Dancap takes on the Mirvish machine (and loses)

Aubrey Dan had passion, business sense and lots of cash. But his venture into the cut-throat world of Canadian musical theatre never had a chance.

Dancap Productions’ Jersey Boys (Photo: Joan Marcus)

On a Friday night in late September, Aubrey Dan, Toronto pharmaceutical heir and failed theatrical mogul, stood in the TCU Place theatre in Saskatoon, preparing for the final opening night of his five-year run as the upstart face of big-budget Canadian stage musicals. “It felt a little bittersweet,” Dan later would say about that night. The play on offer, Jersey Boys, was the most successful he had ever staged. Backed by his company, Dancap Productions, it had enjoyed a multi-year run in Toronto and a barnstorming tour of Western Canada. But Saskatoon was the final stop for Jersey Boys, and for Dancap as well—at least for now.

After eight years of producing or funding live theatre in Canada, five as the head of his own production company, Dan backed out of the business in late April. He cancelled Dancap’s 2012–2013 season and announced that Jersey Boys would be the company’s last show before an indefinite hiatus. Dan won’t say when or if he will return to live theatre. (“I have no idea” was his answer when asked if his exit was permanent.) But his decision to put his company on ice puts a definite end to a brief, and occasionally combative, era in the business of the Canadian stage.

From the time he first started funding shows in collaboration with the non-profit Canadian Stage Company in 2004, through to the final Jersey Boys performance in Saskatoon, Dan was nothing if not interesting—even if he wasn’t exactly successful. He picked fights over venues, shot back at critics and put himself front and centre—all while wearing his trademark throwback fedora—at openings, media events and even on stage before shows as the public face of his company. Critics, and even supporters, have called his theatrical gambit “quixotic” and “divine insanity.” One report claims he lost $40 million during Dancap’s five-year run. (Dan denies that’s the case.) But in a long interview from his modest new north Toronto office, Dan made one thing clear: if he’s leaving theatre, he isn’t going quietly. “You’ve got to be a little rough-and-tumble sometimes,” he said. And rough-and-tumble is exactly how he intends to go out.

The Toronto theatre world is no stranger to big characters. One-time impresario Garth Drabinsky is still serving a prison sentence for serial fraud, after all. But even in that milieu, Dan stuck out for his chutzpah from the beginning.

A lifelong Torontonian, Dan grew up bathed in the business world, not that of the arts. The son of pharmaceutical tycoon Leslie Dan—once one of Canada’s richest men—the younger Dan was stuffing envelopes for Novopharm, the family’s generic drug empire, by the time he was five. After graduating from the University of Western Ontario, Dan joined Novopharm full time. After a stint as director of sales, he was appointed president of Wampole, the family firm’s herbal supplement and vitamin subsidiary, in 1995.

It was at Wampole that Dan made his first public splash and first industry foes. In 1999, he hired independent researchers to test the potency of 10 brands of St. John’s wort and 12 of Ginkgo biloba, both popular herbal remedies. When the researchers found that many of the products had less than their advertised shares of active ingredients, Dan went public, naming and hoping to shame his rivals. The move sparked what one industry magazine called “a civil war” in the Canadian herbal medicine sector. One major competitor accused Dan of pulling “a cheap publicity stunt,” while others charged he was holding the rest of the industry to a standard entirely of his own creation.

Looking back on the incident now, Dan chuckles. “That was a fun time,” he says. His competitors weren’t happy, “but there were no lawsuits, because they couldn’t do anything, right?” An outside firm performed the research, and nobody challenged the results, per se. So as Dan sees it, he gained a competitive advantage, and if he broke a few eggs along the way, who cares? “It’s called business,” he says.

In 2000, the Dans sold Novopharm, Wampole included, to Israeli pharmaceutical giant Teva. Two years later, Dan founded Dancap Private Equity to invest in established businesses from an initial pool of $50 million. In its first few years, Dancap sank money into a power generation company and Toronto’s Porter Airlines, among others. The goal, Dan says, was to find already-profitable firms, anywhere in the world, that were looking to grow.

It was in his new life as a private-equity manager that Dan first started dabbling in theatre. “I sort of grew up with it,” he says. “But I don’t know how to sing or act.” Nonetheless, in the early 2000s, a board member from the Canadian Stage Company—a contact from Dan’s Wampole days—approached Dan and asked if he knew anyone interested in providing a sponsorship. Through that contact, Dan met CanStage’s artistic director, Martin Bragg, and by 2004 the two had agreed to work together to bring Urinetown, a hit Broadway musical, to Toronto.

The terms of that initial deal were simple: Dan put up the money, CanStage handled the art. Any profits were to be shared. Urinetown—a satirical comedy about assistant urinal custodian Bobby Strong’s rebellion against the mega-corporation Urine Good Company—opened in Toronto in the late spring of 2004. The reviews were solid enough, but audiences never really appeared. A second collaboration, Ain’t Misbehavin’, did somewhat better. But a third, a revival of the ’70s musical Hair, was widely panned. (One more-complimentary piece called it “ill-conceived and memorably atrocious.”)

