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How a theatre fan from Montreal became a Broadway power broker

Producer Adam Blanshay, CEO of Just for Laughs Theatricals, at the St. James Theatre in New York, where the Woody Allen musical Bullets over Broadway will be launched in March.

Eric Thayer for the globe and mail

It's lunchtime at Bond 45, the upscale Italian eatery just around the corner from Times Square that's frequented by Broadway's biggest movers and shakers and is the setting for martini-throwing producers in the NBC series Smash. The CEO of Just for Laughs Theatricals is at his regular table, ignoring the off-menu salad he ordered – and holding back tears.

Even if the Canadian producer wasn't sitting there, you'd know it was his table: "Adam Blanshay" is engraved on a nameplate affixed to the floor, alongside one for Tony winner Michael Cerveris, and another for David Furnish (an executive producer on husband Elton John's Billy Elliot).

JFL Theatricals, a new division of the Montreal comedy powerhouse that Blanshay launched just last January, has hit the Broadway jackpot with the first two shows it's ever co-produced. Both the $13.5-million (U.S) crowd-pleasing musical Kinky Boots and the $3.1-million critic-wowing double bill of Twelfth Night and Richard III (imported from England) have beat long odds to turn a profit on the Great White Way – a place where, by some estimates, a mere one one in eight shows ever manages to make its way into the black.

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There's beginner's luck – and then there's rolling a 64-sided die and predicting the number it lands on. "Not many startups can project a profit after a year of operations," the 32-year-old producer tells me as we sit down to talk about the next big New York projects that JFL Theatricals will be co-producing. Both are movies-turned-musicals, and both are good bets to be Tony contenders this spring: Rocky the Musical, whose final fight scene, in the show's tryout in Germany, is a coup de théâtre that's been compared to the chandelier scene in Phantom; and Bullets Over Broadway, Woody Allen's adaptation of his own love letter to 1920s theatre.

So, why has the conversation taken an emotional turn. And why are Blanshay's eyes welling up?

Because for him, Kinky Boots (with its score by Cyndi Lauper and book by Harvey Fierstein), now a member of the million-dollar-a-week club alongside the likes of Wicked and The Book of Mormon, is about more than the weekly grosses. It's about audiences from near and far flocking to see a musical that tells the story of an intrepid drag queen who helps save a struggling, small-town shoe factory; it's about a message of acceptance finding enormous resonance. And it's about how much has changed since Blanshay was a gay teenager searching for acceptance.

Cue those tears.

But let's start with the business, before the personal. In fact, Blanshay, born and raised in the affluent Montreal enclave of Westmount, is part a pack of Quebec cultural entrepreneurs who have suddenly and somewhat surprisingly become behind-the-curtain stars of a whole lot of Broadway theatre. Even before JFL Theatricals came into being, Blanshay had been involved in a number of productions (not all of them successful, by any means) on the Great White Way. The same June evening that Kinky Boots nabbed the Tony for best new musical, the statuette for best musical revival went to a production of Pippin centred around the circus choreography of Montreal's Les 7 doigts de la main. And, just last week, Cirque du Soleil announced its own new division dedicated to developing musicals for New York and beyond.

At the same time, over in London – where the financial risks and rewards involved in commercial theatre are a fraction of those in New York – JFL Theatricals, which Blanshay co-owns with the founder of the Just for Laughs comedy festival, Gilbert Rozon, is invested in a half-dozen shows, ranging from a revival of Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts to the upcoming I Can't Sing: The X Factor Musical in the West End.

But a major goal of Blanshay's is to move to lead producer on shows in London and New York. As well, he'd like to begin tapping into the infrastructure of the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal in order to bring Broadway and West End shows home to Canada, and to develop new ones that could be exported to the rest of the world in French or English. As proved by Europe's Stage Entertainment – the lead producer on Rocky, which has developed the Broadway-bound musical with German lyrics, in the city of Hamburg – language is no longer a barrier to infiltrating an industry that may be called "Broadway" but that has its eyes as much on taking musicals to South Korea as to making money in New York.

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The story of JFL Theatricals is really a continuation of the story of Adam Blanshay's abiding love of theatre, born when his aunt and uncle returned from a trip to England in the 1980s with a double cassette of the original cast album of Phantom of the Opera. Soon enough, the preteen Blanshay had worn out his own copy and convinced his parents – Roni, a jewellery designer; and Edward, a corporate lawyer who now handles JFL Theatricals' legal work – to take him to see the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical in New York.

