Skip to main content

Playwrights Colleen Dauncey and Akiva Romer-Segal on stage at the Max Bell Theatre in Calgary, Jan. 23, 2020.Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Canadian theatre is betting big money on Colleen and Akiva.

That’s the friendly, first-name way producers and directors refer to Colleen Dauncey and Akiva Romer-Segal, the thirtysomething Calgary-raised, Toronto-based composer and lyricist team who are about to burst into the mainstream with a pair of costly musicals opening this season and competing to be Canada’s next Come From Away.

“Colleen and Akiva have such a delicious ying-yang chemistry,” says Stafford Arima, the artistic director of Theatre Calgary, where the team’s long-in-development show with writer Kent Staines, The Louder We Get, opened in a production with a budget that tops $1.2-million this week.

“Colleen shoots from the hip with a playful energy, and Akiva has a Zen-like aura that brings gravitas to his space. This balanced dualism comes to life within their writing.”

The Louder We Get, which tells the story of Canadian Marc Hall’s famous fight to take his boyfriend to high-school prom in 2002, has been previously seen at the Segal Centre in Montreal (under the title Prom Queen) – but this new, enlarged version is described as “destined for Broadway” and helmed by an American director, Lonny Price, who has brought half-a-dozen shows there.

Its precise budget is a secret, as it’s been augmented by an unspecified amount of “enhancement money” raised from investors by producer Mary Young Leckie, who’s been clear about her desire for the show to have a commercial future.

The other big-budget Dauncey and Romer-Segal production in the works is Grow, a musical comedy written with Matt Murray about a pair of Amish sisters who become embroiled in the marijuana business during a break from their community. (This is inspired by an actual Amish rite of passage known as Rumspringa – and an earlier self-produced version of the show was jauntily called Rumspringa Break!)

Presented in concert to an audience full of American producers at the influential Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals in Connecticut this month, Grow will open in a full $1.1-million mainstage production at the Grand Theatre in London, Ont., in April.

About $500,000 of that comes from a group of investors corralled by lead producer Michael Rubinoff, the head of Sheridan College’s Canadian Music Theatre Project – the semi-educational new-musical incubator where Come From Away got its start, and both Grow and The Louder We Get have been workshopped.

As Dennis Garnhum, Grow’s director and artistic director of the Grand, explains, this privately raised enhancement money – a practice long common at American regional theatres, for instance those in Seattle and San Diego where Come From Away was developed on its way to Broadway – is necessary to launch a new musical with commercial potential.

It allows for things normally outside a Canadian not-for-profit theatre’s budget such as orchestrations, copyists, a musical supervisor and a musical director (as well as flying in potential producers). Says Garnhum: “Premiering a new musical is probably the most expensive thing you can do."

If that puts a lot of pressure on Dauncey and Romer-Segal, however, the two don’t sound particularly stressed out by premiering two major musicals only a few months apart.

Indeed, they’re delighted that this confluence of productions has actually allowed them to finally quit their day jobs and focus only on their artistic work.

For them, the Theatre Calgary production of The Louder We Get isn’t about whether it will make them (and those investing in their work) money in the future – but about friends and family in their hometown finally seeing what they’ve been toiling on, often in self-produced low-budget production at Fringe-like festivals in Toronto, for the past decade.

“We live a very interesting lifestyle, where we’re pouring our hearts and souls into these shows,” Dauncey says in a Skype interview during a break from rehearsal in Connecticut. “We don’t hit all the milestones that, traditionally, you would hit – like we don’t own houses and we don’t have kids. We don’t have cars.”

Back at the turn of the millennium, Dauncey and Romer-Segal met at Henry Wise Wood High School in southwest Calgary when they sat down next to each other during auditions for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. Although Romer-Segal was in Grade 11 and Dauncey was in Grade 10, they hit it off as friends right away.

Soon enough, they were starring opposite each other as Seymour and Audrey in a school production Little Shop of Horrors – and, during breaks in rehearsal, they would go into a little side room with a piano and share their own individual efforts at writing songs with one another.

In that era, several years before The Drowsy Chaperone became the first Canadian-created musical not to financially flop on Broadway in 2006, and well before Come From Away grossed US$169-million (and counting) in New York alone, songwriting did not seem like a, as Dauncey puts it, “viable profession.”

And so, after graduating in 2003 and 2004, respectively, Romer-Segal went off to get a degree in technical theatre production at Toronto’s Ryerson University, and Dauncey earned an international business degree at the University of Calgary.

The two kept in touch, however. And as Romer-Segal begin to move in musical-theatre circles in Toronto, first as a designer, he would regale his old friend, who played in a band or two on the side, in online chats about the lively scene in Toronto, which centred on the Musical Stage Company (then called Acting Up Stage) and cabarets at a bar called Statler’s (recently closed owing to rising rent).

After seeing the talented actor Sara Farb (then an up-and-comer; now a Stratford Festival veteran acting on Broadway in the Harry Potter plays) perform one night in 2008, Romer-Segal went up to her on a whim and told her: “I’d like to write a song for you.” Farb agreed to take a look at whatever he came up with.

And so, a song had to be written: Romer-Segal got online with his old friend Dauncey, then honing her French-language skills in Quebec City, and sent her some lyrics. She set them to music.

As easy as that, a songwriting partnership was born. After Dauncey visited Toronto to hear their song sung, she decided to stay.

The two are indeed artistically ying and yang: Dauncey is new-school composer who can write a pop anthem as hooky as anything by Dear Evan Hansen’s Benj Pasek and Justin Paul or Waitress’s Sara Bareilles, while, as a lyricist, Romer-Segal harkens back to headier or more old-school purveyors of the craft like Stephen Sondheim, William Finn and Howard Ashman.

The result is that you can hear one of their songs just once – and somehow it sticks in your head.

The Louder We Get is a project they were set up on: Producer Leckie and Staines asked them to pitch songs after an introduction by Musical Stage Company’s artistic director Mitchell Marcus. It was the perfect show for them – a high-school musical set during the time period that they were actually in high school, and about a national news story that took place when they were teenagers.

There’s been some commercial concern, however, that as a story of a queer teenager fighting to take his partner to prom, The Louder We Get’s premise might be too similar to a recent musical that just played on Broadway, The Prom (co-written by The Drowsy Chaperone’s Bob Martin and currently being adapted into a film for Netflix by Ryan Murphy).

But, for Price, the American director of The Louder We Get, the teen-focused show is a story of young people taking control of their own world that resonates in a wider way. He sees Hall as a predecessor of the climate activist Greta Thunberg, or the Parkland, Fla., student-survivors fighting for gun control. “It is not just another coming out story – it’s a story about [how] you too can be a hero, you too can stand up,” he says.

The question of how a Broadway-sized Canadian musical could make its investment back if it never actually plays on Broadway is an open one. But in this post-Come From Away era, Canadian theatres seem willing to take the risk on sizing up Dauncey and Romer-Segal’s shows – and are not catering to foreign markets by watering down the Canadianness of their material.

Indeed, Grow was originally set in the United States, until Garnhum encouraged its writers to move the action of the show to Canada amidst the legalization of marijuana to make it a more relevant show.

Down at the Goodspeed Festival of New Musical, Dauncey and Romer-Segal found themselves inundated by questions from curious Americans on the subject.

“If anything I think it’s something to differentiate us from the large pool of writers and shows happening in the States,” Romer-Segal says.

Adds Dauncey: “I think that the Canadian-ness actually helps us internationally."

Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.