave ‘The Producers’ and ‘Hairspray.’
“We also put too many seats on the market at one time,” adds Mirvish. “During the summer of 2004, there were weeks I had 70,000 tickets a week on sale.”
The pair of shows with which Mirvish is looking to reverse the trend both have proven audience appeal. “We Will Rock You” — with a mock sci-fi book by Ben Elton linking the Queen song catalog — is in its fifth sold-out year in London and has played successfully in Australia, Japan, Germany and Spain. Its only glitch so far has been a flop Las Vegas engagement.
Mirvish has cast the show largely with unknowns and is marketing it in a whole new way.
“We’re treating it like rock ‘n’ roll,” he explains. “We’re only selling seven weeks of tickets and packing the place. If we sell out, then we’ll add a few more weeks at a time. Believe me, I’ll take seven sold-out weeks instead of 25 strung-out ones.”
However, with a $3 million-plus advance on top of his 45,000 subscribers, “We Will Rock You” undoubtedly will be filling seats for quite a while.
Mirvish made his first visit to Australia to see the 2004 preem of “Dirty Dancing,” then followed it to Hamburg and London. When it opened in the West End in October to the largest advance in British history, he acquired the Canadian license to the show.
When it opens officially in Toronto on Nov. 15, it will be the North American premiere and — according to its publicist — “the Toronto version will be the only North American production of ‘Dirty Dancing’ for some time.” However, Broadway backers surely will be eyeing the Canuck staging for its Rialto potential.
Once again, Mirvish is only announcing the show for the seven-week period of his subscription run, declaring, “I’d rather run short and full,” but it’s more than likely the show will be extended indefinitely.
“I never felt this city wasn’t a good market,” reflects Mirvish. “You either believe in where you live, or you don’t.”