The Musical Stage Company has defied the pandemic by announcing a summer and fall season.
Amid a cavalcade of cancellations, the Toronto theatre company Thursday revealed plans to deliver new hyperlocal performances to front yards and driveways – and take other events online to permit potential Canada-wide participation and viewership.
“We’re not shutting down during COVID-19,” says Mitchell Marcus, artistic director and managing director. “Musical storytelling still matters.”
On the extremely local front, Musical Stage Company has commissioned, after consultation with Toronto Public Health, three cabaret-style concerts from well-known duos and trios of performers that can be ordered up for home delivery anywhere in the city where the postal code begins with an M.
Porchside Songs, which will begin on July 18, will be available in the form of performances by Vanessa Sears and Beau Dixon, who co-starred in 2017′s Passing Strange for Musical Stage; Hailey Gillis and Andrew Penner, who most recently co-starred in the musical Ghost Quartet at Crow’s Theatre in 2019; and the Asian Riffing Trio, a pre-existing cabaret act comprised of Colin Asuncion, Chris Tsujiuchi and Kevin Wong.
Each of these three intimate concerts has its own dedicated producer who will visit sites in advance to make sure they are not too intimate, ensure physical distancing between performers and a full 12 feet between singers and audience, and help prevent any spontaneous mass gatherings from occurring.
The ticket price will be $300 a pop – more affordable the larger your household, or if neighbours pitch in. One hundred per cent of the box office goes to the artists.
Marcus says Porchside Songs, currently scheduled through the end of August, is designed to expand or contract according to demand – and be modified according to shifting health restrictions: “They could lend themselves to a larger outdoor stage or maybe more households with amplification.”
Given that not everyone in Toronto has a front yard, the Musical Stage Company will simultaneously sponsor two months of Fiona Sauder and Jordan Laffrenier’s Songbird Series – a pandemic project that delivers personalized performances to inboxes around the world.
Later this fall, Musical Stage Company’s annual fall event Uncovered – a popular concert series involving iconic songs in imaginative arrangements by Reza Jacobs – is going ahead, though not as originally planned.
Uncovered: Notes from the Heart, this year’s modified edition, will feature as-yet-unnamed musical artists performing songs by Elton John, Carole King, Bob Dylan, Jann Arden and other pop and rock icons in locations that are meaningful to them, professionally filmed and recorded. The resulting “digital evening” will be available for viewing by groups or individuals during specific windows of time starting Nov. 11, with customizable add-ons such as preshow meetups or a dinner delivery. The company is setting “capacity” at 100 people a night with single ticket prices at $30.
To film songs instead of stage them, Musical Stage Company’s leadership team hired a company in the United States to secure the rights song by song – and had to negotiate with ACTRA, the film, television and new media actors union, for the first time.
If the new format involved acquiring new producing skills, a side effect is that the potential Uncovered audience has broadened to the entire country. The Musical Stage Company is, similarly, using the opportunity of the pandemic to expand two of its educational programs nationally.
One Song Glory, a musical theatre education initiative for youth ages 13-19, will go online this year and therefore be available to teens from coast to coast.
Noteworthy, a two-month program of master classes and writing workshops for professional composers, lyricists and playwrights that comes with an honorarium, will go online as well – and is being offered exclusively to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of colour) artists this time around. “How does Musical Stage Company come back and be a more equitable organization and be truly inclusive?” Marcus asks. “Can musical theatre come back and tell a more diverse set of stories?”
Musical Stage Company is also announcing two new appointments Thursday. Ray Hogg, former artistic director of Winnipeg’s Rainbow Stage, has been appointed deputy artistic director, while Anton Lipovetsky, composer of the upcoming musical Blackout scheduled for the spring of 2021, will be the company’s second Crescendo artist in residence – which comes with a $30,000 bursary and a commitment of multiple premieres.
Marcus says there will be an update next month on Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, a previously announced co-production with Crow’s Theatre scheduled to play at the Winter Garden in January. The company is currently focusing on fulfilling its mandate in innovative ways, he says. The independent not-for-profit company is well positioned to pivot: It neither owns nor operates a venue and it sells its works show by show, rather than subscription.
“We’re going to operate with hope and trust that our community of supporters will be with us,” Marcus says. " I’m really excited about these experiments ... and maybe there will be some learnings we can bring back with us when things return to some sense of normal.”
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