Ten years after The Drowsy Chaperone took Broadway by storm, is Canada finally waking up to the full potential of its homegrown musicals?
It certainly seems as though the county's musical-theatre scene is at the tipping point – or, perhaps, the toe-tapping point. Not to look abroad for approval or anything, but … this fall, two Canadian musicals are in the same position as Drowsy was a decade ago – about to open at major American regional theatres with big-name Broadway producers attached ready to rush them off to New York.
Next week, Ride the Cyclone – Victoria-based playwright Jacob Richmond and composer Brooke Maxwell's quirky musical about six teenagers from a Canadian chamber choir who die in a roller-coaster accident – premieres in a new production at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Kevin McCollum, the Tony-winning producer behind Avenue Q and, yes, The Drowsy Chaperone, is on board as commercial producer.
Then next month, Come From Away – a heart-warming new musical from Toronto's Irene Sankoff and David Hein about what happened when 38 flights were diverted to Gander, Nfld., on Sept. 11, 2001 – opens at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. It's backed by Junkyard Dog, the producers behind Memphis, the 2010 Tony Award winner for best musical.
The most exciting news, however, may be this: Ride the Cyclone and Come From Away are only the most prominent parts of a real musical movement that is emerging in Canada. Look around the country this theatre season and you see activity from coast to coast – with intensive new musical development in Toronto, a resurgent Charlottetown Festival flexing its muscle, and the Vancouver scene absolutely exploding with musical-theatre activity.
"It's a huge moment that's building," Hein says. The question, however, is: Will Canada's established theatre companies dare to capitalize on that moment?
Why Canadians can't write musicals
It didn't look like this 10 years ago. Despite The Drowsy Chaperone winning Tony Awards for all four of its creators in 2006, its success was still seen as a bit of a fluke. The long-standing perception is that the musical is an American art form that Canadians didn't have the aptitude, or the attitude, and certainly not the resources to master – at least on the large-scale level.
An early surge of activity in the 1970s and 80s had crashed up against indifferent audiences, poor not-for-profit institutions and the arrival of imported megamusicals such as Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables to fill commercial producers' pockets. Indeed, in 2010, Jim Betts – a veteran composer/lyricist from that first wave of homegrown musicals – gave a speech spelling out what was wrong, titled Why Canadians Can't Write Musicals.
"The truth is that, on the whole, the Canadian musical theatre is unprofessional – its writers, its directors and its producers," he said at a conference at Brock University. "Where does an aspiring young Canadian musical theatre writer go to learn the craft? There is nowhere to go."
Since Betts delivered his cri de coeur, however, there has been a concerted effort to alter the situation. Indeed, there has been a major new initiative born almost every year.
2010: Acting Up Stage Company, a musical theatre company in Toronto, started NoteWorthy, a two-week paid residency that plays matchmaker between composers and playwrights – and then began commissioning new musicals for the first time. (Seven to date.)
2011: Katrina Dunn at Vancouver's Touchstone Theatre launched a biennial event called In Tune in collaboration with the Arts Club Theatre. The latest edition paid for week-long development sessions for four new musicals – three of which are getting full productions this season in Vancouver.
2012: The Stage West Pechet Family Musical Award was established through the Playwrights Guild of Canada – a $5,000 award to the best unproduced musical in the country. (Come From Away was an early winner.)
2013: The Canadian Musical Theatre Writers Collective (CMTWC) was established by two composers – Vancouver's Landon Braverman and Toronto's Joseph Trefler – who met at New York University's graduate musical theatre writing program. The advocacy group's most public initiative has been a series of successful Blame Canada! showcases held in Vancouver, Toronto, New York and London.
2014: Adam Brazier – a well-known and well-connected musical theatre actor – took over as the artistic director of the Charlottetown Festival with a plan to reinvigorate its new musical development.
And finally, today: With the CMTWC, Toronto theatre company Theatre 20 launched the Composium program – modelled after the long-running BMI Engel Lehman Musical Theatre Workshop in New York that has trained generations of Broadway creators. Composer/lyricist Leslie Arden, who studied with the late Lehman when he ran a master class in Toronto, is currently teaching its first batch of students.
The Canadian musical theatre project
What has been happening at Sheridan College in Oakville, just outside Toronto, is the most important new initiative, however.
Four years ago, Sheridan changed its music theatre performance program from a three-year diploma to a four-year bachelor's degree – and new associate dean Michael Rubinoff took the opportunity to launch what is known as the Canadian Music Theatre Project. The CMTP pays composers, lyricists and book writers – both Canadian and international – to spend four weeks at Sheridan developing a musical with fourth-year students. At the end, participants get a public 45-minute books-and-stand reading and a demo recording – development and marketing tools too expensive for most Canadian theatre companies to offer.
Come From Away was the first show developed through the project in 2011. With a well-honed show, Hein and Sankoff went down to New York to the National Alliance of Musical Theatre festival in 2013 – Broadway's premiere industry showcase – and the response was immediate. "It was really quite a surreal experience – we spent a couple of months going through the theatres that were interested, the multiple commercial producers that were interested," says Sankoff, who previously created the hit Fringe musical My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding with Hein, her husband.
