Sunday 24 July 2011

Behind the success of Toronto's Broadway: Mirvish is king

So why is the City of Toronto such a magnet for Broadway quality musicals? You can credit David Mirvish of Mirvish Productions, who has spent decades developing such an international reputation.

I just saw Billy Elliot The Musical (pictured) at Toronto’s Canon Theatre, a mere block away from the magnificent and gigantic Eaton Centre. The place was filled to capacity, with 1,800 people in attendance. This has been the case since previews began in February. We stayed just up the street at the Grand Hotel and Suites (www.grandhoteltoronto) on Jarvis Street.

John Karastamatis, the longtime communications director for Mirvish, provided to me some fascinating insight into the Broadway style success his company has achieved in Toronto. While Billy Elliot gets set for its final show on Labour Day Weekend , still on tap are Tony Award winner Hugh Jackman, The Blue Man Group, Carrie Fisher’s Wishful Drinking and The Railway Children. Coming up are Theatre 20: Musicals that Fly; Private Lives with Sex in the City star Kim Cattrall; Chess the Musical; Two Pianos Four Hands; Mary Poppins; the Blue Dragon; War Horse; and Hair.

Karastamatis looks back over the last decade to two of Toronto’s longest running productions: The Lion King (four years) and Mamma Mia (five years). At that time, 30 percent of the Mirvish audience were made of Americans. Now folks from the USA account for two percent of the ticket buyer.

“Toronto used to draw from a marketplace of 70 million people who resided within a six hour drive,” Karastamatis explained. “Sixty million of those people came from the USA.”

This all changed, Karastmatis said, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. “That was the first blow to our market plan,” he noted. “Americans started to believe that it was not safe to leave home. The American government began issuing all of those alerts and planted the idea that citizens were only safe on their own territory. Then came the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2003 we to deal with the SARS health crisis and went from a city that was booming to one that was empty. It was a difficult time for us. We had to ship Mamma Mia to Vancouver to keep it going and the Lion King only lasted another eight months.”

While Toronto and Mirvish bounced back from SARS, they then had to deal with the parity of the Canadian and American dollars. “In its heyday the American dollar was worth 40 to 50 percent more than the Canadian dollar,” he said. “This benefited us greatly.”

So how is it that the pseudo Broadway scene here is so successful these days? “We had to very quickly reinvent ourselves as a domestic tourist destination,” Karastamatis explained. “And it worked.”

I originally had intended to see Billy Elliot last winter, when young Montrealer Cesar Corrales (pictured) was one of the four Billys. He left the show in May – partly because he had grown too tall. Cesar was originally part of the first national touring production, which previously stopped in Chicago for many months. After moving to Canada from Mexico with his parents, who are also dancers, he studied at Canada’s National Ballet School. He has performed in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Madama Butterfly and Anna Karenina and The Nutcracker at both the National Ballet of Canada and Les Grands Ballet Canadiens. A member of the IMCO gymnastics club, he has participated in numerous competitions. He captured first place at the Coupe Quebec and appeared in Shall We Dance with Jennifer Lopez. He loves to play sports, do gymnastics and travel with his family.

In June, 2009, Cesar attended an open audition in Toronto for Billy Elliot The Musical, along with several others from the National Ballet School and a variety of other boys from Canada and the northern United States. After several call backs, he was asked to come to New York City for a final audition. Cesar describes what that experience was like: ““I was amazingly excited, because I’d never been to New York,” he told “But there was a little problem – my parents are Cuban, we live in Montreal, and it’s hard for them to get a visa. So I had to travel to New York by myself. It was very nerve-wracking at first. I stayed with a friend of my parents, someone I’d never met before. She showed me around, and it was a lot of fun. My parents called every night to ask me how the rehearsals were. It’s helpful to have parents that have been through auditions, because they gave me little pointers that were really useful.”

Cesar again had the honour of opening the production in Toronto in the first preview, the evening of February 1, 2011 and then again did the official opening night on March 1 in the presence of Elton John, who composed the music.

Set in County Durham, England against the backdrop of the 1984-85 coal miners' strike, Billy Elliot The Musical tells the story of motherless eleven-year-old Billy who inadvertently finds his way into a girls' ballet class run by Mrs. Wilkinson and is attracted to the grace of the dance. Without telling his family, who would prefer that he study boxing, Billy continues to come to the dance class, and Mrs. Wilkinson, recognizing his talent, encourages him to audition for the Royal Ballet School in London. Billy's friend Michael is a boy with homosexual feelings, and Mrs. Wilkinson's daughter Debbie is another friend of Billy's. Meanwhile Billy's gruff, conservative father and brother are engaged in a daily battle with policemen in riot gear protecting strike breakers. They struggle to get the family by with very little strike pay. The father comes to terms with his son's desire to be a dancer, as he becomes resigned to the realization that coal mining is a dying business. The musical gives more emphasis to the miner's strike than the film, and consequently its tone is a bit darker and harder-edged than the film's, but the ending is uplifting nevertheless, and the musical has many comic touches. The show contains language that may be too strong for young children.

I was excited to see actor Jake Epstein in the role of Tony, Billy’s older brother. For a number of years Jake starred in CTV’s Degrassi The Next Generatuion. He left the show to come to Montreal and attend the National Theatre School.

In Toronto, subscription and group tickets to BILLY ELLIOT THE MUSICAL are available by calling 416-593-4142 or 1-800-724-6420. For tickets and information visit

IF YOU GO: The Grand Hotel and Suites ( is located at 225 Jarvis Street, near Dundas. There are 177 guest suites with fully equipped kitchenettes where you will find a microwave, fridge, coffeemaker and cutlery.

There is also a fitness centre, a neo-classical pool indoor pool and two whirlpools on the rooftop garden, which provides a panoramic view of Toronto. It is definitely a convenient place to be when taking in a show.

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