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‘The Last Timbit’ brings donut shop’s humour and heart to the theatre stage

‘A little wacky’: Tim Hortons catching Canada off guard with a play about iconic eatery
Theatre producer Michael Rubinoff poses alongside Tim Hortons executive Hope Bagozzi at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto, Tuesday, April 9, 2024. Tim Hortons is set to take centre stage with a new theatrical production. The fast-food chain says “The Last Timbit” will debut at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto this June. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

In the past year, Tim Hortons has treated cottaging Canadians to a boat drivethru, revived its beloved Dutchie doughnut and launched flatbread pizzas.

But perhaps its biggest surprise will come this summer, on the heels of its 60th anniversary on May 17, when it enters a realm so unexpected for a fast-food giant that even its executives expect some people’s first reactions to be, “What?!”

The head-scratcher will come in the form of “The Last Timbit,” a musical for which Tim Hortons has assembled a who’s who of Canadian artists to stage at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto this June.

The production is loosely based on a 2010 snowstorm that was so bad, drivers on a highway east of Sarnia, Ont., were forced to hunker down in cars and others had to wait out the inclement weather at a local Tim Hortons.

Turning the story into a theatrical production was the brainchild of marketing firm Gut.

Tims was determined to give Gut as much room to be creative as possible, so it didn’t even specify the firm had to come up with an event. All the chain said was to find “something with heart” and that would reflect the relationship the fast-food eatery has with its customers, recalled the chain’s chief marketing officer Hope Bagozzi.

When she was pitched on a play, even she was surprised.

“What on earth would we know about pulling something like this together … in a really highly professional way,” she said was her reaction.

“Our agency, that’s not their specialty. It’s certainly not ours.”

Despite it being new territory and Tims having to wrangle talent well outside its comfort zone, she felt “cautiously optimistic” about the idea.

“It’s a little wacky but certainty it felt grand (and) of the kind of ambition we had,” she said.

So Bagozzi and her staff set about making it happen.

Among their first calls was Michael Rubinoff, a Toronto lawyer and theatre producer who turned the story of passengers on planes diverted to Gander, Nfld. after the 9/11 attacks in New York into hit musical “Come From Away.”

“We didn’t imagine that he would actually come on board. We just thought we would try to pick his brain on, ‘Are we crazy? Should we do this? How would we go about it?’” Bagozzi recalled.

Rubinoff wasn’t fazedby the unlikely caller. Though many would assume he was shocked to hear a fast-food brand wanted to jump into theatre, he didn’t find it unusual because “Tims has been part of Broadway for many years.”

“The Tims logo is on one of the backdrops in ‘The Book of Mormon’ that people don’t realize and of course, in the musical I’m involved in, ‘Come From Away,’ Tims plays a really important part,” Rubinoff said.

“After the opening number, the first line is ‘I start my day at Tim Hortons’ and we have a scene in the Tim Hortons and we come back to it, so Tim Hortons in musical theatre didn’t seem as outlandish to me as it might have to other people.”

Alongside Rubinoff, other talent started flowing in.

Nick Green, the playwright behind “Casey and Diana,” wrote the script and Anika and Britta Johnson of “Life After” created the music and lyrics, which include a song called “What would you do for a Timbit?”

The cast features Stratford and Shaw festival regulars Andrew Broderick, DeAnn deGruijter and Danté Prince, as well as Broadway stars Chilina Kennedy, Sara Farb, Jake Epstein and Kimberly-Ann Truong. Kaya Kanashiro from TV show “Sort Of” also has a role.

Most were surprised Tims, which is spending the year focused on expanding its afternoon and evening sales, was behind the play. Once they saw the calibre of theatrical talent on board, they realized “this is going to be something that they’re excited to attach themselves to,” Rubinoff said.

The production comes as arts organizations have struggled to retain corporate funding. Last summer, Bell stopped funding the Toronto International Film Festival after 28 years of sponsorship. In March, the Bank of Nova Scotia ditched its title sponsorship of the Contact Photography Festival in Toronto.

Hot Docs, Canada’s largest documentary film festival, has also warned its future is in jeopardy.

Such struggles have not been lost on Rubinoff, who called “The Last Timbit” a “major investment.”

“We only get better and we only strengthen those skills when we have the opportunities to actually do the thing, and this is the opportunity to do the thing,” he said.

He’s approaching the project with the same seriousness as he does any other theatrical production. There’s been months of perfecting the script and table reads and soon, rehearsals will begin.

The music has already become an earworm.

“These songs have been on loop. I am telling you I can’t sleep without hearing the songs,” he said. “I wake up hearing the song, so I know that it’s a great sign.”

While he doesn’t want to give away too many hints about the tunes or the play’s plot, he said at the core of the storyline is a mother and daughter impacted by the storm. (The last Timbit they will vie for is a birthday one.)

And though the play is meant to mix humour and heart, he said, “nobody will dress up and dance like a Timbit, but I don’t want to say no to anything.”

That includes touring with the production, which will premiere in front of Tims franchisees visiting Toronto and then continue with five shows for the public. Tickets go on sale Friday.

Those who snag seats will be able to buy Tims-centric merchandise from Roots Corp., which doubles as the play’s wardrobe partner, and will likely find a concession stand of Tims favourites, including Timbits, Bagozzi said.

“Those won’t dance away,” Rubinoff chimed in. “You can enjoy them.”

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