Stage Door News

Toronto: The Royal Alexandra Theatre will dim its lights on February 22 to honour Ivan Reitman

Friday, February 18, 2022

Filmmaker Ivan Reitman died on February 12, 2022. He was 75. His illustrious career includes some of the most iconic film comedies of the 1980s and 1990s, among them Ghostbusters, Stripes, Dave and Animal House. But before becoming a filmmaker, Reitman was a theatre producer.

In 1973, when he was 27 years old, he launched his directing and producing career with a theatre show called Spellbound at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.

How Spellbound came to be created, the artists involved, and the impact it had on many careers is a story that encapsulates an exciting time in Canadian show business history.

In the early 1970s, Doug Henning, a young magician from Winnipeg living in Toronto, was inspired by the success of the musical Hair, which had had a year-long run at the Royal Alex. He decided to create a rock musical, like Hair, that would revolve around illusions. He envisioned it as a “rock concert of illusions".

Henning approached many of his friends, most of whom he had met while studying at McMaster University in Hamilton, to help him in his quest. One friend had a senior job in a bank and Henning convinced him to approve a bank loan of $5,000 to help create the show. (The friend would subsequently lose his job for approving a loan for a risky show business project without collateral.) Another friend, Howard Shore, was a young musician, and Henning signed him up to write the songs for the show.

Ivan Reitman, also a McMaster graduate, had directed Henning in a university production of the play Li’l Abner. Henning convinced him to direct and produce the show.

Reitman in turn brought in David Cronenberg, then a young filmmaker with whom Reitman had started the Toronto Film Co-op, an organization founded to help aspiring filmmakers source equipment and materials. Cronenberg had made two independent films, but as a University of Toronto English graduate was also known for writing. Henning shared the plot of the story with Cronenberg and he in turn wrote the book of the musical.

In order to raise funds to produce the musical, the group held a backer’s audition. One of the people who attended the audition was Bob Mirvish, Ed Mirvish’s brother, who was a show scout and the Royal Alex’s New York representative. Bob Mirvish brought along his two young sons, who were enthralled with what they saw at the audition.

The audition raised $40,000 and the group of friends went to work to create Spellbound. Henning perfected his illusions, which included the appearance of a menagerie of animals, even a tiger. Up and coming star Jennifer Dale was hired to costar, as was Maya, Goddess of Magic (Lesley Walker-Fitzpatrick). But eight months later, they had a show they all were proud of but no theatre willing to book it.

Around that time, a show that the Mirvishes had booked to play the Royal Alex over the holidays in December 1973 fell through. A new show was needed, but without enough lead time it was doubtful one could be found. Bob Mirvish remembered how much his sons had enjoyed Spellbound, so he contacted Reitman and Henning. A deal was struck and plans were made for a two-week run, December 26, 1973 to January 5, 1974 at the legendary Royal Alex, one of the most prestigious theatres on the continent.

The newspaper ads promised: “The most spectacular magic ever presented on Stage! Anything is possible! You won’t believe your eyes! Great music, lavish sets and dazzling dance numbers — the perfect holiday entertainment for the entire family! If you don’t believe in magic now, you will after you see Spellbound!”

Tickets were $2 to $7.50, and sales were brisk for the always popular holiday time slot.

Ed and Bob Mirvish liked what they saw in rehearsals, so they contacted some Broadway producers to let them know this may be a show worth looking at.

There were a few hiccups, like the time one of Henning’s tigers escaped from its cage and roamed around backstage. But no one was hurt and Henning was able to lure it back to the cage.

Everything went well until the reviews came out. The Toronto Star critic, Urjo Kareda, was not impressed, nor was he kind: "Spellbound is a magic show with pretensions, and one of its delusions is this weary plot.”

But it didn’t matter. Audiences loved the show and word-of-mouth quickly spread. The run sold out, eventually breaking a box office record for the Royal Alex, taking in more than $10,000 per day.

Two Broadway producers who made the trek to see the show — Edgar Lansbury (brother of Angela Lansbury) and Joe Beruh, who had produced Gypsy — liked the show. Well, they liked the concept and the illusions, and they believed the musical had great potential. They picked it up for Broadway.

Reitman joined Lansbury and Beruh as producer. They changed most of Spellbound for Broadway, except for Doug Henning and his illusions. They hired a new book writer, Bob Randall, and they signed Stephen Schwartz, a young composer who had already had a hit off-Broadway with Godspell, to compose an entirely new score.

Bob Gower, a veteran Broadway dancer and choreographer. was hired to direct and choreograph the show. The scenic and lighting design were greatly expanded and the size of the cast was more than doubled. There was also a new title: The Magic Show.

The Magic Show opened on May 28, 1974 at the Cort Theatre. Clive Barnes in the New York Times wrote: “It’s brilliant. Doug Henning is terrific. He is the greatest magician I have ever seen." A few critics complained about the book, but there was no denying the show was a hit. It received two Tony Award nominations — for Henning and director Gower — and it ended up having a four-and-a-half year run, for 1,920 performances. A North American tour followed.

It all began with Spellbound. The show even helped those who did not end up going with it to Broadway launch brilliant careers.

Doug Henning would go on to become of the most famous illusionists of all time. Howard Shore would go on to become the original musical director of Saturday Night Live and score dozens of films, winning three Academy Awards, three Golden Globes and four Grammys. David Cronenberg would go on to write and direct more than two dozen films, creating his own genre in the process. Ivan Reitman would become one of the most successful filmmakers of his generation.

Photo: Ivan Reitman. © 2011 Matt Sayles.