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Monday, April 24, 2000

David Mirvish chat transcript

Welcome to the David Mirvish Chat!

Jon: Hello, Mr. Mirvish.It's not all that long ago that it would have been very difficult to find enough Canadian talent to cast a production as big as "The Lion King". When do think the talent pool in this country became big enough to do this? Could you talk about the state of that talent pool today? Thank you.

David Mirvish I think the opportunity to cast big musicals started with Cats, and Les Mis absolutely reinforced that you could cast100 percent Canadian. Those shows were not as complex or as large as Lion King. But I think that was the entree. It set the tone to aspire people to be in these big shows. I think now with Lion King, the cast consists of 40 Canadians, two from America, and six from South Africa. And this is an extraordinarily large number of Canadians for this particular show. We're very pleased with all the performers, wherever they come from, but we are especially pleased to have so many Canadians in this production. We have another large show to open in next two weeks, with Mamma Mia. The cast is 32: 30 Canadians, and two Americans. So we have a deep enough talent pool to actually cast two enormous shows at the same time.

Terry: Hello, David: Could you talk a bit in general about what a producer's role is in a show like "The Lion King" or "Mamma Mia"? Thanks.

David Mirvish The first task is to assemble a team of people that are capable of putting together all the different elements. With Lion King and Mamma Mia, they have to find a place to do rehearsals, help with the casting, find facilities to build the production, costumes, props, sets, lighting, sound, automation. They have to able to have the right people to form the appropriate band, and different people in the office work on these different functions. So John Wilbur, who is our technical producer, would oversee many of the technical aspects. Brian Sewel, executive producer, would oversee many of the contractual, "deal" issues. Then all the packages are bid by different shops that build different parts of the show, and we look at these and see who can deliver the best job. While much of the show went to Canadian shops, they have to be competitive, as we have to deliver the best show we possibly can, on the best budget we can.

David Mirvish In the case of both Lion King and Mamma Mia, we set up our own wardrobe production space and actually built all the costumes for both shows in our own company, and that comnpany we hope will continue and build for other people's productions, both in Canada and the United States. We had 52 people working on Lion King costumes at one point.

David Mirvish The shop is called Seamless Costumes.

Arnold: What's the criterion for selecting material for you? When you do something like "The Lion King," is it just the irresistible lure of a property with massive brand-name recognition, thanks to the Disney film? Or does the work need to move you in some way, need to strike a theme that is close to your heart? If it's the latter, tell us about your experience of first seeing The Lion King.

David Mirvish The Lion King was really the genius of Disney and the ability of Peter Schneider and Tom Schumacher, who worked in live theatre, to enlist the support of Julie Taymor in producing this musical. It was a very adventurous, artistic coupling that no one could predict the outcome of. It turned out to be what may end up being the most memorable of all the big musicals to date. I guess the best way to summarize my experience of first seeing the show was a combination of delight and awe. We have not generally generated original musicals, although we do from time to time involve ourselves with new musicals, such as The Drowsy Chaperone, which is part of our coming subscription season. And there, it was an absolutely delightful spoof that we enjoyed in the Fringe Festival in Toronto, and which John Karastamatis produced at Theatre Passe Muraille and sold every ticket -- 5200 tickets -- in a four-week period. We felt we could add to it in terms of scale and production value, and that it was appropriate for our audience. In terms of other new work, we just finished about four weeks ago with Enigma Variation, with Donald Sutherland, and there we had an opportunity to read a new play by Eric Emmenuelle-Schmitt, which had been a great success in French. Friends of ours had seen the show first, and also Donald Sutherland's wife had actually discovered the show and asked Donald to consider performing in it, so producers in London and New York, and Gordon Davidson, who has the Mark Taper Forum in L.A., asked if I would like to be involved. The play is going to be called Enigmatic Variation in London at the Savoy Theatre, and opening night is May 31. I was very taken with the project. We did it first in L.A. to great success, then re-examined it and did it again in Toronto, where it sold out and then we re-examined the new title, which we'll use in London for a limited 16-week run.

