While its future is again uncertain now, Broadway’s reopening this fall was an inspirational story for the North American theatre scene. Canadians played no small role in it.
While our own stages sputtered back to life more slowly, our musical-theatre talent found work en masse south of the border in New York’s commercial theatre quarter – and not only in Come From Away, the Newfoundland-set show that always has a few Canadians in its cast. (Petrina Bromley, Tony LePage and Astrid Van Wieren at the moment.)
There are Canadians currently in prominent roles in both of last two shows to win best musical at the Tony Awards – Moulin Rouge! and Hadestown – as well as the best-reviewed new musical of this season, Six, and the best-reviewed revival, Caroline, or Change.
Others are playing instruments on stage in David Byrne’s American Utopia or in the orchestra pit of Mrs Doubtfire – and more than half a dozen Canadian performers were in Chicago this fall in musical shows aiming to end up on Broadway down the line such As You Like It and Paradise Square.
Jeigh Madjus, who plays a drag artist called Babydoll in Moulin Rouge! (and is a key part of its blast-off beginning number Lady Marmalade), and Andrea Macasaet, who brings great comic timing to gallows humour playing Anne Boleyn in Six, are two of the Canadian performers who reopened the shows they made their Broadway debuts in this fall.
Moulin Rouge!, an Australian-born mega-mix musical based on Baz Luhrmann’s film of the same name, had already run for eight months with Madjus in the cast when the Broadway district was first shut down back on March 12, 2020.
But Six, a British musical that revives Boleyn and the other five wives of Henry VIII as a posthumous pop group, was only a month into preview performances when that happened; indeed, Macasaet was just hours away from her opening night when the Governor of New York ordered the commercial theatre district to close.
Macasaet stuck around for a month in New York after that, and then went back to Winnipeg and moved back in with her parents. Madjus, meanwhile, happened to be home in Toronto visiting his parents when the shutdown happened and ended up staying there.
That’s a not uncommon pandemic tale for those Canadian actors whose U.S. visas often only allowed them to work only on a particular show. Stories of hiring people or enlisting friends to empty apartments in New York while the border was closed abound.
Meeting up for a Globe and Mail photo shoot in Times Square in November, Macasaet and Madjus traded memories about how surreal it was to move back to relatively open New York from cities still under restrictions in Canada in 2021.
“It was culture shock,” said Madjus, who first came back in May to get vaccinated because, at that point, it wasn’t certain that he would be able to get both shots in Canada before Moulin Rouge! rehearsals began in August. (All Broadway workers needed to have received two shots when the industry restarted.)
Posing on the steps of the Broadway discount-ticket booth, Madjus and Macasaet laughed and draped themselves over each other like old friends. (Another COVID-19 precaution: Everyone on site for the shoot had to present a fresh negative PCR test, including this journalist.)
But the two only met each other this year after running into one another en route to work. The way Macasaet recalls it, Madjus stopped her on the street by calling out her name. “Andrea? I’m supposed to meet you,” he said.
“He’s good friends with my good friend,” Macasaet explained over the phone ahead of the photo shoot. (Yet another change caused by COVID-19: Face-to-face interviews with Broadway talent are avoided when possible.)
Another thing the two musical-theatre performers have in common besides friends is that both happen to be Filipino-Canadian – a fact that Macasaet says has been exciting for her community. When she was growing up, there was just, she says, “the one and only” Broadway star repping the Philippines and its diaspora: Lea Salonga, who originated the role of Kim in Miss Saigon on the West End and Broadway.
“My love for musical theatre wasn’t because I saw other people [like me] doing it, it was because I enjoyed singing and I enjoyed storytelling,” Macasaet says.
It’s ironic that Macasaet, now starring in a Broadway show in her 20s, had a hard time getting her stage career going back in Canada after theatre school. She was even in the midst of changing professions to human-resource management when she decided to audition for Six after seeing an open call on the website of the Citadel Theatre back in 2019. (That Edmonton theatre was one of several in North America to present the musical on its way to Broadway.)
“I had put theatre on pause; it wasn’t serving my joy,” she says.
Broadway has been a longer time coming for Madjus, who worked off and on from 2013 to 2017 with Moulin Rouge!’s director Alex Timbers on a musical about Imelda Marcos called Here Lies Love that was staged all over but never quite made it to “the Great White Way.” He’s glad that different talents who have different looks and sounds are increasingly in demand in the industry, allowing him to have made his Broadway debut at age 37.
