Monday, August 10, 2009

In Defense of Drabinsky

Posted By on 08.10.09 at 03:28 PM

In a response to Deanna Isaacs's posting on this blog about the sentencing of Canadian theater producer Garth Drabinsky for fraud, my colleague Lawrence Bommer referred to Drabinsky as a "selfish rogue." Drabinsky may be a rogue, but (unlike his fellow crooked Canadian, Conrad Black) he wasn't selfish. His fraudulent accounting was committed in pursuit of productions that enriched the theater worldwide and certainly in Chicago.

I salute Drabinsky for three projects in particular. One was the sprawling, Harold Prince-directed 1996 revival of Show Boat at the Auditorium. The other two were original musicals that made their way here from Broadway: Kiss of the Spider Woman—an adaptation, also Prince-directed, of Manuel Puig's novel about two men (a homosexual and a communist) imprisoned by the despotic Argentinian government of the 1970s—and Ragtime, Frank Galati's version of E.L. Doctorow's historical novel. (Ragtime opened here at the Oriental three months after Drabinsky had been ousted from the production company he cofounded, Livent, because of financial irregularities.)

These were bold works of considerable artistic substance. They reflected not only a grandiose vision that invites comparisons to Florenz Ziegfeld, but also a commitment to serious theater that educates audiences. Show Boat dramatized racial injustice while chronicling the development of American theater from 19th-century riverboats to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and Jazz Age New York; Kiss of the Spider Woman explored Argentina's brutal "dirty war" as well as prejudice against homosexuals; and Ragtime reminded us that American culture is the continually evolving product of sometimes turbulent interactions between ethnic groups.

For more on the rise and fall of Garth Drabinsky, see Jack Helbig's timeline, from the Reader's 1998 year-in-review issue.

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