Never before has a producer had so many successful shows playing simultaneously -- Ragtime, Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Show Boat, Sunset Boulevard, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. By the end of 1998 there will be four companies of Ragtime alone, playing simultaneously -- in New York, Chicago, Boston and Vancouver. And three of these four companies will be playing in theaters built and owned by that producer. This is in contrast to the normal practice of a producer renting theaters for each engagement. By the middle of 1999 this producer will own and operate six major theaters in the United States and Canada.

Garth Drabinsky is the man in question. He's been compared to Florenz Ziegfeld, who also produced lavish shows and housed them in his own theater. But there are differences: Drabinsky's six theaters compared to Ziegfeld's one, Drabinsky's much larger number of shows, and Drabinsky's Jewish identity. Ziegfeld was an assimilated Jew trying to distance himself from his roots. Drabinsky, on the other hand, is observant, attends synagogue and is active in Jewish organizations.

Drabinsky's biggest project so far is his transformation of the E.L. Doctorow novel, Ragtime, into a Broadway musical. The novel is complex and Doctorow was so wary of movie and theater adaptations that a musicalization seemed to be impossible. How did Drabinsky pull it off? What does the creation of Ragtime tell us about Drabinsky? And what lies ahead?

The best way to understand what's happening in theater at the end of the 20th century is to examine how Drabinsky wooed a recalcitrant Doctorow and used unusual new methods to produce this show.


Over bowls of borscht at the Russian Tea Room, next door to Carnegie Hall, E. L. Doctorow -- call me Edgar, he said -- and Garth Drabinsky talked about Ragtime.

It was December of 1993. Doctorow was not happy with the motion picture version of his epic 1975 novel because it concentrated on one of the many stories in the book, to the detriment of the others.

Drabinsky told Doctorow he could do a better job. He said he'd make a Broadway musical out of Ragtime and he'd spare no expense. Drabinsky called a waiter and ordered caviar for the two of them. Doctorow said he could do without, but Garth was treating and he insisted. Making a point about how he spared no expense, perhaps? Drabinsky at that time had produced three Broadway hits: Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Spider Woman and Show Boat. Speaking with a gravelly voice -- he sounds like George C. Scott with Canadian accent, saying things like PRO-gress -- Drabinsky explained that Ragtime's story had personal meaning to him. He said he loved the character of Tateh, a Jewish immigrant who rises from poverty to become a motion picture director and producer.

Drabinsky, age 44 at the time of that meeting, has a life something like Tateh's. He is the son of a Jewish family that immigrated from Russia to Toronto. Garth was a victim of polio at the age of three and found solace in listening to music and playing board games. He says he was a monopoly champ, "unbelievably aggressive." After bar mitzvah, Garth was a regular Torah reader at Toronto's Beth Sholom synagogue. He reads Hebrew fluently and proudly says he can chant the service from memory without a prayer book.

He thought of stage acting as a career but decided the limp from his polio could make that impossible, so he went to law school and started an entertainment law practice. Then he took over a movie exhibition firm and, according to him, "built Odeon Cineplex from nothing into a billion-dollar company." Drabinsky produced several motion pictures, then turned to live entertainment with a new company he called Livent.

Garth married a fellow Torontoan, Pearl Kaplan, in 1971 and they have two children, born in 1975 and 1978. He has a rumpled appearance, with a thick shock of wavy hair flopping over his forehead, in contrast to the buttoned-down collegiate look of Doctorow.

At the end of that luncheon at the Russian Tea Room, Doctorow gave permission for Drabinsky to proceed, subject to his creative approval. And now, five years later, Ragtime - the Musical is a sellout hit in three cities simultaneously. It has even been called "the show of the century" because it encapsulates the great social movements of the 1900s. Drabinsky built New York's newest and largest theater to house Ragtime and is building another new hall in Chicago. Drabinsky seems the reincarnation of Florenz Ziegfeld, the famed producer of the 1920s who also was Jewish and built his own theaters.

But Drabinsky bases his career, more particularly, on the less-known Samuel Rothafel. Using the name Roxy, Rothafel built a theater that he named for himself and which he decorated with objects d'arte and paintings in the 1920s. In similar style, Drabinsky decorated the theater which he built for Ragtime in New York. "Roxy made motion-picture theaters into peoples' palaces," says Drabinsky. He describes Rothafel as "a go-for-broke dreamer...the greatest showman of all." Rothafel later ran the new Radio City Music Hall.
Drabinsky says that one of his biggest regrets is that he never saw the inside of the Roxy before it was torn down in 1954. He heard that it "was a pastiche of Renaissance, Gothic and Moorish themes...uniformed ushers with white gloves, a diorama of colored lights playing over the curtain while a singer entertained the audience between shows." (It usually was the young tenor Jan Peerce, who moved on to Radio City, then the Met.) He adds that "Roxy's imagination and vision helped shape my own career."