Around that time, Dan and Bragg began falling out. “The artistic director took me for granted,” Dan says. “And that’s when my entrepreneurial skill set said, ‘When you piss someone off, you go, that’s how you develop a competitor.’” Working behind the scenes, Dan scooped up Paul Shaw, a CanStage producer, and opened the doors on Dancap Productions, with Shaw as managing director soon after.

In a glitzy party on April 23, 2007, Dan launched the first Dancap season at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto. Even then, signs of his future troubles were evident. The Toronto theatre scene has for years been dominated by David Mirvish, son of Toronto retail legend Ed Mirvish and owner and operator of most of the downtown’s best theatrical real estate. Dan, on the other hand, launched his company with no permanent home.

At first, he tried to work out a long-term agreement with the City of Toronto to use a municipally owned facility in the northern end of the city, far from the entertainment district. Dancap signed a rental agreement for that stage, but the fledgling company still lacked a theatre to call its own full time. Dan thought he had a solution in 2008 when Key Brand Entertainment, a U.S. company, bought Toronto’s Canon and Panasonic theatres from a Canadian promoter. Dan was an investor in Key Brand, but David Mirvish had an existing lease agreement for the theatres. He also had the right to buy them if they ever went up for sale, which is what he did when Key Brand decided to walk away.

Dan fought the sale in court, but in August 2008, an Ontario judge denied his application for an injunction. Mirvish kept the theatres, and Dancap stayed homeless. Without the flexibility to extend runs or the ancillary revenues a permanent home would provide, Dan’s company struggled against the larger, more established Mirvish. Dan briefly considered building his own theatre from scratch, but he balked at what he said was a potential price tag “in the low nine figures.”

This fall, just as Dancap’s final show was ending, David Mirvish announced a plan to tear down his own Princess of Wales Theatre to make way for a hugely ambitious Frank Gehry–designed condo development and art gallery in downtown Toronto. Dan believes that wouldn’t be happening if he’d been able to buy the Canon and Panasonic theatres himself. Still, he says he isn’t bitter about Mirvish’s choice. “Business is business,” he says, before segueing off into what is at best a backhanded compliment and at worst a direct shot at his rival. “[Mirvish] has always lived, in my opinion, under the shadow of his father. Nobody really knows who he is. He’s just an extension. I mean, the first thing he talks about is his dad, his dad. He doesn’t talk about what he does. So this is something that he’s doing. And good for him.”

There is no doubt some irony in the son of a near-billionaire entrepreneur calling out someone else for living in his father’s shadow. But when it comes to rivals and critics, Dan isn’t afraid to take shots, no matter how broad. During Dancap’s five-year run, the company drew fire from some critics for bringing in large U.S. touring shows that used non-union casts. Others questioned the quality and choice of many of the shows Dancap staged. “The worst part of the job is the theatre critics,” Dan says. “They’ve no equity, they’ve no stake. They can be a Monday-night quarterback and have no risk.” Critics, Dan went on, criticize because they can’t do. “There is a lot of jealousy. That’s the bottom line. People are jealous.”

Last year, Dan got in a public spat with a Globe and Mail critic. In his review of Dancap’s production of Green Day’s American Idiot, J. Kelly Nestruck chided Dan for what he saw as a hokey pre-show to-do. “Dancap opening nights have long been marred by Dan’s insistence on speaking before the show,” Nestruck wrote. “The man may be a fine theatre producer, but he’s not the world’s smoothest orator.” Nestruck went on to vent that Dan had struggled to overcome the perception that his theatre company was “a rich man’s vanity project” and called the singing of “O Canada” before the show frankly embarrassing. Dan shot back with a lengthy online rebuttal, posted as a series of comments below the story. “He was taking personal shots at me,” Dan says. “When I hit back, he didn’t like it.”

Still, for all his problems with critics and theatres, Dan says the main reason he’s getting out of the business is the plays themselves. He believes there just aren’t enough quality productions coming down the pipe from Broadway and the West End to keep his business worthwhile. So, for now Dan plans to retreat, retread and focus on his private-equity work. “You move on. You don’t think about it,” he says. “You just keep your ears and eyes connected, and eventually things happen.”

Dan wouldn’t say how much money his eight-year venture into the theatre world cost him. (“Whether I lost money or made money is nobody’s business.”) But no matter what the toll, he views Dancap Productions as having been a success in at least some respects. “From a business perspective of branding, I think we did a phenomenal job,” he says.

On the day of his interview with Canadian Business, Dan was on the subway, wearing his fedora when a young woman approached him and asked, “Are you Aubrey Dan?” That, he says, is an example of the prominence his company has earned. “Now,” he says, “it turned out to be a friend of my daughter’s who went to Queens….” But still, for Dan at least, the point is obvious. After five years and who knows how much money, Dancap is now a known quantity in Toronto—even if it won’t ever produce another show.