Stage Door News
Toronto: The Princess of Wales Theatre turns 30 on May 26
Friday, May 26, 2023
On May 26, 1993, when the Princess of Wales (POW) Theatre officially opened, it solidified Toronto’s growing status as a major urban centre.
The early 1990s were a heady time in Toronto. The city was booming. New office towers and condominium buildings, some designed by the world’s leading architects, sprouted across the city. New restaurants showcasing yet another major culinary talent seemed to open weekly. Even the city’s sports teams were flourishing, with the Blue Jays winning two World Series in a row.
The opening of the POW ushered in an era of unparalleled growth in theatre in this country. Financed and built by David and Ed Mirvish, it was the first privately built, stand-alone theatre in 50 years. The Toronto Star described it as a “glittering glass jewelry case”.
Its debut show, Miss Saigon, opened with record-setting advance sales of over $30 million.
This state-of-the-art building, which features over 10,000 square feet of original artwork by Frank Stella, was an instant hit and became a destination for locals and visitors alike.
It even became the subject of urban lore. There was a rumour that the theatre had a retractable roof, just like the newly built SkyDome down the street, and every night at the right moment in the show it would be opened for a real helicopter to land on the auditorium’s massive stage.
Diana, Princess of Wales, after whom the theatre was named, was not able to attend the opening night but sent a handwritten note thanking David and Ed Mirvish for giving Toronto another beautiful theatre. (In 1991, on an official visit to Canada, she had attended the Mirvish production of Les Misérables at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, which was built in 1907 and was also named for a Princess of Wales.)
At 2,000 seats, the POW is not small. Despite its size it is surprisingly intimate. No seat is more than 85 feet from the stage, and all enjoy excellent sightlines in an acoustically near-perfect auditorium.
Miss Saigon played for two years. The POW has since had more than 95 productions on its stage – from blockbuster musicals to spectacular plays; even an intimate avant-garde drama that was staged for only 50 people per performance (Blindness in 2021, the first indoor theatre presentation in Toronto since the pandemic shut down all theatres 18 months earlier).
Since 2011, for 10 days every September the POW has also been home to the Toronto International Film Festival. Notable films have had world premieres here, often introduced by their celebrity stars and directors.
More than 1,200 actors have performed on the POW’s stage.
Animals too, have shared the spotlight. Two dogs and three rats had prominent roles in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Life-size horse puppets captured the hearts of thousands in War Horse. More than 25 life-size puppets of African animals (from a massive elephant to tiny fireflies) roamed both the stage and auditorium during the four-year-long run of The Lion King.
Over 800 musicians have played in the POW’s orchestra pit and more than 2,000 technicians and artisans have worked behind the scenes. More than 3,000 people have been part of the POW’s administrative and front-of-house staff.
But these numbers are dwarfed by the patrons. In total, more than 20 million audience members have enjoyed a show at the POW in its first 30 years.
The Shows (a selection from the over 95 productions):
• Canadian premiere of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1995 to 1997)
• Canadian premiere of Chicago (1998) and return engagement in 1999 with Chita Rivera, Uta Lemper and Ben Vereen
• Revival of Les Misérables starring the legendary Colm Wilkinson, who originated the role of Jean Valjean in the show’s London West End and Broadway productions (1998 to 1999)
• Canadian premiere of Disney’s The Lion King played (2000 to 2004)
• Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Hollow Crown starring Vanessa Redgrave, Donald Sinden, Ian Richardson and Alan Howard (2004)
• Canadian premiere of Hairspray (2004)
• World premiere of The Lord of the Rings, The Musical (2006)
• The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby (2008)
• The Sound of Music (2008 to 2009)
• North American premiere of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (2010 to 2011)
• Hugh Jackman in Concert (2011)
• Canadian premiere of War Horse (20012 to 2013)
• Canadian premiere of The Book of Mormon (2013)
• Blithe Spirit starring Angela Lansbury (2015)
• Canadian premiere of The Last Ship starring Sting (2019)
• Canadian premiere of An American in Paris (2018)
• North American premiere of & Juliet (2022)
A Few Anecdotes:
Jason Powell, the POW’s House Manager for the last 14 years, has celebrity stories to share. As is often the case, he says, the larger the star, the more gracious they are. Angela Lansbury was intent on meeting and thanking the front-of-house team, while performing Blithe Spirit’s eight shows weekly for five weeks at the age of 89. Hugh Jackman signed autographs following every performance of the engagement run of his one-man show.
Among the celebrities who have attended performances (in no particular order): Lady Gaga, Jennifer Hudson, Harry Styles, Brad Pitt, Bette Midler, Daniel Craig, Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman. Audra McDonald attended multiple performances of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (her partner Will Swenson played the lead). Celine Dion met with the entire cast of Cats following a 2019 production.
Assistant Producer Sarah Sisko, who started her work with Mirvish first selling merchandise and then as an usher, recalls seating Shirley MacLaine, David Hasselhoff and Adam Sandler and his family.
The theatre has been such an integral part of her life, she even got married there in 2010.
Audience Services Representative Clara Kim also began her career at Mirvish as an usher. She said: “My very first show was The Importance of Being Earnest. During intermission I had a full-on conversation in the pit lounge bar with a lovely woman, only to find out afterwards that it was Vanessa Redgrave.”
Clara met her husband Paul there. He was the follow-spot operator during the run of The Pajama Game. Once he even focused his spotlight on her while she was seating patrons in the orchestra. She vividly remembers working and finding it difficult to move while close to the end of her pregnancy during Chun Yi: The Legend of Kung Fu. “There was a part at the beginning of the show where the Chinese monks would be in the upper orchestra level where I was working. They saw that I was pregnant and came over to ask if I'd like a ‘blessing’ for the baby. They were very lovely and that was a sweet ending to my ushering days there.” The couple’s two daughters study musical theatre and their house is filled with music, singing and dancing.
Theatre, it seems, has influence beyond its walls.