Chicago Invaded by Canadian Theater Impresario!/Brad Is Back/Support Your Local Arts Supporter | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

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Chicago Invaded by Canadian Theater Impresario!/Brad Is Back/Support Your Local Arts Supporter

Which political candidates support the arts? Simpson, Reynolds, and Braun, among others. For a complete list contact Tom Tresser, Greater Chicago Citizens for the Arts.


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Chicago Invaded by Canadian Theater Impresario!

Garth Drabinsky's Live Entertainment Corporation of Canada has its eye on Chicago. The Toronto-based theatrical production company, founded by the former head of the Cineplex Odeon movie-theater chain, wants to make Chicago its base of operations in the U.S., according to Drabinsky, who built Cineplex Odeon into one of North America's largest movie-theater chains. "The first city we would look to is Chicago," he says, "because we believe it is the most exciting city in the U.S."

The controversial, high rolling Drabinsky was forced out of Cineplex Odeon in 1989, when the company was on the verge of collapse due to heavy debt created in part by Drabinsky's grandiose expansion plans. But Drabinsky has remade himself in short order as Canada's leading live-theater impresario. His long-running Toronto production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Phantom of the Opera alone regularly grosses around 900,000 U.S. dollars a week.

Now Drabinsky is preparing a large-scale theatrical invasion of Chicago and the U.S. Shows he plans to open in Toronto and eventually hopes to take to Chicago include the world premiere of the Fred Ebb and John Kander musical Kiss of the Spider Woman, an updated staging of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and a new mounting of Showboat directed by Harold Prince, which will be the first show at a new performing arts center in Toronto in 1993.

But it's Aspects of Love, the underrated Lloyd Webber musical about a love triangle, opening April 23 at the Civic Theatre, that'll give Chicagoans their first taste of Drabinsky's production and marketing styles. Bucking the conventional wisdom that musicals on the road must play big houses, Drabinsky has booked Aspects into the Civic Theatre, which has only 870 seats--small for a musical with an 18-person cast and a 13-piece orchestra. The theater's size means Drabinsky must fill 85 percent of the seats every week to turn a profit. Other local commercial producers prefer to keep their weekly break-even point at around 50 or 60 percent of capacity.

Though Aspects has relatively little name recognition in the U.S., Drabinsky also set a steep top ticket price of $55. The musical was roundly panned by many critics in New York, where it ran for about a year without making any money. In London, however, the show received a much warmer critical reception; in its third year there it continues to do strong business with Lloyd Webber's ex-wife Sarah Brightman playing Rose, a role that will be played at the Civic by Chicago actress Linda Balgord.

When it comes to marketing a show, Drabinsky believes in creating widespread awareness. "You can't sell tickets unless the awareness is there," he said, "and the only way to do that is through advertising." Drabinsky is bombarding Chicago newspapers, radio, and television with ads that he hopes will cut through the media clutter. The television spot begins unconventionally, with black-and-white stills, and then shifts to color footage of the show. Both radio and TV commercials have made extensive use of the show's catchy signature tune "Love Changes Everything."

The initial print ads feature an arty (perhaps misleadingly so) logo of painted figures and busts that is considerably more sophisticated than those for the New York and London productions. "We think our logo is sexy and stimulating," said Drabinsky, who thought up the concept himself. As opening night moves nearer, print ads will include production photographs that give an idea of the many romantic pairings explored in the show.

So far Drabinsky's lavish marketing ploys appear to be paying off. The Civic box office took in more than $450,000 in the first week of ticket sales. If advance sales climb from there, it will be good news for both Drabinsky and the Civic, which has languished in recent years for lack of theatrical products with any staying power.

Brad Is Back

Brad Altman has returned. The former Cubby Bear booker, who was abruptly fired by owner George Loukas after a story about the club's award-winning success appeared in this column a month ago, has signed a five-year lease to operate the Oak Theater at the corner of Armitage and Western. The former vaudeville house and adult movie theater has been beautifully renovated by new owner Andrzej Janusz, who runs a tuck-pointing and general contracting firm. The Oak sports a large proscenium stage and space on the main floor and in the balcony to comfortably seat 1,000. Altman and his partners at Los Angeles-based Q Productions intend to book a wide range of concert acts, including country, blues, jazz, rock, and even middle-of-the road. "One of my dreams is to have Tony Bennett play here," said Altman, who expects to book about 100 acts at the Oak over the next 12 months. Altman's first concert on April 10 will feature the Tex-Mex supergroup the Texas Tornados.

Support Your Local Arts Supporter

Times are tough for the arts in political circles, and Tom Tresser, founder and president of Greater Chicago Citizens for the Arts, is determined to muster support in the March 17 primary for political candidates sympathetic to the arts. Tresser's organization, which includes 200 volunteer members, has compiled a list of candidates who have publicly stated they will work to increase awareness of and funding for the arts. Those candidates include Carol Moseley Braun, who is running for the U.S. Senate, and Mel Reynolds, Luis Gutierrez, Dick Simpson, Gary Skoien, and Sid Yates, all up for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. Among other things, the above-named candidates have promised to support efforts to put $1 per capita from the federal budget into the National Endowment for the Arts, which would raise endowment funds from $176 million to $250 million annually. Now more than ever, Tresser sees a need for voters concerned about the arts to rally behind the appropriate candidates. "With the recent dumping of NEA chairman John Frohnmayer, we've seen arts bashing elevated to the level of presidential politics," said Tresser. "The arts community must come together locally and nationally to demand a cultural consciousness in the candidates running for president."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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