Mirvish to close the Princess of Wales Theatre

Mirvish plans to replace the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto’s Entertainment District with a Frank Gehry-designed condo project

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Today, the Toronto Star broke the news that Mirvish will be demolishing its Princess of Wales Theatre to build a new condominium complex.

The new complex, designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry, will reportedly feature three 80-storey condo towers, retail space, function space and two art museums; one to publicly display the Mirvish’s private collection of abstract art, the other in partnership with OCAD.

Mirvish opened the 2000-seat Princess of Wales theatre on the corner of King and John streets in the heart of Toronto’s Entertainment District in 1993 with the production of Miss Saigon. The venue has subsequently housed long-running hit shows like Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s The Lion King, The Lord of the Rings, The Sound of Music and is currently the home of Toronto’s resident production of War Horse.

Mirvish’s move really marks Toronto’s decline as a viable market for long runs of commercial theatre shows; a subject I explored in more depth in my recent article debunking MGM Resorts’ claim of establishing a resident Cirque du Soleil show as part of its bid for a downtown Toronto casino.

There was a time in the ‘90s when a weak Canadian dollar, lower gas prices and the absence of strict, post-9/11 border security and passport requirements meant a steady stream of US tourists to the city that could sustain long runs of shows.

Even after taking out Phantom of the Opera’s 10-year run in the ‘80s/‘90s as an extreme outlier, the trend for lengths of open-ended long-run shows in Toronto has been downward, especially post-9/11:

  • Phantom of the Opera – 1989-1999 (10 years)
  • The Lion King – 1999-2004 (5 years)
  • Mamma Mia – 2000-2005 (5 years)
  • We Will Rock You – 2007-2009 (2 years)
  • Jersey Boys – 2008-2010 (2 years)
  • Rock of Ages – 2010-2011 (1 year)
  • Billy Elliot – 2011 (37 weeks)

Given the current market for commercial theatre in Toronto, it’s a lot less risky to present short runs of the US-based touring productions of large commercial shows rather than run the financial risk of producing resident Toronto “sit-down” productions of these same shows.

From an economic standpoint the move can be seen as Mirvish streamlining its theatre operations. Mirvish still has the Royal Alexandra Theatre, the recently-renamed Ed Mirvish Theatre (formerly the Canon Theatre and Pantages Theatre) and the smaller Panasonic Theatre. At any given time in the year at least one if not two of their theatres sit empty; a dark theatre loses money.

Despite the positive PR spin of creating galleries and the cachet of Frank Gehry’s name attached to design the project, I’m still deeply saddened by the fact that, at the end of the day, Toronto is losing a major theatre.

What I’d really like to see happen now is a stronger focus on local theatre in Toronto. Toronto has a thriving community of smaller theatre companies that deserve bigger audiences.

One thing I’ve always liked about the Mirvish organization is that it has steadfastly supported local Toronto theatre without much fanfare for itself.

I commend Mirvish for its annual support of the Toronto Fringe Festival, for its partnership with local theatre companies like Theatre 20 whose mandate is to develop new Canadian musicals, and it’s recent presentation of the Sheridan College’s student production of RENT, providing a larger stage for our emerging theatre talent in Canada.

Mirvish also recently announced its new Off-Mirvish second-stage series showcasing productions from local companies like Outside the March’s Terminus, Studio 180 Theatre’s Clybourne Park and Theatre Passe-Muraille’s Mary Walsh’s Dancing with Rage. I think it will be a huge step toward giving local Toronto theatre companies that are doing excellent work exposure to a broader audience.

I see it as the silver lining to the cloud that is essentially taking a wrecking ball to a beautiful Toronto performance space in order to build more condos.

Photo by Evan Dion