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Why Danny Schur is driven to bet the farm on Strike!

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RAINBOW Stage turned it down in fear it would sully its theatre's name.Manitoba Theatre Centre took a pass, as did both Toronto's Mirvish Productions, the largest commercial theatre producer in the country, and musical Midas Cameron Mackintosh (Les Miserables and Miss Saigon), the most famous impresario on the planet.

Garth Drabinsky, the former Livent musical mogul, sarcastically snarled, "An original musical about the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike -- that will be really popular in New York."

It didn't even make the cut -- two years in a row -- in a New York new musical competition.

In fact, every theatre and producer Danny Schur approached rejected his new historical musical Strike!.

He had no better luck attracting high-profile actors. Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) was too busy, as was Ewan McGregor (Star Wars) and Canadian Paul Gross (Men With Brooms).

Warren Beatty's agent demanded a $2-million US non-refundable advance just to consider the project.

"If no commercial producer wants to do your show, they must have very good reasons," says Richard Ouzounian, Toronto Star critic, playwright and former MTC artistic director.

"Creating a musical is hard enough. Mounting it is just as hard. Producing and financing it is nearly impossible. Doing it all yourself is pretty close to a suicide mission."

But the story of the making of Schur's musical -- featuring a theatrical nobody with the impossible dream of birthing a musical franchise from Winnipeg -- is almost as intriguing as the plot of Strike!, which was born of the massive work stoppage that made the front page of the New York Times.

"I'm cursed with my dad's farmer optimism," says Schur, who grew up on a mixed grain and cattle operation near Ethelbert. "They plant a crop and have this abiding hope all will be OK. I'm staking the farm on this one."

The odds against Schur are astronomical, but this blue-collar prairie town -- full of direct descendants of those strikers -- loves its underdogs.

While the outside theatre world constantly said no to Strike!, an intriguing mix of 40 Winnipeg angels said yes to bankrolling the production, which opens a three-week run May 26 at the theatre under the dome in Kildonan Park.

Local arts primo patron Gail Asper is in, and so is 77-year-old retiree John Sewchuk, who has never before taken such a chance. Phil Kives, of the K-Tel fortune, has signed on, as has Terry Cholka, an Ethelbert cattle farmer.

Winnipeg's John Melnick chipped in $5,000, as have his parents and sister, while a generous but reclusive arts maven has gagged Schur from revealing her $25,000 backing.

"There is as much of the underdog in the investors as there is in me," says Schur.

Forced to go it alone, the 38-year-old record producer has penned the music and lyrics, co-written the book, conceived a business plan, created a limited partnership, convinced locals to invest about $350,000, pursued and negotiated with stage stars Catherine Wreford and Jay Brazeau, fought city hall and the Rainbow Stage board to secure his favoured venue in Kildonan Park and even copied out all the arrangements and scores for the musicians.

Schur believes in the go-big-or-go-home adage, and he never goes home.

He has spent the last three years working on Strike! for no pay, and won't see a penny unless the show breaks even.

In a Sept. 15, 2003 e-mail -- the first of hundreds of interviews and telephone calls with the Free Press -- Schur begins, "Here's my first installment in what I hope will not be a fruitless journey. . ."

And here's a look at the journey so far.

* * *

He doesn't have a stellar track record.

Schur's first original musical, The Bridge, was a box-office bust. It sank in red ink during its much ballyhooed week-long run in October, 2000 at the Walker Theatre.

A rescue attempt -- a short transfer to Brandon -- cost him $25,000, a bill that took Schur 30 months to personally repay.

It was his first professional setback since he dropped out of the University of Manitoba to write radio jingles, recorded by a then 13-year-old singer named Chantal Kreviazuk. Schur became her manager and song doctor as her performing career began to take off. His stable of performers also included country star Tara-Lynn Hart and pop duo McMaster & James.

After penning the official theme song of the 1999 Pan Am Games, Schur decided to make the jump to musical theatre with The Bridge, the first of what he envisioned would be a conveyor belt of new musicals headed to stages all over North America.

He proved more successful at selling his $250,000 vision than tickets to his simplistic tale about a troubled lead singer in the world's greatest band.

"It sucked," says Rick Chafe, the playwright/dramaturge whose script advice on Strike! got him upgraded to co-writer.

Schur won't argue that opinion too strenuously.

