Exclusive: In Rehearsals With Drabinsky's SOUSATZKA - A Refugee Musical As Timely As Ever
Above the Elgin Theatre in Toronto on the 4th floor, magical things are happening. A company with 67 Tony Award nominations and 12 wins between them are gearing up to premiere a new musical, Sousatzka, based on the book Madame Sousatzka by Bernice Rubens which was also the basis for the 1988 Shirley MacLaine film of the same name. At the helm of the project, notorious theatre impresario Garth Drabinsky - who is making his comeback to "artistic producing" following his convictions for fraud and forgery during his time as the head of Livent. Livent, of course, was once a division of Cineplex Odeon which produced the Sousatzka film before being bought out by Drabinsky and his then business partner Myron Gottlieb.
Sitting front and centre in the 4th floor rehearsal hall, a soft-spoken Drabinsky quietly observes, occasionally adding feedback as the star-studded creative team and company work their way through the first act on the day I'm here to observe. Various production members tell me Drabinsky is here every day from the first call time until everyone is dismissed. On the off days he's in the office working on various production aspects. While not a traditional producer in the sense that he doesn't manage the show's finances - that is another aspect I'm told he routinely consults on.
Drabinsky tells me about the flaws in the original movie - that you won't feel for the characters in the manner required for a musical because "there's not enough backstory" - which he says is why he abandoned the idea of first musicalizing the work in the late 80's.
He solved the major issues with the work after studying the book on which the film is based, and that only after Drabinsky had done the base work was book writer Craig Lucas asked to write a first treatment. He credits himself with many aspects of the project's development - and says while he "doesn't choreograph" he gives plenty of notes.
In our conversation, the musical from his past Drabinsky references most often is Ragtime - one of his crown jewels of musical theatre and what I presume would be his favorite work. When asked if based on his historic artistic successes there's any specific element a musical must have to be viable he ponders and answers that it must be able to make one cry from elation, not sadness.
"I had the best mentor..." he says, crediting much of his success to Hal Prince - who directed the original Canadian production of The Phantom of the Opera which was Drabinsky's theatrical producing debut. He notes Prince, like he, was willing to push the envelope.
Of course, Drabinsky won't be traveling with the show as a consultant when the production heads south for Broadway - he's never been tried in America for the Livent scandal and it's unclear what his role with the show, if any, will be beyond Toronto. (Drabinsky did serve time in Canada for his offences.)
Sousatzka, set in 1982 England, tells the story of a musical prodigy torn between two powerful women from vastly different worlds: his mother, a political refugee from South Africa and his holocaust survivor piano teacher. These two proud, iconoclastic women must ultimately cross cultural and racial divides to find common ground, or else jeopardize the young musician's destiny.
Victoria Clark Performs "The Life I Left Behind" In Rehearsals
Victoria Clark plays the show's namesake, Sousatzka. She became involved with the project when she was asked to read a treatment by book writer Craig Lucas. "I read a very early draft and loved it!" she said. Soon after she was heading out of the city to composer David Shire's home where he played her the entire score.
"What really drew me to the story was the themes of integration and art healing and bringing us to a greater understanding of the other."
"There's never been a better time for this piece..." Clark comments as we turn our conversation to real world events very similar to many of those which take place in Sousatzka - the current global refugee crisis. "Ironically, the Trump presidency and his way of thinking about the world is perfectly timed to interact and comment [about] with our show. Our show is an antidote to that. It's exactly what the world needs as a counter attack to Trump and his policies."
"We cannot have peace on this earth until we are willing to listen and hear someone else - and drop our own ego enough to understand. It's not easy. And that is what this show is about. Listening to someone who's different from you and learning from them."
Clark plays a teacher to a prodigy in Sousatzka, which is something she knows a lot about. She herself is an arts educator. She also expressed concern about Trump's disregard for the arts as powerful tool for change and education.
"A lot of what Sousatzka says is very similar to what I teach..." she remarks. "I do think the purpose, message, and meaning of the story are greater than the sum of its parts."
"I think we feel a greater purpose and mission with the piece - and my personal hope is that we will inspire people."
Montego Glover plays the mother of Themba, the piano prodigy. She was brought on to the project after a personal call from Drabinsky asking her to look over the first treatment. "I read it, and found it really, really interesting and here I am!"
Glover also spoke about how the cast and crew have responded to the show - noting how timely it is with the current global climate towards refugees. "It crosses my mind [the refugee crisis] and the mind of every single person of our company. Everyone is so very tuned into the current political climate in this country, Canada, in my country, the United States, and around the world."
"We can't help but recognize how very relevant and timely this particular story is. It's also a very human story. Every person knows what it feels like to hold onto something you love, to fight for something you love, to risk or to feel a sense of risk, but to also experience joy and change and to change other people for the better."
Making his "first class" production debut (with his Broadway debut just around the corner) is Jordan Barrow, who will bring Themba to life on the stage. He takes part of his lunch break to sit down with me in a small music room to talk about the show.
At just 25, he's yet to play a principal role on this scale - but he hasn't let it go to his head. Everyone on the production has nothing but exceptionally kind things to say about him. His warm and bubbly personality is infectious and soon he has me laughing like we're old friends.
"I got an appointment for an untitled musical reading..." recalls Barrow "in October of 2015. They gave me the creatives and four pages of the script. I had no idea what was happening! I went in for a first round and they said 'great!' and here we are."
"A week before we went to Toronto they sent us an email with [the rest of] the cast and it said Victoria Clark - oh that's who I'm playing opposite... I knew it was big but I didn't know who was in the cast and I feel very lucky to have done a project that has moved along because I've done stuff that has been great but hasn't gone anywhere."
Turning the conversation to the very timely matter of the global refugee crisis, Barrow says "We had no idea. We had no idea what going to happen. It's pretty scary how pertinent everything is."
"This being my debut to be doing it with something this important is really special because it is so timely. I do feel that people need to see this. There is a middle-aged caucasian woman and a young black man bonding over being refugees, helping each other, having empathy... It just seems very special that we get to be the people who get to tell this story."
"Refugees are people. They're not just looking for a better life. They're running away from things. There's much more to the refugee struggle that gets lost in the news. There's a lot of grief, pain, and struggle and it's nice to see that in a musical because there's also a lot of happiness and triumph."
In all my interviews at Sousatzka rehearsals, the recurring theme of arts as a tool for change struck me. In a time when civil liberties and arts funding is in question - it is more important than ever for creators and artists of all types to create new works that push the fabric of what has been done before - something Drabinsky seems all too ready to do.
Perhaps Sousatzka is to refugees as something like Fun Home or Falsettos is to the LGBTQ+ community. Only time will tell.
Visit sousatzkamusical.com for tickets and more.
Photos and videos by Alan Henry.