Drabinsky Builds a Road Empire, Too

Drabinsky Builds a Road Empire, Too The hit Broadway revival Chicago is already taking out special ads to sell tickets for its December 31, 1999, performance.

The hit Broadway revival Chicago is already taking out special ads to sell tickets for its December 31, 1999, performance.

But it could be argued that a more appropriate choice for the millennium might be either Ragtime, the new musical based on the Doctorow novel, which is a smash hit in Toronto and Los Angeles and which inaugurates the Ford Center of the Performing Arts in January of 1998 on Broadway; or the Garth Drabinsky-Harold Prince revival of Show Boat, which opened in Toronto in 1993, swept the Tonys in 1994 and has had three touring productions criss-crossing and breaking box-office records across North America for the past two years.

After all, Ragtime and Show Boat, both produced by Drabinsky's Toronto-based company Livent, tell stirring and epic stories of the early part of the American century, which reflect to some extent how this country came to give its name to the past 100 years of turmoil and ferment.

Ragtime will almost certainly still be around on Broadway and touring the country by the year 2000 A.D. and hopefully so will Show Boat. This month, August of 1997, Show Boat I, starring Len Cariou, Cloris Leachman and Teri Hansen, will be finishing up in St. Louis before going on to Cincinnati; Show Boat II, starring Tom Bosley, Debbie De Coudreaux and Gretha Boston, is in Boston (through Aug. 13); and Show Boat III, starring Pat Harrington, Anita Gillette and Gay Willis, plays Houston (through Aug. 3 before going on to Ottawa). Florenz Ziegfeld, the legendary showman who first produced Show Boat in 1927, would have been proud of the lavish productions glorifying, not the American beauty rose, but the American musical.

"The only time I ever thought of Ziegfeld was when I decided to do the project, I posited the question: 'What would Ziegfeld have done if he'd had at his disposal the technical marvels, which have been developed in the theatre over the last 60 years,' " says Drabinsky, noting that the cast of 60 in each of the companies constitutes the largest ensemble to tour the country in modern times.

While the lavishness of the productions may account in large part for the box-office cachet of this revival, Drabinsky says that all the spectacle in the world would mean little unless Show Boat also had what attracted him in the first place: a great score by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, a powerful and poignant story and a project that would attract some of the best talents in the business, including director Prince, choreographer Susan Stroman, set designer Eugene Lee and costume designer Florence Klotz.

"Without those attributes I would not have been anywhere near as excited to create what I think is the definitive production of a great musical and bring it to Broadway and the rest of the country," he said. "That's why we did $18 million gross in 20 weeks in Los Angeles . . . and finished in Boston grossing $850-900,000 per week. People are moved and can identify with these people and their stories. They still have tremendous power now, and I think will have well into the millennium."--

By Patrick Pacheco