"He's not entirely wrong," he says. "It's a little painful. It's the immature work of a first-time artist. I presumed all you needed to do was write an album's worth of material and slap a story to it. The ambition did not match the art."

The real achievement of The Bridge was how Schur personally raised $160,000 from 15 investors -- including Leonard Asper, CEO of CanWest Global Communications, promoter Sam Katz (before he became Winnipeg mayor) and the late furniture icon Nick Hill. Paid attendance was about 5,000 and box office approximately $85,000.

Schur's backers -- known affectionately in the biz as "angels" because they may only receive their just reward in heaven -- saw returns of about 56 per cent on their contribution. Only 480 people attended the three performances in Brandon when he needed 1,200 to stay out of debt.

Uncharacteristically shaken, Schur sought solace in an e-mail from Leonard Asper, in which the CanWest exec relayed the sage counsel of his father, Izzy Asper. "You have to make your own grass greener," it read, adding the adage: "If at first you don't succeed, welcome to the club."

There was little grumbling over the losses, however, and an elated Katz, who said for the record in the Free Press that he never expected to see a dime of his investment again, bussed Schur in gratitude.

While a less determined composer might have seen this as a kiss-off, the ever-upbeat Schur immediately set to work on another musical, this time a musical fantasy inspired by the cutting down of the Wolseley elm in 1959. He called it The Tree.

The drama, centred around a talking tree, made it to a couple of workshops at the University of Winnipeg, but never took root and was shelved.

During a mentoring lunch with Schur in the summer of 2002, then-Free Press editor Nicholas Hirst suggested doing something on the Winnipeg General Strike, on the grounds that it was a defining moment in the city's history and one with continuing historical resonance.

That night, Schur picked up a copy of Alan Artibise's Illustrated History of Winnipeg, where he discovered the only man killed on Bloody Saturday, June 21, 1919, was a Ukrainian immigrant named Mike Sokolowski.

Who was this mysterious victim and why had no one come to claim his body? It became an obsession for Schur.

His investigation brought him in 2002 to an unmarked grave in the paupers' area of the Brookside Cemetery. In Sokolowski, Schur found a central figure for his musical, and the grateful producer joined forces with a city administrator and a local monument carver to mark the grave in June, 2003, with a headstone.

With $7,700 in Manitoba Arts Council seed money, Schur wrote a script and hooked up with the U of W theatre department to produce a workshop presentation with students in May, 2003. Winnipeg director Ann Hodges, who helmed the recent Manitoba Opera production of The Elixir of Love, insisted on major re-writes that would become the basis of another U of W workshop in December of that year.

Schur's first big break came with the awarding of a $10,000 MAC grant for his second development workshop in December, this time with professional actors such as Carson Natrass, Donna Fletcher, Jeff Skinner, Pat Hunter and Gord Tanner.

"I begin the arduous task of coming up with the dough," Schur wrote in November, 2003. "That task could be relatively easy if MTC says, 'We love it. Sign here and it's in our 2004-05 season.' Failing that, I propose a co-pro deal with any of a number of theatres. Failing that, I do what I did before: Destroy the earlobe that I hold to the telephone and raise the cash myself."

Schur believed the second workshop would be a crucial opportunity to find a co-producing partner, so he stacked the audience with theatre artistic directors, local movie producers, politicos like Doug Martindale, Judy Wasylycia-Leis and Anita Neville as well as would-be investors. Despite a much-improved product, MTC was still not interested.

"If ever there was a show with Manitoba written all over it, and that suited their audience, and that was timely, it was this one," he said afterward. "I believe this is my strongest work, so I hoped against hope that the hand of MTC would anoint me."

His only hope now was Rainbow Stage, and he thought company officials might change their minds if he could secure an all-Canadian cast headed by, say, Paul Gross, Ma-Anne Dionisio (Miss Saigon), Jeremy Kushnier (Footloose) and Thom Allison (Evita).

During his negotiations to be included in Winnipeg's annual Mayworks Festival, Schur discovered that 2004 was the 85th anniversary of the strike, and conceived a celebration around a free outdoor musical re-enactment -- including police on horseback charging a mob of strikers on the very spot it took place -- at Main and William. Road construction blocked his plan to erect bleachers on Main, forcing him to move the production around the corner to Old Market Square.

Strike: Winnipeg Shocks the Nation became an hour-long distillation of Schur's full-length musical.

