“Drabinsky, more than any other producer in recent musical theatre history, has tackled the insidious issues of racism, prejudice and bigotry in America through the musicals he has produced for Broadway,” the suit reads.
Filed Thursday in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, the suit follows the closure of Paradise Square after four months on Broadway and ensuing legal actions brought against the production from unions such as Actors’ Equity, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, and United Scenic Artists seeking thousands in what they say were owed payments, wages and health contributions.
Following the closure of the show, Equity placed Drabinsky on its “Do Not Work” list, effectively barring him from Broadway producing, after company members wrote a letter saying that the producer “had withheld benefits and pay from many company members, and have created an unsafe, toxic and frequently hostile work environment.”
Equity spokesperson David Levy said in response to the suit, “The lawsuit filed against Equity is entirely without merit, and Equity is confident it will prevail in this lawsuit. Equity will vigorously contest the suit and demonstrate that our actions were fully consistent with our legal responsibilities to protect our members.”
In the defamation suit, Drabisnky, who also produced Show Boat and Ragtime, uses his work on these shows, which feature many Black castmembers, and his actions on Paradise Square to fight back against the allegations.
Drabinsky specifically references an instance during the Chicago run of the musical, on Oct. 2, 2021, in which the suit says he called a meeting to address “the complex issues addressed in the musical,” which include slavery and racial tensions in New York the mid-1800s. The suit says Drabinsky referenced his work on the 1993 revival of Show Boat, in which he says he and the late producer Hal Prince decided to keep an opening refrain that included a racial slur in order to “shock audiences to fully understand the harsh reality of the Black experience in America.
“Drabinsky related this difficult experience so that everyone present would understand that the racial issues of Paradise Square, while challenging and sometimes overwhelming, had to be emphatically confronted,” the suit reads.
About 20 days after this meeting, Actors’ Equity issued a letter calling for the “immediate removal” of Drabinsky from the workplace for his use of “inappropriate and unwanted racial slurs,” according to the suit. Though the letter was sent Oct. 25, 2021, according to the suit, Drabinsky remained with the production through the Broadway run.
Drabinsky maintains that he acted solely as a creative producer on the production. The producer was convicted of fraud in Canada in 2009 for misstating finances as head of a publicly traded theater company. In 2014, he received full parole in Canada, with the promise that he not be in charge of finances for his projects, according to The Globe and Mail.
The suit also lists an alleged incident of sexual harassment castmembers and creative team members faced from another castmember during the show’s Berkeley run. Drabinsky alleges that he and the show’s general manager had to resolve the problem on their own, without the help of Equity, and hired a consulting firm and eventually fired the actor.
It further references an issue that has previously been made public. On Feb. 21, Actors’ Equity told its members not to report to rehearsal for Paradise Square due to a contract dispute with the production. The suit says the delay in receiving contract was “caused by certain members of the cast attempting to renegotiate their existing binding contracts with the Broadway Partnership,” and called it “an illegal work stoppage.”
It adds that Drabinsky “graciously acquiesced” to the cast’s request to have more than half of its actors perform on the June Tony Awards telecast, which cost the production close to $200,000. The original plan was to have a solo performance by Joaquina Kalukango, who won the Tony Award for best leading actress in a musical that night, according to the suit, at a cost of $30,000.
Drabinsky is suing for defamation, intentional tort and/or negligence. The suit says the producer has been damaged “in an amount that exceeds” $50 million and is seeking punitive damages and attorneys fees.
“As a consequence of Actors Equity’s actions, Drabinsky has sustained and continues to sustain serious damages. His reputation and his professional character have been decimated as he has been effectively blacklisted from working in theatre, television and film,” the suit reads.