And Come From Away wasn't just beginner's luck for Sheridan's CMTP. Of the 12 shows that have been workshopped through the program to date, the majority have gone on to, or are going on to, professional production. The in-demand expat composer and lyricist Neil Bartram and book writer Brian Hill found the program so useful in developing their show The Theory of Relativity (which had its London premiere last year) that they are back in Oakville again this term working on a new show called Senza Luce.
Indeed, 13 years after leaving the country to pursue successful musical-theatre careers in the United States, Bartram and Hill are finding themselves in Canada more and more. This season, their adaptation of Belles Soeurs gets a second production at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. Then, next year, You Are Here, the first commission from Acting Up Stage Company, will premiere at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, Ont. "It's changed in the last two years," Bartram says. Hill adds, "The happy thing is that we're spending as much time in the States as in Canada right now."
A return to Canada – and an opportunity not to leave
If new programs at Sheridan College, Acting Up and Theatre 20 have made Toronto Canada's hub for development of new musicals, Vancouver is outpacing the city in terms of new musical production. At this very moment, there are four new tuners on stage – including The Best Laid Plans, based on Terry Fallis's satirical novel of the same name, and And Are We Cool Now?, playwright Amiel Gladstone's "iPod shuffle musical" based around the music of Dan Mangan, at the Cultch.
"There's a real renaissance happening in this genre right now," says In Tune's Dunn, who is producing The Best Laid Plans with Patrick Street Productions.
Musical theatre is, of course, many times more expensive to develop and produce than drama – because of the multiplicity of creators and need for musicians. But Dunn says the payoff is worth it. "Best Laid Plans, despite a few sucky reviews, is on track to be Touchstone's bestselling show in history," she says.
The fact is that American musicals are a big, but rarely acknowledged, subsidizer of Canadian theatre. Most of our big regional and repertory theatres produce them to generate box office to sustain other work. Dunn's dream is that the current movement will result in Canadian-created musicals that can be that economic driver.
And, in a way, it's beginning to happen. As part of its 50th season, the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton is producing two Canadian musicals: Evangeline, Ted Dykstra's epic, Les Misérables-sized show about the expulsion of the Acadians, in co-production with the Charlottetown Festival; and Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen, a smaller, cabaret from Vancouver. Meanwhile, in Ottawa, the NAC is producing two as well this season – Anne & Gilbert for its holiday family show, then Belles Soeurs in the spring. The artists behind Canada's new musical-theatre movement hope that more resource-rich theatre companies will follow suit.
"We'd like to call upon and challenge Canadian artistic directors and independent producers to look into the work, to commit a slot in your season, a slot in your development," Landon Braverman, from CMTWC, tells me over the phone from New York. "The quality is there."
And if Canadian theatre companies aren't noticing, Ride the Cyclone and Come From Away show that commercial American producers are.
What does Canadian musical theatre need now?
Canada's hottest composer/lyricist teams tell theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck what will take the country's musical-theatre scene to the next level.
Irene Sankoff and David Hein, composer/lyricists
Based in: Toronto
Why you know them: My Mother's Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, a Fringe hit picked up by Mirvish Productions, has played to more than 75,000 people.
Coming up: Come From Away – set in Gander, Nfld., on 9/11 – is opening soon at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. It already has rave reviews from a stop at the La Jolla Playhouse earlier this year. "Commercial prospects are bright for this surefire source of laughter and tears," Variety said.
What Canada needs: "More development opportunities like the Canadian Musical Theatre Project." – Irene Sankoff
Jacob Richmond, book writer and lyricist; Brooke Maxwell, composer
Based in: Victoria
Why you know them: Ride the Cyclone, an offbeat afterlife musical dubbed "Glee meets Survivor," toured Canada – and is about to have its American premiere at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre.
What's next: An untitled musical commissioned by the Belfry Theatre.
What Canada needs: For the Canada Council to have a separate musical-theatre category. "On grant applications, I tried to downplay that [Ride the Cyclone] was a musical. It was like that Sweeney Todd trailer where you didn't see anyone singing at all." – Jacob Richmond
Neil Bartram, composer and lyricist; and Brian Hill, book writer
Based in: Upstate New York.
Why you know them: The Story of My Life, the fourth Canadian musical to ever make it to Broadway in 2009. While it was a commercial flop there, it has gone on to multiple productions across North America.
What's next: Adapting the 1971 movie Bedknobs and Broomsticks for Disney; You Were Here, a one-woman musical set on the night of the 1969 moon landing.
What Canada needs: "It comes down to people taking the commitment to producing new work – and audiences developing a taste for it." – Neil Bartram
Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille, composer/lyricists
Based in: Vancouver
Why you know them: Do You Want What I Have Got?, a Craigslist Cantata – their collab with Bill Richardson – toured the country. An industry reading for an off-Broadway production – retitled Missed Connections – was held this summer
What's next: Onegin, based on the opera by Tchaikovsky, will premiere at the Arts Club in March. In the meantime, Gladstone has written a new jukebox musical called Are We Cool Yet?, based around the music of Dan Mangan; it's currently at the Cultch.
What Canada needs: For funding bodies to recognize musical theatre. "There's no place for a jury of your peers to be adjudicating your work and deciding if it is grant-worthy or not." – Amiel Gladstone