At a May 12 rehearsal at Grant Park High School, the megaphone-wielding Schur marshalled a cast of nearly 100, four horses and a 1921 Ford. "With this outdoor mass of people I feel like a Winnipeg Cecil B. DeMille," he quipped. "All we needed was a chariot and we could do Ben Hur."

About 2,500 Winnipeggers jammed the square exactly one year ago today, sitting on plastic chairs, standing on the sidewalks, leaning over the parkade or aloft in trees to catch Schur's stripped-down version of Strike! Such a rare public spectacle wowed the throng, and suddenly he became front-page news.

"I thought it was a never-to-be-forgotten day in Old Market Square," recalls Gail Asper, who helped bankroll the production.

Pumped by the buzz, Schur vowed on May 19 to begin "his star search in earnest."

A fanatical homer, Schur initially assumed that an all-Winnipeg cast would be enough to sell his show, but soon realized that the ticket-buying public craves big names.

A hot screen or stage actor, he contended, would jack up the chatter about Strike! as well as attract investors. The most famous example of such star power driving a sell-out was Keanu Reeves, the Canadian actor who was just breaking big in 1995 when he agreed to play the title role of Hamlet at MTC. Fans from as far away as Japan bought season subscriptions to ensure they had a seat for the Hamlet run.

"My first thought was to pitch the biggest movie stars to see if they would come and be in a theatrical event, just like Keanu did with Hamlet," said the inherently optimistic Schur. "So I pitched Keanu's management and I still haven't heard no for sure."

But there's been no "Sure," either.

Cold-calling movie stars is a mug's game. A-list performers insulate themselves with layer after layer of personal assistants, he found.

"The third-string assistant vets all the goof calls," Schur said. "The second-line assistant gets 50-60 calls a day and might let one get through to his boss. I got through to the real person for Warren Beatty."

The Riverview resident had a pipe dream that since Beatty (Shampoo, Bugsy and Bulworth) had mentioned the Winnipeg General Strike in his 1981 movie Reds, the actor's leftish leanings might make him pre-disposed to taking part in a historical musical that had big-screen potential. And anyway, Beatty hasn't been seen much in a few years and perhaps he needed a retirement project.

"It was a little bit nervy, but I didn't think it was outside the realm of possibility," Schur said. "His agent was friendly, but I knew he was throwing his assistant an evil stare about how did this guy get through. He said Warren was busy for seven years. "If he were to entertain a production, we would need a $2-million (US) non-refundable advance," Schur remembers being told.

"I joked, "Hold on, I'll pull out my Visa.'"

The conversation ended quickly.

His e-mail pitch to the agent for Ewan McGregor, fresh off his musical success in Moulin Rouge, was turned down. "We're going to take a pass," he was told. "Mr. McGregor is engaged for the next few years."

As he ogled the brightest stars in Hollywood's constellation, Schur went to the top of his wish-list and focused on Johnny Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean). He thought the big-screen heart-throb might see the virtue in his loopy, out-of-left-field proposal.

"I said to his agent's assistant, 'OK, how crazy is this?'" said Schur. "Johnny Depp in a movie musical about the 1919 Winnipeg Strike.

"I remember the words out of the agent's mouth, "That's crazy." Then she said Depp was not looking at anything until mid-2006 while he does Pirates of the Caribbean 2."

By July, Schur was ready to begin his "Drive to 2005," and specifically a May opening due to the availability of his director Ann Hodges, the lack of theatrical competition during the summer and his conviction that Winnipeg's biggest story should take place on Winnipeg's biggest stage -- Rainbow Stage's summer home in Kildonan Park.

Rainbow brass didn't want to produce Strike! and were surprisingly adamant it not be presented on its stage, even though the company had no plans to use its outdoor domed facility during the musical's planned run. Schur couldn't understand why Rainbow officials viewed his two-act musical as competition, since he intended to be gone at least a month before Rainbow was to open its summer offering of Good News on July 26.

If you tell Schur something once, you had better be ready to tell him that 10 times.

He petitioned the Rainbow board in September to be allowed to use their stage and was rejected. Since the city owned the facility, Schur turned to civic administrators, who also weren't in the giving mood a few days before Christmas. Within hours, he appealed directly to Mayor Katz to intervene.

Earlier that fall, Schur became acquainted with the names of young local actors who had played Broadway and might draw a crowd if they came home to perform in an original all-Canadian production. He jotted down their names -- Jeremy Kushnier (Footloose), Ma-Anne Dionisio (Miss Saigon), Catherine Wreford (42nd Street) and Jayne Paterson (Jane Eyre).

