Centre Stage with Aubrey Dan of Dancap Productions
First impressions mean everything to Canadian impresario Aubrey Dan. It’s all about foreshadowing – priming the audience for an unforgettable experience – even if it means asking your staff to find palm trees in the middle of a harsh Canadian winter so they can feel the warm rays of the sun long before the first act of South Pacific. “That emotional connection is critical,” says the eccentric president of Dancap Productions Inc.
As he strides into an empty boardroom on the 17th floor of his company’s North York headquarters, he proves that the cardinal rule of first impressions doesn’t just apply to theatre. Extending his arm for a firm handshake, he carefully presents his business card that features the brand’s trademark fedora logo, a silhouette nearly identical to the real-life wide-brimmed Borsalino version he’s wearing today.
It only takes a few minutes to realize that Dan prefers to dance around questions rather than sit in the hot seat. He’ll light the newspaper and fan the flames, inciting answers that may be obvious to him but clandestine to the outside world. This trait is most evident when he speaks about the theatrical experience, aiming to explain why live productions trump other forms of entertainment. “Do you remember your first movie? Do you remember your first theatrical show?” Dan asks, sparking an obvious a-ha! moment. “Bingo.” He’s an open book when it comes to being transparent, but he’ll prod until you find the page with the answer, capping many of his descending sentences with riddle-like rhetoric.
It’s not surprising then, that it was precisely this inquisitive quality that led the corporate-minded magnate, who’s admittedly inept in the areas of singing and acting, to create one of Canada’s best-known commercial theatre companies. “There was a time period when there was Lion King and Mamma Mia! and really nothing else. My one question was: ‘Why wasn’t there more Broadway theatre in Toronto?’” Dan wasn’t satisfied with the less than definitive response. “The answer was, ‘Well we’re not sure, it’s basically been a monopoly for 10 years. I grew up sort of not really liking monopolies unless I own them. If I own them, it’s OK. So it came as knowing there was a vacuum created with the demise of Livent,” he says of the now-infamous theatre production company that financially collapsed in 1998.
Before passing Go, Dan’s primary focus was managing Dancap Private Equity Inc., a firm he founded in 2002 that presently invests its own funds from a $50 million investment base. When a friend called in a favour and asked if he would help find a sponsor for a show he was producing, the curtains rose on new possibilities. “You create your own opportunities, like for me, the theatre was basically the analysis of the landscape going, OK, well there was a massive demand, there’s only one player, choice is limited, the consumer should have more choice, so how can we engage?” He began networking with lead characters in the theatre community and used his business background as a launching pad for Dancap Productions Inc., which he established in 2007.
Its breakout season included presentations of Broadway-style theatre productions such as My Fair Lady, Avenue Q, Drowsy Chaperone and Jersey Boys, an award-winning musical that’s gripped a growing audience of more than one million and has grossed over $1.5 billion internationally to-date. “Nobody really expected Aubrey to be able to run that show very long up in North York … the fact that we’ve been able to run it as successfully as we did for two years, I think is a real testament to him,” says Jeff Madden, who played the lead role of Frakie Valli. Even Dan acknowledges that the level of success Jersey Boys reached is something he never envisioned, especially given its precarious point of entry in a tumultuous economic market. “You’ve got to be a risk-taker, you have to be prepared to lose money. You do it not out of just entirely financial motivation, you’re here to do it because you want to make a difference, and theatre touches people in a very unique way … the more I discover about it, the more intrigued I am,” says Dan.
His story could have taken a much different turn. Raised in Toronto’s Don Mills neighbourhood, a young Aubrey entered the world at the turning point of his father’s Horatio Alger tale. Notable businessman and philanthropist Leslie Dan immigrated to Canada from Hungary as a post-war refugee in 1947, and established Novopharm Ltd., a multi-million dollar generic drug manufacturing business less than 20 years later. “My father’s a phenomenal entrepreneur who basically came to Canada with $5 in his pocket and he took the risk to start a generic drug company,” Dan says of his dad, who was appointed a Member of the Order of Canada in 1996 for a lifetime of contributions to society, which to-date includes a $13 million gift to create the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto. Along with his eldest brother, Michael, Dan was given the antonym of a generic experience when he had the opportunity to work for his father in the company’s marketing arm after graduating from the University of Western Ontario with a degree in administrative and commercial studies.
Had Leslie chosen to hold onto Novopharm Ltd. instead of sell it in 2000, Dan’s future in theatre would be non-existent. “I’d be running the company. Oh, for sure,” he says, leaning back in his chair without hesitation. “You have to adapt, you have to reinvent yourself continuously.” And that’s exactly what he’s been doing. His 18-hour days begin with a trip to the gym at 6 a.m., and sometimes end in another area code like New York City, where three of his productions are currently running on West 44th Street, and Prince of Broadway, based on iconic producer Harold “Hal” Prince, is slated to debut November 2012. “Literally same street, three theatres, right there. Boom,” he says, smacking his fist on the table. Dancap Productions Inc.’s 2012 Toronto lineup includes American Idiot, In the Heights, Shrek the Musical, West Side Story, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Million Dollar Quartet, while Jersey Boys embarks on a tour throughout Western Canada this June. “It’s enjoyable. Yes, there are challenges, there are ups and downs, but it’s the excitement of what’s next, and never really knowing, and that’s OK,” says Dan, who, along with his wife, Marla, has donated more than $20 million to various philanthropic causes.
In an industry where success is wholly dependent on your pool of talent, Dan emphasizes the importance of amalgamating work and play. “This is a human capital business. At the end of the day, I have no assets. They go home each night. That’s my capital. So you have to have a relationship with them. They have to feel comfortable with you.” Minutes before rehearsal at the Toronto Centre for the Arts, Madden takes a few moments to validate the personal bond he’s built with his boss. “He’s certainly taken an interest in my life … he’s not just putting in the time, he is actually interested in what’s going on at the theatre,” he says, recalling the invite Dan extended to every cast member of Jersey Boys to have lunch at his office. “I don’t know what he’s like in the boardroom, and I know that he’s running all kinds of businesses, but from the theatre side of things, he seems to be very passionate about making sure it’s the best.”
Down the hall, the backdrop of Dan’s corner office awakens a new side of this offbeat entrepreneur, a side garbed in memorabilia from past productions and tangible praises, like the Tony Award he received for Best Musical in 2010.
“Let me show you something,” he says eagerly before making an exit. He reaches behind a loveseat and pulls out a guitar swathed in signatures from the cast of
Jersey Boys. Striking his fingers against the strings in a jested attempt to play, his off-tune song attests to the story of an off-stage star.
UPDATE: Since the release of this article, Dancap Productions Inc. has announced that it will not be producing a 2013 subscription season and its president Aubrey Dan is no longer involved in the production of Prince of Broadway as formerly stated. “Looking toward the near-future, I do not see enough quality shows that I would like to bring to Toronto in 2013,” writes Dan in his official statement. “I want to assure all our subscribers and supporters that it is business as usual for Dancap, and we will continue to provide the top-notch customer service for which we have become known. And when the next great show comes along, there is nothing stopping us from presenting it to our great Toronto audiences,” he concludes.