TONIGHT is the Broadway premiere of the new Twyla Tharp dance musical Come Fly Away produced by a creative team that still includes the name of the late Winnipegger Sam Lutfiyya.
Lutfiyya, a Winnipeg percussionist who became the continent's leading music co-ordinator, died suddenly in November of rectal cancer at the age of 53. He and his company Music Services International assembled the orchestras for live theatre shows on stages in China and Germany, Las Vegas and at Manitoba Theatre Centre.
Far away from the Marquis Theatre and the debut of Come Fly Away, an evening of dance set to the signature songs and voice of Frank Sinatra, a single office manager is left at the MSI office on Lombard Avenue winding up a business that was thriving only last fall.
"We're closing down," says Richard Hurst, who founded MTI with Lutfiyya in 1989. "No one, least of all me, can replace him. He knew who could play what and how well they could play it."
The Fort Richmond Collegiate graduate's untimely passing left a lot of unfinished business. Soon that business will be finished. The last opening on the books is the Royal Winnipeg Ballets' A Cinderella Story in late April before MSI ceases operations May 31 and closes its doors for good June 30.
It ends MTI's two-decade run and a $10 million-$12 million enterprise. Lutfiyya worked with the likes of Barry Manilow, Alicia Keyes and Gladys Knight, tours of Mamma Mia!, Cats and Chicago and Broadway productions of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Swan Lake and The Pirate Queen.
"It was basically a one-man operation," says Hurst, the longtime Winnipeg actor who moonlighted as MTI's executive administrator before moving to Victoria last year. "People were hiring MSI because of Sam's expertise. That's what it came down to, his ability and his wisdom for putting the right people in the right chairs in the orchestra. There's not a lot of people who can do it."
After Lutfiyya's death sunk in throughout the industry, MTI's clients immediately started telephoning Hurst for help.
"I got called from producers asking, 'What do we do now?'" says Hurst, who is enjoying semi-retirement that will be interrupted in May when he teaches a musical theatre course at the University of Victoria. "I told them, 'I'm not Sam.' It wasn't something I felt competent enough to continue on."
Ken Peter, Rainbow Stage general manger, was one of the first to call Hurst.
"It's a big hole," says Peter. "He was such a resource. I'd call him in China or New York or San Francisco about a problem that would have taken me weeks to solve and he would call me back a couple of days later with the problem solved."
Lutfiyya was a beloved figure among musicians, which was reflected in the memorials for him held in Winnipeg, Toronto and Las Vegas. In an American Federation of Musicians publication, he was remembered in a lengthy tribute under the headline "A Contractor Like No Other." In it, he was called the "patron saint to musicians everywhere."
Most of MTI's work has been partners in Toronto, Chicago and Vegas. Some locals will attempt to fill the gap in Winnipeg.
"It's bittersweet," says Hurst. "It's sad because an awful lot of effort and energy went into the business. The legacy is the standard that he set. He raised the bar of musical theatre orchestras because the standard of excellence was his bottom line."