When he was 10, Nick Cordero went to Toronto from Hamilton with his mother to see Les Misérables at the Royal Alexandra Theatre – and that was pretty much it.
"I remember leaving the theatre with my mom and I said – I remember clear as a bell, I could point to the corner I was on – I said, 'That's what I want to do,'" he recalls.
Now 35, and nearly 6-foot-4, Cordero has been true to his pint-sized precursor's pledge. He's about to originate his first role in a musical on Broadway, playing a gangster named Cheech with a preternatural talent for playwriting in Woody Allen's adaptation of his 1994 film comedy, Bullets Over Broadway. The show begins previews next month at the St. James Theatre on West 46th Street.
But Cordero isn't the only Canadian man to score a coveted lead role in a Broadway musical this season.
A block away on West 45th, Stratford Festival star Paul Nolan's face flashes a giant smile on a billboard advertising the hit musical Once, where the 35-year-old Saskatchewan native has taken over the main character.
Meanwhile, Jake Epstein, a 26-year-old Degrassi alumnus from Toronto, is winning critical praise in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, starring as King's lyricist husband, Gerry Goffin.
And soon enough, Ramin Karimloo, originally from Peterborough, Ont., and also 35, will join these three in New York when he brings his acclaimed performance of Jean Valjean in Les Mis from Toronto (along with a cast with many supporting Canadians, including Caissie Levy as Fantine and Cliff Saunders as Thenardier).
There's always a smattering of the Great White North on the Great White Way – pop star Carly Rae Jepsen starts a stint in Cinderella this week, for example – but there's something of a critical mass this season.
Call this new batch of stars the Gavroche Generation, after the plucky street urchin in Les Mis. All of them followed different paths to get here (theatre schools or cruise ships; starting in Toronto or heading straight to New York), but they have one thing in common: They came of age when commercial musical theatre seemed, for the first time, like a plausible career choice for Canadians – perhaps even without leaving Canada.
Producer Marlene Smith and her all-Canadian production of Cats kicked off the megamusical era in Toronto in the mid-1980s, but it was 25 years ago – the year Cordero was 10 – that it really exploded. In 1989, Les Misérables opened at the Royal Alex produced by Ed and David Mirvish, while Livent's production of The Phantom of the Opera settled in for what would be a 10-year run at what was then called the Pantages Theatre.
These shows inspired young men and women outside Ontario, too, as father-and-son Mirvish and Livent's Garth Drabinsky – then in vigorous competition and spending advertising money like mad – toured their signature productions across the country.
Although the industry has since, well, let's say right-sized – and Canadian musical theatre in Ontario centres more on the Stratford and Shaw festivals and smaller not-for-profits such as Toronto's Acting Up Stage Company – the positive energy of that era lives on in the Gavroche Generation.
For Nolan, seeing a young actor singing Little People during Les Mis's stop in Regina when he was 13 flicked the switch in his head. "Being in Rouleau, Saskatchewan, I didn't know people did this for a living," says Nolan, who first came to New York in Stratford's Jesus Christ Superstar transfer in 2012. "Honestly, I really do think it inspired a ton of us – when I talk to my colleagues, everyone had that magical experience with Les Mis."
Karimloo, who was responsible for bringing the Les Mis magic back to Toronto last fall, had the same intense experience, but with The Phantom of the Opera starring Colm Wilkinson.
"Colm's voice was second to none," recalls Karimloo, who recently performed a duet with his childhood hero in Toronto for a one-night charity performance. "I thought, I'd like to play that role." He did eventually play the Phantom on the West End; he left Toronto after school to sing on cruise ships, eventually docking in London and building a career there.
Leaving Canada is how Cordero, too, broke onto Broadway. After dropping out of Ryerson Theatre School, he spent years in a rock-and-soul band called Lovemethod. But when he decided to tackle theatre again, he went straight to New York, where he saw more opportunity. "A guy of my dimensions – it's not often a job that is right for you comes long," he notes. He was immediately cast in The Toxic Avenger off-Broadway, then in Rock of Ages.
Epstein, the youngest of the bunch, got his first big gigs in Canada – playing the Artful Dodger in a Mirvish tour of Oliver and then, after Degrassi and the National Theatre School, starring in one of Ross Petty's annual Christmas pantomimes.
New York came to Epstein, rather than vice versa, when producers held an open call for Spring Awakening in Toronto – an increasingly common stop for Broadway casting directors, especially when looking for rock voices and fresh faces. He got his first taste of the Great White Way, cheating death as a replacement in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, but playing Gerry Goffin is another matter. It's the first time Epstein has originated a role – meaning that like Karimloo and Cordero, but not Nolan, he will be eligible for Tony Award consideration this season.
"It's an absolute dream – one of those things that you don't think is actually possible," Epstein says.
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