Musical strikes sour note

Every company with a product or service to sell fears being blindsided.The latest firm to find itself in the midst of a controversy is The Live Entertainment Corporation of Canada, which sought only to mount a theatrical production, but found instead...

Every company with a product or service to sell fears being blindsided.

The latest firm to find itself in the midst of a controversy is The Live Entertainment Corporation of Canada, which sought only to mount a theatrical production, but found instead its Toronto-bound musical Show Boat stuck on the shoals of a tense public battle with black activists opposed to the show.

The show, due to open officially at the North York Performing Arts Centre Oct. 17, has angered activists, on the grounds it portrays blacks as slow, lazy or subservient to whites.

To find out how Show Boat could get off the sandbar, Strategy canvassed a number of issues management specialists for their advice.

To refloat the production, Show Boat needs more figurative water under it, the specialists says.

That water, they suggest, should be the placing of the show in its historical context, and a public forum for the producers, supporters and opponents of Show Boat to air their opinions.


Patrick Gossage and Alison King, president and senior manager respectively at Media Profile in Toronto, say the first thing the show’s producer, Live Entertainment Corporation, should do is move to neutralize the antagonism that has build up over the production.

This could be achieved, say Gossage and King, by holding a public meeting, inviting groups concerned about Show Boat, its director and performers and the press.

Out of this meeting, they say, should come a public document focussing on the groups involved, and the giving away of copies of Show Boat’s script.

Dennis Kucherawy, a Live Entertainment spokesman, told Strategy Drabinsky would agree to an interview once the show was playing.

According to information supplied by Live Entertainment, ‘Show Boat is considered by many informed and authoritative cultural historians, educators and theatrical experts to be ‘an American musical masterpiece’ and a milestone work in the history of musical theatre.’

The story of Show Boat, first produced in 1927, is of a floating theatre travelling the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers 100 years ago.

Perhaps its best-known song is Ol’ Man River, closely identified with the late Paul Robeson, one of America’s greatest singers and the grandson of slaves.

Live Entertainment also points out its production of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II musical is being reconceived by Broadway legend Hal Prince, not based on Edna Ferber’s 1926 novel.

Katherine Holmes, a senior partner at Public Profiles in Toronto, sees a certain amount of controversy as good for a show because it means people are talking about it and tickets are being sold.

However, Holmes cautions, there is a point at which the controversy becomes counterproductive and has to be reined in.

She says Show Boat has reached that point.

Holmes, stressing the need for as much openness as possible, says when the show is in production, before and after a performance, there could be public discussions of its origins and historical context.

She says a similar – and successful – approach was taken a few years ago when high school students attended Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice at the Stratford Festival.

Also, Holmes suggests, some text about the issue in Show Boat’s program would be welcome.

Doug Mepham, managing partner at MacDonald & Company in Toronto favors a public debate on the production – financed by Live Entertainment – and the offer of space in the show program for an alternative view of Show Boat.

And Mepham says a portion of the production’s profits should be directed to a charity or community group that caters to blacks.


Further, he suggests Drabinsky removes himself from ‘the line of fire’ and appoint a credible, neutral spokesman who can also work well behind the scenes.

Tom Reid, president of Toronto’s Reid Management, believes Drabinsky should do just the opposite.

Reid says the former lawyer should go on radio and tv talk shows to present his case for mounting Show Boat.

Drabinsky has appeared on at least one talk show, on radio station cfrb in Toronto, which is one of Show Boat’s sponsors; the others are American Express and Midland Walwyn.

Reid, who suggests if there is any exploiting going on it is protesters exploiting Drabinsky, recommends building a coalition of musicologists, historians and others to defend the show and to place it in its proper historical context.

Show Boat is, after all, ‘just a shard of American society and culture,’ he says.

Reid says what Live Entertainment cannot let happen is opening night demonstrations.