Garth Drabinsky's Sousatzka faces no sure path to Broadway

The musical pegged as a comeback for producer Garth Drabinsky just wrapped up its run in Toronto. But amid poor reviews and middling ticket sales, its once-confident promise of "Broadway next" seems dubious.

After poor reviews and lukewarm ticket sales in Toronto, musical's Great White Way prospects seem uncertain

Jordan Barrow and Victoria Clark appear as the South African piano prodigy and his teacher in the musical Sousatzka. (Cylla von Tiedeman)

Its promotional posters confidently called it "Broadway-bound," but Sousaztka, the musical that was supposed to serve as the comeback vehicle for disgraced theatre producer Garth Drabinsky, may have more than a few roadblocks on its journey to the Great White Way.

With poor reviews and lukewarm ticket sales, the show is not exactly a shoo-in to make Broadway.

"If I were a betting man, I would probably not bet on it going to Broadway," says Alan Henry, senior editor of

Henry's review of Sousaztka, which called it "lacklustre material, brilliantly performed," was among the more kind. Toronto Star gave the production one star out of four, the Globe and Mail, two out of four.

"It was so overproduced, there was so much going on that I thought the intimate story got lost in the production," says Henry of the musical, which tells the story of a South African piano prodigy and his Holocaust-survivor teacher. 

Seat fillers and blood donors

If the critics' responses seemed mixed at best to downright scathing, the audience seemed more divided on the merits of Sousatzka. 

But those are the people who actually went to see the show.

During the show's March 23 to April 9 run, the Ticketmaster website showed plenty of available seats on most nights. The show offered deep discounts on tickets in the final week. 

"One person told me he was an invited seat filler, and that sort of gave me the sense it was not selling well. I also read that people who donated blood were offered free tickets," says Henry, who chatted up attendees on the opening night.

A tale of two musicals

Lack of apparent enthusiasm for Sousatzka is all the more stark given the current Broadway success enjoyed by a rival Canadian musical, Come from Away.

Unlike Sousatzka, Come From Away boasted no major stars among its performers or producers, but positive word-of-mouth made it a runaway hit in Toronto and then New York. The Broadway opening of the story of the Newfoundland community that takes in airplane passengers stranded by the Sept. 11 attacks was attended by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Broadway producer Sue Frost, who took Come From Away under her wing and eventually brought it to New York, says a new show has to be a clear audience pleaser to stand a chance among the cutthroat competition on Broadway, where you have to sell 8,000 to 12,000 seats a week. "And you have no subscription base, nothing," she says.

When she saw the audiences responding to Come From Away, she knew it had that potential.

You look for that immediate response in terms of how people in theatre are reacting: they're laughing, they're crying, that automatic, immediate jump up at the end of the show.- Sue Frost, New York producer of Come From Away

"You look for that immediate response in terms of how people in theatre are reacting: they're laughing, they're crying, that automatic, immediate jump up at the end of the show. That happened right from the beginning," said Frost in a phone interview from her New York office. "So there was this huge enthusiasm coming from the audience. And then the next day, you see that reaction through the box office."

Although Come From Away is viewed by many as an overnight success, "the little musical that could," Frost cautions that it took four years, and many fixes to the show, to get it to its current Broadway-worthy incarnation. 

"By the time we got to Toronto, we had been in three different cities, learning a lot about the show," says Frost. "We weren't in a big hurry, because we knew we had to take our time and figure out where it belonged."

Broadway by way of London

And that may well be the eventual course for Sousatzka. The producers associated with it don't seem ready to throw in the towel just yet. A publicist for the production said in an email, "There are no comments being made at this time while the producers reflect on the past run and make decisions for the future."

A lot of those decisions will depend on if and when Sousatzka can secure financing for future engagements. Some media reports suggested Richard Stursberg, the main financier behind the show's Toronto run, was now out. But Rick Chad, one of the other investors, said in a phone interview with CBC News that isn't confirmed yet and that Stursberg is still the chief operating officer of Teatro Proscenium, the production company behind Sousatzka.

Garth Drabinsky looks over the designs of Tony-winner Paul Tazewell, who created costumes for Sousatzka. (CBC)

Asked about whether he would be willing to invest inSousatzka's future engagements, Chad says, "Yes, absolutely." He is confident there is a future for the show, perhaps by going to another theatre centre first, and then New York.

"We have an amazing show. It may need to be tweaked, adjusted," says Chad.

Drabinsky himself suggested that was a possibility for his musical when he spoke to CBC News before its Toronto premiere.

"Maybe go to London and then find our way to New York. There are a lot of roads to the ultimate conclusion, as I did with The Kiss of the Spider Woman: we did Toronto, London, then New York. You got to cut the suit to fit the cloth, as they say."

Henry, the theatre critic, acknowledges it's never wise to count Drabinsky out. 

"I personally don't see the show being a hit on Broadway, but then again, for years they were saying Garth is going to do Sousatzka and it's going to play Toronto. And people said, 'That's never going to happen.' And you know, he managed to raise the money, he put up the show."

About the Author

Deana Sumanac-Johnson

Arts reporter

Deana Sumanac-Johnson is a national CBC News reporter for the arts unit. She appears regularly on The National and CBC News radio programs, specializing in stories on music and literature/publishing. Before joining the arts unit, she was an award-winning current affairs producer for CBC News: Sunday.