Drabinsky lives flamboyantly, eating at fine restaurants, flying a private jet and collecting art. But sometimes he pinches pennies. He lost the services of one man who was connected with the development of Ragtime when Garth refused to pay him his normal fee. Drabinsky says that he models his personality on the aggressive spirit which he admires in the State of Israel.

His own father was not an entrepreneur and was not aggressive, according to Garth in his 1995 autobiography, "Closer to the Sun": "Life intimidated him and so did risks. Life could have been so much sweeter had he seen the future and how prices would multiply endlessly. The anxieties and pressures of operating his small business wore my father down. I love them [my parents], but I couldn't respond to their small view of life, and I hated their caution. Polio had grabbed me and tried to smash me down. I wouldn't let it. I wouldn't let anything smash me down."

He's proud of the way he built Canada's Cineplex Odeon into "a force in Hollywood." And he's resentful about how "corporate double dealing took my company away" in a 1989 stockholder's fight. He says it was like his childhood when "that evil virus came and took away a part of my life. But I seized it back and never let go. So if I have anything to contribute, it is this: Never give up. Never yield."

Drabinsky still is resentful about how he was "stabbed in the back" by some of his former partners (such as Charles Bronfman.) Years afterwards, he still remembered how one of them "had the unmitigated gall to ask me if Cineplex Odeon [on the day it was taken away from Drabinsky] could rent my art collection which hung on the walls throughout the head office. No, I said, the art goes with me. For Cineplex Odeon, culture stops on Friday."

"I never take tranquilizers nor do I ever take a drink, so I had no way to come down off the terrible humiliation of losing my company. All I had to do was climb again, back to the warmth, up into the heights...In Greek mythology, Icarus plunged into the sea when he flew to close to the sun. It's supposed to be a lesson in the sin of hubris. I think the bastard just gave up too soon. He should have gotten himself another set of wings and taken off again!"

He quickly rebounded by buying the relatively small live entertainment division of Odeon Cineplex, renaming it Live Entertainment Corporation and, later, Livent. Drabinsky remodeled the Pantages Theater in Toronto, raised tickets prices and, with Phantom of the Opera, turned it into the highest-grossing theater in the world. He produced touring companies of Phantom of the Opera, then developed the new show, Kiss of the Spider Woman, first in Toronto, then London and Broadway. Drabinsky pioneered a new way of producing musicals. The ideas for most shows come from writers and composers, who hold backer's auditions to raise money. But Drabinsky started to work in reverse: He comes up with ideas for shows, supplies his company's money and then, lastly, hires the creative people.

After getting Doctorow's tentative approval for Ragtime, Drabinsky's next move was to commission playwright Terrence McNally to do a rough script based on the novel. In mid-1994 McNally submitted his 60-page version. McNally says: "If Doctorow rejected my treatment, that would have been the end of it." But Doctorow loved what he read. He says it "honored my novel, and I liked the way he used so many of my words."

Then Drabinsky had the chutzpah to send invitations to ten of the world's leading songwriters, asking them to submit audition tapes with songs based on McNally's script. Experienced composers were upset at being asked to audition. But, according to one non-winner, the project was so special that many of them swallowed their pride and submitted recordings.

One invitee refused, but he says it wasn't because of pride. Marvin Hamlisch, who had written the huge ragtime hit, "The Entertainer," told me: "I never do anything twice. I like to quit while I'm ahead. I didn't want to do the show because it would have meant writing ragtime music again." Ragtime music was what was required. It was integral to the story that Doctorow told about rebellion against the customs of genteel and gentile white society and the cultural revolution that was beginning to percolate from below.

Among those who did submit tapes were the teams of John Kander & Fred Ebb and David Shire & Richard Maltby. Drabinsky also had the foresight to invite, separately, the young composers Michael John LaChiusa and Adam Guettel, who were then unknown to the public.

Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty were not exceptionally well-known and jumped at the opportunity to compete for the job. The words-and-music team had had only one Broadway success: 1990's Once On This Island. They wrote the Off-Broadway musical farce Lucky Stiff (1988) and received a disappointing reception for their second Broadway show, My Favorite Year, in 1992. The team wrote four songs for an audition tape for Drabinsky, including a 12-minute opening number that took words directly from the first page of Doctorow's book:
"In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York, and it seemed for some years thereafter that the family's days would be warm and fair."

Then, to a ragtime beat, they added Ahrens' new words:
"The skies were blue and hazy /
Rarely a storm. Barely a chill... /
And there was distant music
/ Simple and somehow divine
/ Giving the nation
/ A new syncopation /
People called it `Ragtime!' /
It was the music
/ Of something beginning /
An era exploding /
A century spinning
/ In riches and rags..."

That said it all. The essence of the book was lyricized in these twelve lines. Doctorow loved their work and awarded them the job.

Ahrens, Flaherty and McNally began meeting to develop the script and songs. Ahrens is a morning person, Flaherty and McNally night people, so they compromised and got together in the afternoons, usually at Ahrens' loft apartment in Lower Manhattan. They tried to balance the three main groups of characters -- white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, a Jewish family and a black family. Three secondary characters also were essential: escape artist Harry Houdini, who personalizes the Jews' efforts to break out of poverty; Emma Goldman, the anarchist who champions the causes of Jews and blacks; and Henry Ford, who personifies industrialization. Ahrens jokingly says "our challenge was to keep it under nine hours."

On Father's Day, June 18, 1995, I was in a select audience at Manhattan's 92d Street Y to have the privilege of hearing Ragtime music for the first time, with the composer at the piano. Brian Stokes Mitchell, the charismatic lead actor from Kiss of the Spider Woman and La Chanze, a young singer who had starred in Once On This Island, sang a ballad that Ahrens and Flaherty just completed for the black couple, Coalhouse and Sarah. Called "Wheels of a Dream," it's based on the infatuation that Coalhouse has for a shiny new Model T. For him, the car represents the future of America and his family's vehicle to freedom.

The original, unpublished opening words of the song spoke of polishing the wheels of the car:
"That car is a promise /
That car is the whole damn country /
Shined up /
Tuned up /

But Flaherty and Ahrens later decided that the song should be sung to Coalhouse's son and the words should be about him, not the car. Therefore they changed the opening lines to this:
"I see his face /
I hear his heartbeat... /
Well, when he is old enough /
I will show him America /
And he will ride /
On the wheels of a dream."

Everyone in theater hopes for one hit song that will epitomize their show and attract customers, like "Memory" from Cats. "Wheels of a Dream" is that kind of a knock-'em-dead song. After its big finish, that afternoon's emcee, Luci Arnaz, gushed: "I didn't expect such an emotional experience!"
Director Hal Prince says the perfect romantic ballad was Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Some Enchanted Evening" from South Pacific. "Wheels of a Dream" comes close to that ideal. It is dramatic and romantic and, like "Some Enchanted Evening," the melody is carried by a deep male voice.

Ahrens and Flaherty next turned their attention to music for Tateh, and they decided he had to have a lighter, higher voice, for contrast. Ahrens contributed melodic ideas from her Jewish upbringing. Surprisingly, the non-Jewish Flaherty contributed greatly to the show's Jewish flavor. One of Flaherty's friends and classmates is a synagogue cantor. And Flaherty's brother, it turns out, is a student of klezmer music and gave Stephen most of his ideas for Jewish content. (Tateh's music starts out European, minor key, plaintive, then quickly becomes Americanized -- just like the character.)

Drabinsky says that creative people need nurturing, "and I refuse to put them under a microscope. That's why we work in Toronto, away from the phones and the fancy restaurants and their agents." There, in August of 1995, a cast was assembled for a first reading, with books in hand. Joel Gray sang the role of Tateh. Ted Sperling, a respected musician who sings, conducts and plays the violin, was at the piano, rehearsing the cast for two weeks before leading a performance for Garth and his staff.

Almost everyone was emotionally moved at the end of the run-through. Drabinsky cried with joy. Mitchell announced that he felt a new phase of his life was beginning and said he'd like to signify that by having friends start calling him by his middle name -- his mother's maiden name -- Stokes.

A second reading was held, then a semi-staged workshop in Toronto in May of 1996. New actors were tried: Stephen Bogardus as Father, Marin Mazzie as Mother, Tovah Feldshuh as Emma Goldman, Peter Friedman as Tateh. Friedman was known as a non-singing television actor in "Brooklyn Bridge" but also had starred in Donald Margulies' play, The Loman Family Picnic, which contains a miniature musical comedy (with a score by David Shire) in the second act.