Those skills that made Madjus the frontrunner for Babydoll include his history of drag and his uncommon vocal abilities. “You have to be able to sing Lady Marmalade in the original key,” he says. “Pretty much the whole show I’m singing with the women, the altos.”
When Madjus got out of school close to 20 years ago, it was a different story. “I’ve had an artistic director say to me: ‘You know this is White Christmas, yes?’” recalls Madjus, of a time when he saw “tall white males” getting hired most often for musicals.
Indeed, the last time I went down to New York to write about a Canadian explosion on Broadway a decade ago, I interviewed three tall white men: Paul Nolan (who’s worked steadily in New York ever since, and is currently on Broadway in Slave Play), Jake Epstein (set to open his solo show about his time on Broadway at Mirvish in Toronto next month) and Nick Cordero, the Hamilton-raised Tony nominated talent whose death at just 41 after a harrowing health battle with COVID-19 deeply affected the entertainment industry on both sides of the border.
(Waitress, a show that Cordero had starred in, was one of the first musicals back on Broadway this fall; he was honoured at the opening night.)
Nowadays, the Canadian talent finding success on (or being snatched away by) Broadway is more diverse, and also includes two well-known Black musical theatre performers in the Tony-winning musical Hadestown, a mash-up of ancient myths featuring music by indie folk artist Anais Mitchell.
Both Toronto’s Jewelle Blackman, who has played one of the Fates in the show since it opened on Broadway and now also understudies Persephone, and Calgary’s Tara Jackson, who joined this fall as a swing covering eight different roles when it reopened, first performed in Hadestown when it, like Six, had a pre-Broadway run at the Citadel Theatre in 2017.
Jackson formed a bond with the producers and creative team in Edmonton then, but her priority was playing Celie in The Color Purple, which she did at the Citadel, Neptune Theatre in Halifax and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg in 2019.
She got the call to join the Broadway run of Hadestown in February, 2020 and had a flight booked down to New York for March 20 of that year. She never took it as the district shuttered seven days before.
Blackman, meanwhile, observed the shut-down first hand – from a meeting about whether backstage visitors and stage-door autographs would still be allowed, through the news that an usher at a nearby theatre had contracted the coronavirus, to the moment Hadestown producers walked in to deliver the bad news when she was on the verge of going on as Persephone for the first time. “It was like a scene in a movie. They said the governor has said all Broadway shows must shut down immediately,” she recalls.
The veteran of the Stratford Festival and Mirvish made a beeline back to Toronto at that point, where her son lives. The time back at home was far from a write-off artistically: She did some TV, a few digital performances and, mostly notably, wrote a new musical called The Trials and Triumphs of a Tar Baby, a show about navigating the world as a dark-skinned Black woman inspired by Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, for the Musical Stage Company. Just as importantly, she got to be with her 10-year-old and help facilitate his online learning.
The hurdles to get (back) to Hadestown mid-pandemic this year were different for both Canadian company members.
Blackman had got the first vaccines available to her in Toronto, which ended up being an AstraZeneca/Pfizer blend. For a short period of time, it was unclear whether the Broadway League would accept that mix as fully vaccinated for either employees or audience members. “I was waiting with bated breath for a little bit,” she says.
Jackson, meanwhile, says it was a “nightmare” to try and find an apartment in New York earlier this year; she had to live in an AirBnB for three months before signing a lease.
Blackman vividly remembers the “mind-blowing” experience of the first packed performance of Hadestown, which opened on the same night as Waitress in September and ushered Broadway musical theatre back to live. “I had dry mouth because I hadn’t done this in so long and because of all the emotions,” she says. “I don’t ever get dry mouth when I’m performing.”
It was a strange experience to be back in front of sold-out crowds in New York when friends and colleagues were still struggling back at home in Canada. “My husband is a musician in Calgary, and he’s had dates cancelled left, right and centre,” says Jackson, who, like most swings, has seen a lot of stage time this Broadway season because the old ethos that would see performers work through a minor cold or cough is no longer permitted. “Things have felt less COVID-y, less like a threat than it is back home. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.” (Note: This interview took place in November.)
“I feel like as Canadians, like we’re just more tentative people, so we like to see other people attempt something first and then we get on board,” Blackman says. “Sometimes you have to just take that risk – and I believe theatres in Canada could have tried harder to do that.”
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