Aubrey Dan Won't be Upstaged
For Dancap president Aubrey Dan, theatre is equal parts business and pleasure.
It’s not hard to spot Aubrey Dan in the throng of theatre-goers converging on the ground floor of the cavernous Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. The opening night of Miss Saigon also marks the launch of Dancap Productions’ inaugural Summer Broadway Series, and the luminous building is filled with patrons eagerly awaiting a night of breathtaking Broadway-style theatre. Clad in a black suit and his trademark fedora, Dan is standing alone between the bar and the translucent, pale-green staircase that extends up all five stories, warmly greeting each guest who ventures over. He has an unmistakable presence, and for someone who didn’t grow up around theatre, who never performed himself, Dan looks remarkably at home.
Six weeks earlier, I meet with Dan in his spacious Yonge Street office, right around the corner from the Toronto Centre for the Performing Art, where Jersey Boys is still playing after nearly two years. “I never thought I would get into theatre, because I don’t sing and I don’t dance,” he tells me. He joined his father’s pharmaceutical company Novopharm in the late ‘80s, and founded two of his own companies in 2002, but when a friend approached him for help with sponsorship for the Canadian Stage Company, he “caught the bug.”
But working in the not-for-profit sector began to feel constraining, and being a businessman by nature, Dan noticed a couple things. One was that Toronto lacked a steady supply of splashy, Broadway-style musicals that bring in the masses and demand top dollar. The other was that the city’s theatrical community could do with a little competition. “I saw that the Toronto market had a monopoly, and quite frankly, since the departure to Livent, there had been a huge vacuum created,” says Dan. “So my first need is I enjoy theatre, but it became a business opportunity.”
To that end, Dan searches out shows that have commercial viability, but that also “pull the heartstrings. My approach has been, what is the common touch with everybody? What resonates? If you look at every major Broadway show, there’s always a love story.”
He’s found success with sold-out presentations of The Drowsy Chaperone, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and a Canadian co-production of Anne of Green Gables. Even The Toxic Avenger, which closed early in January, received five Dora Award nominations the day we met (and ended up winning one for Outstanding Female Performance for Louise Pitre), so clearly, Dan has a knack for choosing hits.
He hopes to continue that wave with two shows this summer that launch Dancap’s inaugural Summer Broadway Series. A co-production between Dancap and the Pittsburgh CLO, Miss Saigon is the tragic, Madame Butterfly-esque love story between a young Vietnamese prostitute and an American solider who are torn apart during the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War. It has everything Dan talked about: dazzling production values (including that famous helicopter scene), a sweeping musical score and a love story. In August comes the Lincoln Centre production of South Pacific.
Although Dancap is still a long way off from producing its own shows, Dan is confident in his company’s ability to challenge Mirvish Productions, the other major producer/presenter of Broadway-style theatre in Toronto. “They’ve been around for 40 years, so they’re an institution,” he says. “We’re the young upstart who has created the competition within the city. We are the ones that [are bringing] more shows in the city than there ever have been. Competition invigorates and gets people to go to the theatre more often. If we weren’t in the market, I know that they wouldn’t have bought the Canon or the Panasonic – they wouldn’t need to. So we’ve caused a lot of changes.”
Is it just coincidence that two of the most prominent theatre producers in Toronto are both Jewish? “There’s always been a strong affinity to Jews to musical theatre,” he notes. “It goes way way back. We sometimes jokingly say this, and I won’t try to be racist or make a derogatory comment, but the critical theatre-goers are the Jews and the gays. If you have them both, you’ve got a great leg up to be successful.
“I think it comes down to the independent spirit and strong mind of the ability to be risk-takers,” he continues. “And we come from a people that are risk-takers. We see the opportunities and we’ll go after them. We don’t accept the status quo, we don’t want monopolies, we want competition, we want the ability to carve out who we are. And part of the philosophy is what sort of attracted me to the business beyond the love of Canadian talent. Jews by nature don’t accept the status quo.”
Competition is healthy, Dan believes. Beyond the summer series, his goal is to “make theatre a lifestyle choice in Toronto, when people consciously think about going out to the theatre as an event.” One other thing he’s accomplished: opening up the Four Seasons Centre to a whole new audience. “The Four Seasons Centre really has only been accessible to those who go to opera and ballet. There’s a large segment, and I’m one of them, who until recently had never been there except for that,” he says. “They have no idea how amazing that facility is. So when you get a big beautiful Broadway production and people have no expectations when they go to the show, and then they see it, they’re going to be blown away. That’s when people will make the connection and fall in love with theatre. That’s when they’ll see what a Dancap production is: a Dancap production is high quality theatre. Period.”
Miss Saigon runs until August 1 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. South Pacific runs August 12-September 5. For more information, visit www.dancaptickets.com.