According to Drabinsky, Tateh's role is the most interesting because the character changes so much, from poor man to filmmaker. It's the history of a generation of Jews. Friedman says that Tateh's success after years of effort is what all performers dream of. Michael Rupert, who plays Tateh in the national company, says that Ragtime is the continuation of Fiddler On the Roof -- it shows what could have happened to Tevye's family after it came to America.

Edgar Doctorow and his wife, Helen, attended the second reading. At a dinner afterwards at a Chinese restaurant, Doctorow told everyone he was happy with the show and was going to put his company's full financial resources behind it. Ahrens, Flaherty and McNally continued work in New York, sometimes joined by Doctorow who reminded them not to cut his sub-plots: "They're all part of a tapestry. If you pull out one thread, it unravels."

Each of the creators had special affection for a different character. While Drabinsky loved Tateh, McNally identified with the rebellious Younger Brother and Flaherty with Coalhouse. Ahrens loved Mother, a compliant wife who grows into a new type of woman. And Ahrens insisted in writing an important song for her:
"Life was a road /
So certain and straight and unbending... /
Back in the days /
When I let you make all of my choices /
We can never go back to before."

Flaherty matched Ahrens' passion with one of his most compelling melodies. It's a show-stopper in the second act. Ahrens' lyrics, throughout the show, are possibly the best on Broadway since Oscar Hammerstein II. She finds strength in simplicity. Rarely is there a word of more than two syllables. When there is a longer word, it's a key one, necessary to the plot, like immigrant, tenements or syncopation.

Later additions to the project were Judy Kaye as Emma Goldman, Mark Jacoby as Father, Frank Galati as director and Graciella Daniele as choreographer. Pruning the show, the creative team was ready to eliminate a scene where Tateh and his daughter are beaten by police for striking against mill owners. Drabinsky insisted on keeping it in. This millionaire mogul needs to remind people how Jewish workers in those days were exploited.

Drabinsky moved his office desk to the room where Ragtime rehearsals were held. Managing five touring productions and two construction projects, he conducted business on his cell phone right in front of the cast, which some cast members felt was obnoxious. Sometimes Drabinsky would interrupt to call out suggestions to the director. When a scene failed to impress him he'd shout: "Where's the heat?"

In July 1996, Ted Sperling conducted an RCA recording and video of Ragtime highlights. The show opened in Toronto in December, 1996, then Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. Ragtime won 1998 Tony Awards for best music, lyrics and book, though it missed the prize as best musical, losing to The Lion King. That award was important to Drabinsky. In the lobby of Radio City Music Hall at 7:30 p.m., Garth was glad-handing folks like a politician. At the cast party afterwards, he was somber. A doorman at the theater said that he felt bad for Drabinsky.

Accepting his award as best composer of the year, Stephen Flaherty said: "It's hard to find a producer as passionate and gutsy as Garth." Ragtime performances are sold out through the end of 1998. There's now an additional two-CD recording on RCA of the complete show. Drabinsky's company owns the new Ford Center, just off Times Square, that houses the musical. It's appropriate that the auto company paid to have its name on the building, considering the importance of Coalhouse's Model T to the story. The original opening words of "Wheels of a Dream" speak of the automobile's influence on America at the dawn of the century.

Looking to the future, Drabinsky says: "I can never go back to a sung-through musical, like the Lloyd Webber shows I produced earlier, because they can't in any way engage in a debate of issues. And I want to explore issues."


Key Subjects: 
Garth Drabinsky, Ragtime, E.L. Doctorow, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Livent, Stephen Flaherty, Lynn Ahrens
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and Totaltheater.com.
Author's note: This story was originally written for the Jewish quarterly, Inside Magazine in June, 1998, the month that The Lion King edged out Ragtime for the Tony Award as Best Musical of the year. Garth Drabinsky's fortunes changed dramatically in the year after this article was written, as he was charged with falsifying the books of his company. This story captures him at the peak of his reputation. Considering the scandals since 2000 among big corporations, Drabinsky was indeed a trend-setter. Note especially his complaint about his parents' lack of vision: "I hated their caution. Life could have been so much sweeter had he [my father] seen the future and how prices would multiply endlessly."
June 1998
Garth Drabinsky and the Making of Ragtime