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Toronto’s Acting Up rebrands as The Musical Stage Company

Mitchell Marcus, artistic director of Acting Up Stage Company, is guiding his indie Toronto company into its new incarnation as The Musical Stage Company.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Toronto's Acting Up Stage Company has entered its teenage years – and decided it's time to start going by a more mature name: The Musical Stage Company. But this week's rebrand of the 13-year-old not-for-profit devoted to innovative musicals is only a small part of artistic and managing director Mitchell Marcus's ambitious plan to grow his indie company up into a major arts institution over the next year.

In its 2017-18 season, the Musical Stage Company will double its annual budget and performance schedule – and launch a whole new slate of initiatives funded by a $1-million creative capital campaign that is already 50-per-cent completed.

For audiences, that means Marcus's company will produce the Toronto premiere of Tony-winning musical Fun Home Fun Home (in collaboration with Mirvish Productions); the Toronto premiere of Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille's Vancouver smash Onegin (and take it to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa); and begin a three-year commitment to staging new works by up-and-coming local composer Britta Johnson.

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"Right now is an unprecedented moment for musical theatre in Canada," Marcus told The Globe and Mail in advance of an official announcement, referring to the interest building in this country following the success of homegrown shows like Come from Away and Ride the Cyclone.

"After 13 years of consistent artistic successes and solid financial footing, we felt we wanted to step up and play that leading role in taking musical theatre in Toronto, and even more broadly in Canada, to the next level."

It's true that Marcus has had a major impact on Toronto's arts scene since founding the company formerly known as Acting Up fresh out of school at the age of 22 – producing or co-producing a string of acclaimed American musicals too niche for Mirvish Productions such as The Light in the Piazza and Passing Strange, while supporting Toronto runs of Canadian shows such as Ride the Cyclone and Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata.

During that time, what's now called the Musical Stage Company went from an operating budget of around $30,000 to close to $770,000 – and, last season, attracted an audience of nearly 10,000 to musicals and events like its popular UnCovered cabaret concerts.

What Marcus has planned for 2017-18, however, will catapult the budget up to $1.8-million – and anticipates attendance tripling to 30,000.

A major part of the increase in ticket sales will come from producing Fun Home – Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori's adaptation of lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel's celebrated graphic memoir – at Toronto's Panasonic Theatre as part of the Off-Mirvish season. Robert McQueen is on board to direct a production with an all-Canadian cast that will open in April, 2018.

First, however, in May of this year, the Musical Stage Company will mount a new Toronto production of Onegin – which swept the Jessie Richardson Awards in Vancouver last spring.

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Its creators, Hille and Gladstone, who were also behind A Craigslist Cantata, will have an opportunity to further develop their musical based on Pushkin's 19th-century poem in rehearsal – and the show will then go on to open the National Arts Centre's 2017-18 season.

In terms of the development of Canadian musicals, the Musical Stage Company's most exciting new initiative is its Crescendo series – which will offer an unprecedented three-year residency to a musical-theatre artist, including a commitment to produce three works over three years. That's not something theatre companies even offer to playwrights in this country – and new plays cost a fraction of what new musicals do to stage.

Britta Johnson is the inaugural Crescendo artist. Life After, a work she previously premiered at the Fringe Festival, will be the first of her Crescendo works to hit the stage – in collaboration with Canadian Stage and Yonge Street Theatricals at the Berkeley Street Theatre in September.

"I believe that [Johnson] is the future of musical theatre in the country if not around the world," Marcus says. "She is so intelligent and manages musically to tap into this deep part of the soul that a lot of writers are not able to get to."

How has Marcus managed to make this giant leap with less than 10 per cent of his company's operating budget coming from public sources and no increase in sight? He's cultivated a strong base of individual and corporate donors in Toronto – and has now asked them to consider increasing their support five- or tenfold.

Two of Musical Stage Company's generous benefactors who agreed are Aubrey and Marla Dan – the former commercial producer and his wife – whose charitable foundation will now give $25,000 a year for three years to support the commissioning of two new Canadian musicals a year.

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"That's an example of a donation that increased approximately tenfold," says Marcus – who, with the Musical Stage Company, found a secure future for musical theatre as art in Toronto that it has not always found as commerce.

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