To get to any one of them, Schur would have to win over the same agent, Bruce Dean of Toronto. That's not easy when you are an unknown quantity from Winnipeg.

It took Schur a month to convince Dean he was legit, had a worthy show and the kind of coin a Broadway star would demand before he would take the project to his clients to gauge interest.

The lack of a venue was starting to back up his schedule. No star would commit to a project that might not happen.

His quandary was illustrated when it came time to record a Strike! radio commercial last Nov. 18. The promo spots had to cover all the variables, touting interchangeable stars like Jeremy Kushnier, Catherine Wreford, Ma-Anne Dionisio and Paul Gross, and the venue options were Kildonan Park stage, Burton Cummings Theatre and Old Market Square.

"What else could I do?" he said.

Schur finally got a chance to woo Dean in February 2004, when the agent arrived in Winnipeg to see some of his other clients in the Rainbow Stage production of Chicago. By last summer, Schur was focused on Wreford, a 24-year-old ex-Royal Winnipeg Ballet school dancer who was starting to buy into his dream of Winnipeggers writing their own stories for the stage and the screen. The two hit it off during a post-Christmas visit, and she signed on Jan. 5.

"Danny wants to prove you can be good and from here and I want to help him do what I couldn't do," said Wreford, who will play the female lead Rebecca Almazoff. "I had to leave."

With Wreford attached to the project, Schur needed a venue -- and he got it Feb. 1 at a city hall committee meeting when Rainbow Stage unexpectedly withdrew its opposition.

Schur immediately applied to the Manitoba Securities Commission to form a limited partnership for which he would raise $400,000 for a $574,000 production that had a potential gross of over $1.2 million, according to his business plan.

The critical figures were that he would need to sell an average of 650 tickets to each of the 21 public shows. That 13,650 in ticket sales is a significant jump over the 5,000 who paid for The Bridge. Schur stipulates that the division of any profit is 75 per cent to the investors and 25 per cent to him.

His stars, Wreford and former Winnipegger Jay Brazeau, who was inked to play Sokolowski in mid-February, get paid top dollar to perform, according to the business plan. The pair will be paid $36,000 each for their six weeks' work -- apparently the going rate for leads in Toronto and New York. In the not-for-profit realm, MTC would not pay its stars anywhere close to half of that.

With a goal of $400,000, Schur began hitting up investors. His target was to secure $5,000 a day by the start of set construction on April 19. He would begin with his Bridge backers and then widen the net.

"I describe the list as anybody I've ever met," he said. "It's not necessarily the well-heeled but the well-intentioned."

Schur would have to base his pitch on reasons other than financial to woo angels.

The Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States is particularly frank about the risks of investments like these, its assessment akin to the doomsday warning found on a pack of cigarettes: "Investors should be fully prepared and expect that they will lose all or a substantial portion of their investment in this offering."

Repeating those kind of statements wasn't going to open many wallets.

Schur would have to tailor his pitch to each investor's particular interest. Some bought into the project's labour focus, while others responded to the Ukrainian immigrant flavour. The idea of getting in on the ground floor of a new musical industry attracted some, as did those whose families had been involved in the work stoppage.

He evoked the name of the patron saint of fantasizing speculators -- Nia Vardalos. The former Winnipegger wrote and starred in My Big Fat Greek Wedding, an unlikely blockbuster that became at the time the box office champ of independent film. In February, he tried to contact Vardalos in Los Angeles with the idea she could be both a celebrity investor in the Winnipeg production and co-produce the movie with him. He got no reply.

"It was the Nia Vardalos business plan," he said. "She took a Winnipeg story and made it universal."

Schur pressed his position as an underdog, a word that was used six times in one paragraph of the plan. He was playing off of the city's inferiority complex in relationship to other major Canadian centres, while tapping into the business community's can-do mindset. He sent out over 350 copies of his business plan along with a CD of the songs and a DVD featuring the TV commercial and a promotional short.

The pressure was mounting -- he would either get the funds soon or the whole project would collapse.

First in for $10,000 was his old Ethelbert family friend Terry Cholka, who runs a 10,000-acre spread with 2,700 cattle. He had supported The Bridge and looked on further investment as another cash crop to sow. As he said, he's lost more to mad cow disease than any musical.

