Garth Drabinsky is a real-life example of the Rashomon effect. The term describes the unreliability of eyewitnesses, coming from the legendary Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 film about a murder recounted in contradictory ways by four witnesses. Anyone looking to understand the complex reality of the volatile producer/entrepreneur Garth Drabinsky is bound to be confused by the contradictions in his history.
Story #1: Garth Drabinsky overcame a childhood marred by polio, that left him with a permanent limp. He became a lawyer in his native Canada, and then an independent commercial film producer and distributor, counting among his films “The Disappearance” with Donald Sutherland, “The Changeling” (1980) with George C. Scott, “Tribute” with Jack Lemmon, “The Amateur” with Christopher Plummer, “Losin’ It” with Tom Cruise, and “Barrymore,” with Plummer reprising his Tony Award winning role in 2011.
While producing these films, in 1979 Drabinsky co-founded and created a chain of multiplex (multi-screen) theaters and, by 1984 Cineplex Odeon had become a major film industry player. Acquisitions in U.S. theater chains followed.
In live theater, Drabinsky’s 1989 Canadian production of “Phantom of the Opera” was a huge success. He went on to produce “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Show Boat,” and “Sunset Boulevard,” all in Canada, then brought those to New York. 1996 saw his Broadway production of “Ragtime,” which won Tony Awards for its book and original score. In 1999, he had a Tony Award top win for “Fosse.” He often worked with luminaries like director Harold (Hal) Prince.
There’s more, but you get the idea. With grit and vision, the man turned himself into a powerhouse, using millions of marketing dollars to bring his productions to the public.
Story #2: Drabinsky’s publicly traded theater production company known as Livent looked good while he built and refurbished theaters, and while it counted some 61 Tony nominations that garnered 19 Tony Awards when he brought his Canadian shows to New York and added some original Broadway productions. But tracking his companies over time leads to receiverships and bankruptcies. In 1998, Livent claimed $334 million in debt and sought bankruptcy protection in both the United States and Canada. Regulators in both countries noticed that Livent’s books weren’t all they should have been.
In 2009, Drabinsky was convicted of fraud and forgery by the Ontario Superior Court and spent five years in jail. He was granted parole in 2014. The same year, he was disbarred. In the U S, former investors won a $23.3 million settlement against him.
In 2019, all outstanding criminal charges against Drabinsky were dismissed because he had already been prosecuted in Canada for fraud. For the first time in almost 20 years, Drabinsky was able to travel freely to the United States without fear of extradition.
Story #3: Safe spaces are in the news. The dominant goal appears to be the creation of workplaces where people feel valued and respected. But there are credible reports that Drabinsky was/is abusive — that he rules over a hostile working environment. Barry Avrich worked with Drabinsky on several advertising campaigns. His 2012 documentary “Show Stopper” quotes multiple sources as witnessing Drabinsky being tyrannical, cruel and nasty. And even those actors, like Chita Rivera, who remember fondly the opportunities offered through Drabinsky’s shows, note what a mercurial task-master he could be.
Still, there are those who have partnered and/or worked with Drabinsky for years, actors (like Christopher Plummer) who have become longtime friends, and others who would happily appear in another of his productions. And, looking at the long list of associate producers of the current “Paradise Square,” it’s obvious that Drabinsky is still capable of gathering investors for his projects.
Story #4: Drabinsky aims for the best. He hires top directors, designers, and performers. His productions are lavish, and he backs up his visions with millions of dollars in sophisticated marketing. What he needed was a hit, and he promised that “Paradise Square” would be a rival to “Hamilton,” a juggernaut.
“Paradise Square” sets itself during the period leading up to the ugly Draft Riots of 1863, when Manhattan’s Black population was viciously targeted by white working-class New Yorkers over new laws passed to draft men to fight in the Civil war. What began as anger at the draft, and fear of free Black competition for jobs, turned into a race riot. Black people were killed. Homes and other buildings were destroyed. It took army troops, fresh from the Battle of Gettysburg, to restore order to the city.
Variety called “Paradise Square” a “blunt and belabored history lesson.” The review noted some thrilling dancing, but called the show “wrong-footed from the jump.” While noting the dance and some performances, The New York Times called the production a “nearly nonstop ... overwrought new musical ... [that] turns history on its head. Racism becomes an individual character flaw instead of a systemic evil.”
“Paradise Square” was ten years in development and then was postponed because of COVID. Finally opening in early April, it recently shuttered because of positive tests among some cast members, thus closing off any possible good word of mouth. A large cast and expensive operating costs that continue even when there’s no money coming in added pressure to resume performances. Even so, it’s unknown whether the show can survive.
“Paradise Square” may be paradise lost.