In a city already overwhelmed by hospital closures, school closures, corporate mergers, government offices, CBC walkouts and layoffs, it comes as yet another tear in the social fabric that three of the city’s daily newspapers -- The Toronto Star, National Post and The Globe and Mail -- have published front page banner headlines and detailed stories about the plight of Livent, Inc., Canada’s biggest contributor to Broadway, and the flight into hiding of co-founders Garth Drabinsky and Morton Gottlieb.
Livent, despite its current near-death plunge into protective bankruptcy both in the U.S. and Canada, hangs on with its crowning glory Ragtime, holding forth tentatively on Broadway at the Livent-owned and operated Ford Centre for the Performing Arts. But much else in the company has collapsed now as exposes of dirty work at the book-keeping crossroads are discovered and sworn affidavits by former Livent employees, from executives to flunkies, were made public by the Ontario Division of Canada’s civic courts.
Unlike their U.S counterparts, Canadian law enforcers have not yet brought criminal charges.
Dethroned but not downed, the defiant Garth broke his silence since “that awful day” last August when he was escorted out and barred from ever entering his office. Gottleib still remains silent in the wings.
“I will be vindicated,” Drabinsky exclaimed in the Star’s front page headline a couple of weeks ago, over the full interview with two reporters. In an eloquent if indirect interview, the former entertainment lawyer answered some deep and personal queries about alleged actions, statements, and accusations of misbehavior. Drabinsky is convinced he was “betrayed by those I most trusted.” His “dreams” for an even more glorious Livent-made world of theatre -- preferably the song and dance variety -- “have been shattered.” His publicly visible methods, often admired, of “bringing recognition to Canada for contributing big time to musical theatre” now lie dormant. His tone in the Toronto Star piece indicates that he built Livent to fulfill Canada’s vague theatrical destiny. Persistent published revelations, however, show that he may have intended to fulfill that destiny at any cost, even if that meant “paybacks” for “unrecompensed expenses” which the Livent cofounders allegedly incurred to create their products.
“It means a great deal to me to hear from people that they are unwilling to accept as truth the startling allegations of the U.S.justice system,” said Drabinsky. “Young people and senior citizens come up to me on the street, saying ‘I loved such and such a show. Don’t let them get you down.’”
No mention is made in the interview of the numerous artists, technicians, performers, suppliers, and various trades people, creditors named in scores of lawsuits. They are seeking payments of millions of dollars which were deferred, prior to Livent going public and the entrance of former Hollywood powerbroker Michael Ovitz at Livent's new chief. These monies, the court-held papers show, appeared as “earned bonuses” in the personal coffers of the two bosses.
“I feel grateful to those who have recognized our achievements in bringing Canadian-produced shows to world stages,” Drabinsky states in his interview. “And I hope I will soon awake from this nightmare and return to the love of my life, the theatre. . . I know that in the course of time, people will come to understand the actions and motivations of those who have moved against us. . . I am first and foremost a theatrical producer.”
Using leased aircraft and the leasing of luxury furnished apartments or condos in five cities are defended with: “I was chief executive officer of a 300 million dollar company. My schedule dictated I spend, in 1997 for example, three-quarters of my time on the road. Moreover, my physical limitations,” due to childhood polio, "are well known. My Upper West Side apartment served as an personal office until the (NYC) Ford Center was completed. I know how all this must read to working men and women. I would ask them to look beyond the headlines.”
Within Livent, verbal and near physical battles were waged between high ranking officers working in fear of repercussions “from on high.” Chief Financial Officer Maria Messina and senior vice president Gordon Eckstein declared in signed affidavits how they argued with each other as pressures intensified to doctor financial statements to show a profit where a loss was realized, for the benefit of auditors and stockholders. As far back as Dec. 1991 a company called Kofman Engineering Services billed Livent for $401,250 in selecting sites for a “Phantom” tour across Canada and for future theatre sites. Peter Kofman, a personal friend of Drabinsky came under the influence of “the Livent way” by returning all but $13,000, the usual fee for time spent on such services. The kickbacks in personal sums mounted to $7.5 million to each founder, the balance spread over other losses in production or at the box office.
“It’s never good when this sort of thing occurs,” said Ed Mirvish, senior partner with son David in Mirvish Productions, veteran commercial theatre entrepreneurs who own and operate two of Toronto’s major theatres -- the Victorian styled Royal Alexandra and the 7-year old contemporary Princess of Wales. Mirvish Sr., in a phone interview with Playbill On-Line, expressed a sense of grief over the revelations and sadness for the man the public considered his rival for audience shares.
“It’s not good for all other live theaters inasmuch as when things are good for one, it can be good for the other in getting people to come. I am saddened it had to end like this with all the negative evidence. . . .after all, it’s the public who loses and Toronto’s reputation as a clean, honest major theatre center is affected by our ways of doing business.... Livent seemed to be doing such a splendid job in letting so many people know about the great shows to see in Toronto. And that came to include us.”
In response to being asked how he spends his time now, Drabinsky paints a sad verbal portrait. “My creative life is in recess. This should be my most productive time, so I’m naturally frustrated. One day, I was doing what I loved, opening a new show, Fosse, that has become a critical and popular hit and, boom, the next day I’m out, meeting with lawyers and trying to avoid the intense scrutiny of reporters from all over the United States and Canada.” Referring to a line from Ragtime, uttered by the immigrant Tateh, the movie producer to be, he says: “Without art, what is our existence, but chaos?”
When asked if he thinks Livent's legacy of producing shows praised for raising relevant social issues will continue without him, he replied: “I was very proud of the more serious theatrical art we created. It reminds audiences that society is flawed; that bigotry, racism and the oppression of minorities is rampant; that there are injustices demanding correction.... There is evidence that Livent’s current management is letting artistic standards slip.”
Elsewhere in the same vein, he states: “As a Canadian who cares deeply about his country, I would like to believe that important theatre will continue to be created here and that it will be good enough to take to audiences around the world. We did that!”
--by Alan Raeburn, Canadian Correspondent