The new Canadian musical Bloodless, which made its debut in Toronto this week, features two scheming Irish immigrants in 19th-century Edinburgh who kill off the lodgers in their boarding house and sell the cadavers to a medical school. Hopefully the show itself meets a happier fate than the victims of the murderous William Burke and William Hare.
The creation of Winnipeg playwright and composer Joseph Aragon, Bloodless is the latest entry in the checkered history of musical theatre made in Canada. And, as the first stage production of Theatre 20, an ambitious Toronto company specifically established to invigorate Canadian musical theatre, it not only has to be an artistic success, it has to sell the idea of homegrown musicals to Canadian audiences.
"Musical theatre is not a Canadian art form," said Leslie Arden, the composer and lyricist who created a rare Canadian success, The House of Martin Guerre, in the 1990s. "It's a Broadway art form or it's … a British tradition. Canada hasn't found its style yet. We are bringing up the rear."
The first problem is one of mounting an elaborate form in a smaller market: With a composer, music director, orchestra and large cast on the payroll, the cost of producing a musical is several times that of even a lavish play. That price tag is out of sight for most Canadian theatre companies, unless the musical in question is a well-established crowd-pleaser.
"It's very tough here in Canada to get musicals off the ground," said Aragon, a 36-year-old former computer programmer for whom Bloodless represents a first-ever full professional production. Previously, he has produced his shows at the Winnipeg Fringe, and both he and Theatre 20 artistic director Adam Brazier credit the Fringe model, where artists are unpaid but share the box office, as crucial to workshopping new musical theatre without incurring crippling expense.
Aragon says he researched Scottish and Irish folk music to create Bloodless and, asked to name his musical-theatre influences, he cites three contemporary American composers: Stephen Sondheim, Adam Guettel and Jason Robert Brown: "… There isn't really a Canadian musical-theatre tradition."
There might have been one, Arden speculates, but it was cut short by the imported mega-musicals of the 1980s. Prior to that, musical revues in Toronto coffee houses and cabarets built on the strong national tradition of sketch comedy while the Charlottetown Festival laboured to create musicals based on Canadian stories. But the cabarets closed, and then the computer-generated effects of Cats, Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera inflated audience expectations of the genre. Toronto became a successful centre for high-quality productions of Broadway and West End franchises, but attempts at large-scale commercial versions of Canadian projects, such as David Mirvish's production of Jane Eyre or Marlene Smith's Napoleon, seldom succeeded. The occasional success story, Arden's Martin Guerre, or, more recently, The Drowsy Chaperone, raised hopes but never seemed to pave the way for successors.
That arrested development has suggested to some that musicals are somehow antithetical to the psyche of Canadians, who lack the bravado required to do what Brazier jokingly calls "park and bark."
"The form is very brash, and we are not," remarks Brazier, who successfully staged Sondheim's Assassins in Toronto in 2010 and 2011. "There is a reason Americans are so good at it … In American musicals, it sometimes feels like every number is a soapbox number. We are uncomfortable putting ourselves out there unless we have skates on."
Both Brazier and Arden believe Canadian audiences have a limited view of musicals, seeing the form as a step down from straight drama and lacking exposure to the more complex or more ironic material that is available in the United States but seldom gets exported. "We are forming our opinions based on revivals of Oklahoma! and we think that's musical theatre," Arden said.
And, without a strong tradition, experienced dramaturgy and direction can be hard to find for writers who do want to work in the genre: Theatre 20 asked Colm Wilkinson, a former lead in the Toronto production of Phantom of the Opera and one of Theatre 20's founding artists, to advise on Bloodless.
"He has been pretty helpful trying to de-Fringify it," Aragon said.
Bloodless may not be on Broadway yet, but it's already miles away from the Winnipeg Fringe: It's now being mounted in the 500-seat Panasonic Theatre with a cast of 14 and a four-piece band.
"We could have put this up a year ago in a smaller venue and we would have been preaching to the choir," said Brazier, who is determined that Theatre 20 reach larger numbers to make projects financially viable. He believes there are big audiences out there for both new Canadian musicals and revivals of demanding international works, such as Stephen Sondheim's 1970s musical Company, a series of scenes about a commitment-phobic middle-aged man that Theatre 20 will stage in 2013.
Theatre 20, established in 2009 by a gathering of senior artists that includes Brent Carver, Louis Pitre and Dan Chameroy, has been hailed by some as the next Soulpepper, but Brazier is not looking to create an institution so much as an inspiration.
"Our goal would be to kick-start other companies, show you can do a Canadian musical and sell tickets to it," he said. "… In the hierarchy of Canadian theatre, musical theatre [now] sits somewhere between mime and juggling, and that's garbage."