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Britta Johnson.Racheal McCaig

Asked about her influences and inspirations, the musical-theatre wunderkind Britta Johnson rhymes off some names that aren't at all surprising: George Gershwin, Stephen Sondheim (to whom she has been compared), Joni Mitchell, Claude Debussy and Victor Borge.

Victor Borge? Cue the record-needle scratch effect. Victor Borge, really?

"Borge is a weird one since he is not a composer, but when I was young, I really liked making people laugh and I also really liked playing piano," Johnson, 26, told The Globe and Mail. "So my dad bought me a box set of Victor Borge VHS tapes."

First of all, what's a VHS tape? Secondly, why Borge? "He's an old-school comedian whose bits all revolved around his incredible piano chops," answers Johnson, raised in a musical family in Stratford, Ont. "He became an early inspiration for me, forever solidifying that I would always have the taste of a grandfather."

Johnson's credits include work on Brantwood, Blood Wedding and Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. She often writes with her sister, Anika Johnson. Her new work is Life After, which in a shorter form was a Fringe Festival hit a year ago. The Canadian Stage season opener concerns a young woman who loses her self-help guru father in a car accident. The show has been noted for its emotional depth and nuance, as well its highly irreverent style of humour.

If the late Borge would approve of the irreverence, Sondheim's endorsement of the musical would impress Johnson even more. "Sondheim is essentially the reason I write musicals," she says. "I think he somehow makes a story feel more truthful by making people sing, which I used to think was maybe impossible. His music is so evocative, his lyrics are so smart and the stories he chooses to tell move me so completely."

Life After opens Sept. 28, continuing to Oct. 22. $35 to $69. Berkeley Downstairs Theatre, 26 Berkeley St., 416-368-3110 or

Stratford production The Breathing Hole spans 500 years, starting from a polar bear’s birth in an Inuit community. Actor Miali Buscemi says she’s glad Indigenous characters are more frequently being portrayed by Indigenous people.

The Canadian Press

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