There’s a Broadway-bound musical now rehearsing in Toronto whose creative team boasts an impressive 12 Tony Awards and 67 nominations. It also has a producer that’s served jail time for fraud and forgery in Canada and remains under indictment in the United States.
But then, Garth Drabinsky, the impresario (“Ragtime,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman”) who served 17 months in prison for cooking the books at his once-giant theatrical entity Livent, has never done things the easy way. His current project, “Sousatzka” — starting previews at Toronto’s Elgin Theatre Feb. 25 — is proof of that.
As his comeback vehicle, he’s picked a show with a cast of nearly 50 and based on a 1962 novel by Bernice Rubens and a 1988 movie that starred Shirley MacLaine. The story of a Polish Holocaust survivor and music teacher whose life is changed by her interaction with a Bengali piano prodigy has here shifted to become the tale of a South African boy fleeing the horrors of apartheid in the early 1980s.
Sixty-seven-year-old impresario Drabinsky has always been drawn to shows with that take race as a theme, such as “Ragtime,” “Parade,” “Show Boat” and “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Still, to many outside observers, “Sousatzka” seems an old-school throwback in a musical theater world governed lately by the traditional-flouting likes of “Hamilton,” “Fun Home” and “Dear Evan Hansen.”
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But you’d never know any of that from talking to the team of high-profile creators Drabinsky has brought together for “Sousatzka”: Book writer Craig Lucas (“An American in Paris”), composer David Shire, lyricist Richard Maltby Jr. (“Ain’t Misbehavin’”), director Adrian Noble (the former artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company), choreographer Graciela Daniele (“Ragtime,” “The Visit”), vocal arranger Lebo M (“The Lion King”), and the design team of Anthony Ward, Paul Tazewell and Howard Binkley. The cast is headed by Victoria Clark, a Tony winner for “The Light in the Piazza,” and Montego Glover (Tony nominee for “Memphis”) and Judy Kaye (two-time Tony winner for “The Phantom of the Opera” and “Nice Work If You Can Get It”). Conversations with many of them revealed a devotion to the show that bordered on the fanatical.
And not one of them expressed reservations about working with Drabinsky.
“I directed ‘Fosse’ for Garth,” says Maltby of the Tony-winning 1999 showcase of Bob Fosse’s work. “He’s simply a great producer. He cares about everything. He’s both supportive and demanding. He only wants the best work and he pushes you to get it.”
Author Lucas admits to having been unenthusiastic about the show’s storyline when it was first presented to him. Drabinsky, he recalled, asked him to read the novel and come up to Canada to discuss working on the musical (since Drabinsky would be arrested if he set foot inside U.S. borders). “It’s a good book, but it didn’t send me,” admits Lucas. “I went up out of deference and respect to Garth. He spoke me to me about the bigger themes that the novel touched in him: The cost of being in exile, the essence of what it is to be a refugee, how two people can share and bring out the best and the worst of their histories.”
Glover, who will play the mother of the young South African piano prodigy, had never met or spoken to Drabinsky, but the activist character she was asked to play seduced her. “And when I heard Lebo M was involved, I knew there was no need to worry,” she said.
For composer Shire, the man behind the project was as much an attraction for him as the musical itself.
“Garth saw something giant in this essentially tiny story,” he said. “He realized that over 15 million people are now living in the world as exiles, and the time has come to tell their story. His recent history doesn’t figure in it at all for me. If he was back in business, then he was back in business. That’s it, plain and simple.”
In fact, none of the people connected with “Sousatzka” seemed concerned at all about working for a convicted felon.
“It’s better than working for an unconvicted felon,” Maltby quipped.