Izzy: With so many Broadway shows now drawing their stories from older material -- particularly movies, with Lion King, Sunset Blvd. and Saturday Night Fever, and even the upcoming Sweet Smell Of Success -- what does it say about an audience's ability to accept totally original material? Also, are there any movies that are personal favorites that you think would be adaptable?

David Mirvish I think that when you work in a large thatre with 1500 or more seats, in order to attract large enough audiences, a new musical needs some recognition factor, and that's part of the reason why people turn to movies or books that are well known. Some material lends itself better to being on stage, and there is a show that I'm very excited about, which the original authors had conceived of as a musical before they wrote it for the movies, and that is a show called Peggy Sue Got Married. And we are exploring the possibility of doing that for a Broadway musical. Mamma Mia, though, is a totally original musical. The music is based on well-known music by ABBA, but the whole story is brand new. It's as if the music was written for this story. Catherine Johnson actually created the story around the songs. Judy Craymer is the original London producer who had the idea that this could be a successful evening in the theatre, and she deserves the credit for being inspired enough tto create this show, although many people have a role, obviously.

Jonathan: How has the collapse of the Drabinsky empire affected your company? Has the drop in the number of shows in Toronto made it harder to attract tourists?

David Mirvish I think the answer is no.

Diana Simpson: While I've enjoyed many shows at the Royal Alex in Toronto, I have not enjoyed having to squeeze into the seats. I am not alone, as most people I know have complained about the poor seats, lousy seating room and sore bums, which does little to enhance what should be a pleasant experience. Do you have any plans or renovations that will address this deficiency?

David Mirvish In the last little while, while the theatre has been preparing for Mamma Mia, we have been re-upholsetering and re-stuffing the seats, so I hope that her bum feels better.

Martha: Will there be a Canadian cast album of The Lion King?

David Mirvish Probably not. The cost of creating a cast album today runs close to a million dollars, and to create a second one in competition with one that now exists is unlikely. And since the Toronto run is limited to 22 months, it wouldn't justify the cost.

jessica: Hello, David, I am a 17-year-old-female and it so inspiring to know that a Canadian has made it big in the theatre/dramatical areas of the art of acting! In general, how hard was it for you to get into the business? I am with an acting agency and I haven't had a gig for over two years! What could I do to make a name for myself in the business?

David Mirvish I think first of all she shouldn't be discouraged and should go to all the auditions possible, because she can be seen at auditions and may not be appropriate for that particular show but people who do casting will remember you, and if you stand out, they'll keep you in mind. There are good schools in this country: York, U of T, Ryerson, Humber, National Theatre School, Dalhousie. Also there are many good classes: For example, the Randolph here in Toronto. Three of the people we hired for Mamma Mia came from there. I would say to keep working at the craft, and eventually, hopefully you will find a place.

Kathy: Are there any plans for The Lion King to play in any other Canadian cities?

David Mirvish We had to close our theatre for 12 weeks to install this production of The Lion King. This production is built to move to another city, but I don't believe there is another Canadian city that could give a long enough run to justify the initial costs of moving the show, so at this moment we have no plans in other Canadian cities.

Mary: Mr. Mirvish: With the high cost of tickets these days, the theatre has become a luxury for many people. I simply cannot afford to take my children to see The Lion King when there are so many other necessities to pay for. How do you feel about the notion that, for many, going to the theatre is simply not an option anymore?

David Mirvish We try to make the theatre available to as many people as possible. Historically, theatre tickets used to be more expensive than hockey tickets. Two nights ago, I went to a hockey game and I looked at my tickets and they were $176 each. And I didn't have the best seats in the house. There are less expensive hockey tickets, and there are less expensive theatre tickets. We do have a small number of tickets at $25 each for every performance of The Lion King. Many have sold out, but we will continue to make these available for every show. Up to now in preview, we have not had an empty seat, but we do have good tickets available mid-week in July and August, and better seats in September, October, November, December, so if you can plan that far out, there are better seats available. Live theatre is hand-made, and it's not something that once it's made it's paid for. It requires a large number of people actually going and doing it each time. Everything that is hand-made in our society is going to have to be relatively more expensive. At the same time, when you compare it with other leisure activities, theatre of all sorts has a wide range of prices. You can go to the World Stage Festival and see extraordinary theatre that you'd have to go all over the world to see otherwise, and a great deal of it is $45 or less. But big musicals, like big sport events or big concert events, are very expensive to put together, and prices reflect that. We have discovered that we have sold the most expensive seats faster than the less expensive seats, so that's a very interesting comment on the level of demand.