As Blanshay entered his teens, musical theatre became an escape from some of the difficulties that came with being a gay student at a private boy's school. "I didn't have the easiest time of it," recalls Blanshay. "To come home and listen to musical theatre was therapeutic."

Back then, Blanshay dreamed of being a performer – and he acted with Montreal's legendary Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre in Montreal. Later, while studying theatre at McGill University, he transferred his energies to directing, and staged a production of Evita (a show he would later co-produce, with pop star Ricky Martin as Che, on Broadway).

It was his passion for directing that took him to New York after graduation in 2004. He first learned the ropes of producing when he landed an internship with Anita Waxman, who has been a force on Broadway since the 1980s. With her business partner, Elizabeth Williams, Waxman was involved in such memorable plays as the Pulitzer-winning Topdog/Underdog, and Gypsy with Bernadette Peters.

While a series of assistant-directing gigs went nowhere, Blanshay proved more than adept at the strange business of getting strangers to open their wallets and invest in Broadway shows, despite the long odds of turning a profit. When another producer, Jacki Florin, enlisted Blanshay to help manage her "raise" for John Kander and Fred Ebb's The Scottsboro Boys (a brilliant show that was also a box-office flop in 2010), Blanshay ended up getting his first Broadway producing credit himself.

He credits his skills – he even convinced his dentist to invest in one show – to working at DKNY and Ralph Lauren outlets during university, hawking status symbols to well-off Montrealers: "Selling a $10,000 suit to a businessman and a $10,000 investment in a show – there are a lot of similarities."

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It has helped, too, that Blanshay has the continuing support of Waxman, who describes herself as one of the younger producer's surrogate Jewish mothers. "I would think that most producers in this world guard their Rolodex more than they guard their families," she says. "But I always knew Adam had an instinct and the ability."

That's the ability to raise money – even if Blanshay's knack for picking shows that will please investors was not always evident in the theatre seasons preceding his banner 2013. He was involved in the critical and box-office disaster On a Clear Day You Can See Forever in 2011, as well as the money-losing revivals of both Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar (the latter a transfer from Canada's Stratford Festival) in 2012. "Adam had a tough start with a lot of his shows – he crashed and burned as we all do," says Waxman. "I was worried that he was making some really poor decisions."

Says Blanshay himself, "I've learned to make more discerning choices as I progress, carefully analyzing a show's cap, royalties, and running costs, and perhaps produce more with the brain than with the heart."

But amid those setbacks, Blanshay honed his craft and expanded his horizons during an exchange of theatre professionals that took him to London. And he did pick one winner in 2011 that made all the difference: How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, a revival starring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame.

It was that show that put Blanshay on the radar of Quebec media – and, ultimately, of his Quebec partner at JFL productions. First came an article in La Presse – titled Prince of Broadway at 30 Years Old. Then came an appearance on the hit TV talk-show Tout le monde en parle.

Rozon, who founded Just for Laughs in 1983 and has overseen its expansion into an entertainment giant, was watching when Blanshay made his April, 2012, appearance on the latter – and he was intrigued enough to get in touch. "Basically, I followed my instinct … and we got along really easily," recalls Rozon, who flew to London to meet Blanchay, who was producing the British premiere of Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor's His Greatness.

Rozon, who had long been interested in trying his hand at Broadway, saw a golden opportunity in Blanshay. "You really have to know this type of business. It's a private club; you have to be invited," says Rozon. "I felt this guy would bring the experience along with the skill."

Since then, it's been full speed ahead. By the end of that summer, Blanshay had pitched Rozon on JFL Theatricals; and last January the company officially launched. Just six months later, the two Quebeckers found themselves side-by-side on American television with the other producers of Kinky Boots at the Tony Awards. Recalls Rozon, "When I went up on stage, I felt like it was a magic carpet – I don't even remember what happened."

For Blanshay, however, the Tonys really hit home when his alma mater, Selwyn House, contacted him for an interview for its newsletter. On a trip back to Montreal, he decided to visit – and was surprised to find that the school he once found a forbidding presence now had a gay-straight alliance for students and rainbow triangles up on doors indicating support for LGBT students. "You weren't gay in high school in the 1990s," he says, marvelling.

In the headmaster's office that day, Blanshay broke down in tears – and it's as he recalls this moment from his table at Bond 45 that his eyes fill up again.

"Just be/Who you wanna be," are the lyrics of the Kinky Boots finale written by Lauper. "Never let them tell you who you oughta be."

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Theatre critic

J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe's theatre critic. More

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