Ted Dykstra’s new Canadian musical, Evangeline, is a decade-long labour of love – and, like so many epic love stories, it involved an unlikely passion, thwarted hopes and even a broken heart before its happy conclusion this past weekend.
Evangeline, which was performed at Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre of the Arts before nearly 950 people on Saturday night, is one of the most ambitious musicals ever conceived in Canada, with a cost of $1.5-million, a cast of more than 30, 200 costumes and a 14-piece orchestra. It’s comparable to Les Misérables for its historical breadth, spanning 40 years of Acadian history.
After the premiere, there was a sustained standing ovation – and an emotional Dykstra, who wrote the music, lyrics and book, was invited onstage to share a sweet moment that almost never happened.
About four years ago, having pitched his vision for Evangeline to Mirvish Productions in Toronto, Dykstra had given up after a collaboration with a Broadway writer fell apart. “It made me lose my heart and I just stopped working on it,” he said.
Evangeline is based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s powerful poem, which tells the story of a young Acadian woman from Nova Scotia who on her wedding day is separated from her husband, Gabriel, by British soldiers during the expulsion. They are put on separate ships bound for different parts of the United States – from Philadelphia to South Carolina to Louisiana. Evangeline vows to find Gabriel and embarks on a journey alone through the wilderness.
The story, illustrated through lively dances and poignant songs, reflects the spirit of the Longfellow poem but also imagines what happened to Gabriel.
An actor, director and writer, Dykstra has played big parts on all the big stages in the country and is also co-creator of the hit comedy 2 Pianos 4 Hands. Originally from St. Albert, Alta., he had never heard of the expulsion of the Acadians until his former wife, Maritime singer and songwriter Melanie Doane, suggested that the poem would make a good musical.
After reading it, he was convinced. Dykstra, who says he is not a self-promoter, then did what he describes as “the brashest thing” he has ever done when he pitched the idea to Toronto impresario David Mirvish, who spent about $500,000 helping him develop it.
“David Mirvish went crazy for it, but then his team got around him and said, ‘Very good, but we think it needs to be edgier,’” recalls Dykstra, who says they wanted more sex, more violence and more “kitchen-sink realism.” A Broadway writer was brought in to do all that, but the collaboration didn’t work out and Dykstra gave up.
Robert Foster, who has worked as a musical director for other productions at the Confederation Centre and is now part of the creative team for Evangeline, did not – nor did Adam Brazier, the actor who plays Gabriel. They persuaded Dykstra to get free of his obligation to Mirvish Productions, which he did. The split was amicable.
Next, they persuaded Anne Allan, who is now co-director of the musical and artistic director of the Charlottetown Festival, to take a look. She did, and took the idea to Confederation Centre chief executive officer Jessie Inman.
“Basically they made this happen against all odds,” Dykstra said.
For the Confederation Centre, Evangeline is a huge gamble. Inman, who took over 20 months ago, has big plans for her centre in Canada’s smallest province. The musical runs through September. A flop would mean that the centre, which just worked its way out of a $540,000 deficit, will be back in the red.
Inman believes that Evangeline’s relevance transcends regions. “This story, even though it happened here in these lands, … it still happens in other parts of the world,” she says. “It’s a story about the importance of place … the importance of certainty, of family, and, above all, it’s a love story so I just think it had so many perfect attributes that it had to be done on this stage in Prince Edward Island.”
Inman and her team hustled to get Evangeline onstage, attracting $300,000 in federal grants and $110,000 from the private sector. Unlike other institutions funded by Canadian Heritage, the Confederation Centre relies on ticket sales for about 75 per cent of revenues. It has an $11-million budget. The rest comes from grants from the federal government. By contrast, the National Arts Centre in Ottawa receives 55 per cent of its revenues from the federal government.
The Confederation Centre has the rights to the play for about seven years – and Inman hopes that it will reach Broadway. For now, Dykstra is simply happy to see his dream realized.