Zoran: Why does theatre appeal to you so much? Ever consider financing a feature film? Other producers have made the jump from theatre to film.

David Mirvish I've never involved myself in film, simply because I know very little about it. I love the story-telling aspect of live theatre because I think all cultures have stories to tell and the theatre provides a way for anyone to tell their story. Also, because theatre can be something many people can participate in, or something small, like the Tarragon Theatre (in Toronto). It is pretty much impossible to prevent someone from telling their story if they feel they have something special to say. It can be put on for very little money, or when one has proven themselves -- Julie Taymor took years to learn her craft and lived in Indonesia for five years learning about Asian theatre and puppetry, and years later was able to apply that to a big show that caught everyone's imagination -- I consider that a great privilege to be involved with.

Arthur: When a show like The Lion King comes to Toronto, how involved are the Broadway creative people, like Julie Taymor, in the new production? Thank you.

David Mirvish The Broadway team has been very involved. Julie Taymor saw all the casting of all the actors, the choreographer was there for casting, the musical department was there, really all aspects of the show are overseen by the original production team. One of the composers and vocal arrangers and choral conductor has been here. At various stages, we have seen everybody take part in the rehearsal process. An associate producer and dance supervisor have been with us all the way. Ken Denison and Michele Steckler -- associate producers from the original production -- were here, and Tony Neal, a sound designer, Richard Hudson, who created the original set, has been here and inspected the set. We do get access to the original team, and we also have our own team who are here to continue with the show. We've had great support from Disney. It's fairly typical of a large, proven show that's been a success in London or New York. Bjorn from ABBA has been sitting in on rehearsals for Mamma Mia. And the original London director has been here through the rehearsal process. The only instance where we did a big show and the original producer(Trevor Nunn) did not involve himself but sent an extremnely capable deputy was "Les Mis". But at that stage, it wasn't the third or fourth production, but rather the sixth or seventh in the world.

David Mirvish But Trevor Nunn still kept an eye on it all, and when we were in Vancouver he sent a note to the cast.

Tim: Mr. Mirvish: Broadway seems to be going through a relatively weak patch right now. What do you think about the current season?

David Mirvish I actually think Broadway is going through a very healthy period, and one of the great problems both on and off Broadway is that shows are becoming so successful that new shows are like airplanes waiting to land, and can't find theatres to go into. So there are more shows waiting in the wings as soon as there is a place for them to play. We have also seen a creative artistic patch, so we have seen unusual musicals like "James Joyce's The Dead: the musical and "Contact," a dance musical. Julie Taymor's The Green Bird just opened on Broadway, and Susan Strohman, who created Crazy For You, is about to open a revival of The Music Man. As well, there are some very serious plays: a new version of The Real Thing, Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn. And In London, there is Michael Gambon in a play called Cressida for a limited 12-week run that I'm looking forward to seeing. So there's quite a lot of interesting theatre out there.

Danielle M.: Do you expect a lot of children to attend the Lion King? For what ages is the show appropriate? What percentage of the audience was kids in the previews?

David Mirvish In the previews it was about 20 percent children (up to 12 years of age). But I would say that a mature five or six-year-old could come. That's an appropriate age. And they're allowed to bring their grandparents with them. This is a very unique show that actually appeals to all age groups. It's been exciting because many shows do exclude groups of people. This is quite different from the film, as live stage often is.

David Mirvish I hope that we were able to answer some of your questions, and I look forward to seeing you at the theatre. Thank you.

Mirvish eyes 'Peggy Sue' musical

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David Mirvish

- Mirvish eyes 'Peggy Sue' musical
- More on: The Lion King


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