"We believe in what Danny is doing," said the father of three children. "We would like to see this be successful. We're pro-Manitoba. I have a feeling about this. Maybe it won't be Strike! but one of Danny's musicals will do well."

Schur had encountered amateur historian Lily Stearns while investigating Sokolowski, and after attending the workshop presentation, she threw $5,000 into the pot in the hopes that Strike! will shine a light on a momentous time in this city's past.

"The story is part of Winnipeg history and it's been shamefully ignored," said the retiree and president of the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians. "Winnipeg has a miserable plaque that marks the strike. Our rich past deserves to be told. Hopefully, it has a rich future.

"I would hope there would be a monument to labour, but it seems politicians get nervous and think there is going to be another strike."

After Leonard Asper decided against any involvement in Strike!, Schur approached his sister Gail to invest in what could become an installation in her family's pet project of a Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Her belief in this story of social democracy translated into a $25,000 cheque.

"Strike is an amazing incident in Manitoba history that hasn't been chronicled in the Manitoba Museum or anywhere," she says. "This is our history, this is our event. I'm hopeful a lot of people will come.

"It's important to invest in our artists and dreamers, and Danny is definitely one of them."

Phil Kives, of K-Tel fame, didn't want to have anything to do with theatre production, but Schur badgered him with foot-in-the-door salesmanship that eventually wore him down.

It led to a deal where KIves kicked in $5,000. If Strike! makes a profit, Schur pays back Kives' $5,000 but can keep his share of any profits. If it doesn't, the loss comes out of what Schur will charge Kives to produce his next K-Tel CD.

The 20-hour days are starting to wear on Schur, whose two young children are getting used to dad not being there. He has completely disengaged from the household chores and his twice-weekly hockey games. His constant companion is his clipboard, and anything on the top sheet has to happen that day before he can go to bed.

"You begin to equate your worth with what you raised that day," says Schur, who has dropped 10 pounds since February. "That's sick."

Most people have responded to Schur on a personal basis, inspired by his devotion and willingness to go for broke.

"I don't know how anyone could say no to Danny, he's such a sweetheart," says Wreford. "He's so passionate about it that it makes you want to be part of it. It takes a lot to stand in the way of someone that driven."

Even businesses are going out of their way to help out. A bank offered a more favourable line of credit and a building supply company gave Schur an additional 15 days to pay his bill. In March, the Fort Garry Hotel donated its ritzy ballroom for a couple of informational seminars called backers nights in March, which eventually generated $50,000 in venture capital.

"Danny has started something most of us don't dare to try and he doesn't stop," says Chafe, a busy script doctor. "The next musical has to be called Danny because the story of this guy is so wonderful. You just want to get behind him. There's nothing to resent or be cynical about."

His parish priest, Father Athanasius McVay of St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, is also on board, lending vestments and publicizing Strike! in the bulletin and the website.

"I'll be announcing it from the pulpit and praying for its success," says Father A., as he is known.

But the naysayers are out there, unwilling to forget the shortcomings of The Bridge, and convinced that the former altar boy has spread himself too thin. They are sure nothing good can come of Strike!, and people who should know better will lose their money.

David Mirvish, head of Mirvish Productions, isn't one of them.

"My educated guess is that nobody in theatre knows anything," says Mirvish in a telephone interview. "We brought in Mamma Mia! for 26 weeks and it is closing May 22 after five years. It was a success we couldn't dream of and we're supposed to know. There is no one rule. Nobody knows."

By April 1, Schur had hit $200,000, a mark that triggered the green light for the project, and then cruised over $300,000. Even if he doesn't raise another dollar, he can proceed. To have such diverse support makes a lie of some people's view he is a hopeless idealist.

"If I had $10,000 in investment now, I'd say I was naive," he says. "I'm proving with the money I've raised that it is feasible."

That conviction is not shared so fearlessly at home in the post-war storey-and-a half home he shares with his wife Juliane Schaible, their six-year-old daughter and 21-month-old son. Schaible shares her husband's exhilaration, but also the terror that comes with approaching the financial precipice again.

"Any entrepreneur worth their salt invests more than they can afford," says Schaible, a business consultant who has become the household's sole breadwinner. "Every penny we can scrape together is in this. We are very conscious that we could be paying for this for decades.

"Heaven help me if he's going to do it again. I don't have the stomach to risk everything over and over again."

Schur really can't help himself.

"My wife and I think that when we look back, at 80, we can say we did the right thing -- except if we are still paying for it then."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 15, 2005 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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