Where’s the Place For Us: Why I’m Concerned About Musical Theatre in Toronto

musical theatre offerings from Mirvish Productions
In March Artistic Director Matthew Jocelyn announced that Canadian Stage had a new mandate as he unveiled the company’s 2010-2011 Season and sought once again to clear up the huge name debacle that has been confusing theatre artists and patrons since the company’s name was changed from Canstage to The Canadian Stage Company in 2007. For the record, the company’s name is now officially Canadian Stage and there seems to be hope that the tendency to refer to it as Canstage will be swiftly phased out. As an aside, if the company is listed as something other than Canadian Stage on your resume or in your stock programme bio, it may be advisable to change it. Anyway, as the saga of the company’s ever-changing name continues, I must tell you that Canadian Stage’s change in mandate has me extremely concerned.
Canadian Stage’s new mandate is as follows, “Jocelyn seeks to redefine Canadian Stage as a home not only for great Canadian and international plays, but also for trans-disciplinary theatre that pushes the boundaries of convention and reflects a resolutely 21st century aesthetic. The work, driven by directors and auteurs at the vanguard of contemporary theatre, will give audiences the opportunity to discover a new generation of storytellers who question, challenge, move and entertain not only with the tales they tell, but with the way they tell them. The company will continue to invest in the future of the art form by nurturing and developing the work of artists and theatre practitioners. Jocelyn looks forward to revealing more details about the company’s training and development initiatives in the coming months.” Jocelyn’s exciting transgression from the conventional regional theatre fare that Canadian Stage became synonymous with under the leadership of former Artistic Producer Martin Bragg is clear in the company’s innovative and internationally conscious 2010-11 season. My concern, it seems obvious, is not for the new direction of Jocelyn’s company, because I am thrilled that he is bringing such interesting and diverse examples of storytelling by truly gifted artists, both Canadian and International, to Toronto and to a theatre with such a broad and dedicated audience. So, you are asking, what is the problem? Why am I extremely concerned?
Since Jocelyn has moved away from producing Canadian productions of the standard regional theatre’s foray into classical, contemporary and musical theatre, there leaves just one small problem: who will produce these shows instead? I am not too concerned about Toronto having a lack of classical theatre and companies such as Studio 180, Obsidian Theatre and The Harold Green Jewish Theatre have been able to bring many contemporary plays from the world stage to Toronto under their various mandates. Indeed, my extreme concern lies in the absence of Canadian Stage’s former musical theatre productions, which were locally cast and produced with all the panache and grandeur that certain musicals necessitate. Who will fill this important demographic for the city of Toronto now?
Two small, but brilliantly valiant and utterly essential, theatre companies of course immediately spring to mind. Acting Up Stage Theatre has been dedicated to producing professional, intimate, contemporary musical theatre shows since 2004. Angelwalk Theatre is also dedicated to the production of exciting musical theatre works, and in only two years will have produced four professional, contemporary musicals. These companies and their Artistic Producers, Mitchell Marcus and Brian Goldenberg respectively, are currently keeping musical theatre afloat in Toronto, and they are doing an impressive and commendable job. Both of these companies are presenting interesting and fresh musicals and both hire skilled directors, musical directors and employ many of the city’s most talented and proficient performers which ensures that these productions are well received and well respected. Yet, it still seems to me as though we are placing all of our hopes and visions for the future of musical theatre in Toronto in two, as yet, quite small and modestly funded baskets. This seems to me, quite unwise.
Of course, I’m not forgetting about DanCap, whose Canadian production of Jersey Boys is a smash success and has employed a steady number of Canadian actors for the past eighteen months. What I find so frustrating about DanCap is that, despite Jersey Boys’ undisputable success, the future of DanCap, as far as the eye can see is their bringing in two American touring productions, Miss Saigon and South Pacific. Although it is fantastic that there are Canadian performers in leading roles in both of these productions (Ma-Anne Dionisio (Kim) and Dora-Award winner Kevin Gray (The Engineer) in Miss Saigon and Jason Howard as Emile de Becque in South Pacific) it seems strange for these performers to have to work with an American theatre company in order to perform these sorts of huge-budget musicals in Toronto. Bringing in these tours, even with a smattering of Canadian talent in attempt to legitimize or justify the production choice, does little to help foster indigenous musical theatre in Toronto or provide opportunities for the theatre artists who live here.
My primary concern with DanCap is that I worry that the abrupt closure of its Canadian production of The Toxic Avenger in January has made producer Aubrey Dan hesitant about investing in further indigenous musicals, especially those that are not Jukebox shows which are in vogue at the moment and arguably cater to a large and already built-in audience. I find it frustrating that the largest musical theatre producers in this country continue to bring in the most enduring and critically acclaimed Jukebox shows, which immediately capture the hearts of mainstream Torontonian theatregoers, but then bring in book musicals like Toxic Avenger, which received comparable reviews in New York to the mixed ones found in Toronto, despite its stellar cast and brilliant direction by John Rando, and then seem to suggest that, because this one show was less successful, that Torontonian audiences in general prefer readymade Jukebox shows to ones with original scores and creative and heart rendering stories. The truth, it seems to me, is that Torontonian audience are not captured by musicals like The Toxic Avenger or Mel Brook’s Young Frankenstein (a touring version of the Broadway flop even Sutton Foster and Megan Mullally could not save, which Mirvish brought in earlier this season) simply because they are flawed shows. Earlier this winter Birdland Theatre in association with Talk is Free Theatre in Barrie (a company that not only produces a multitude of musicals made up entirely of Canadian casts and artistic teams, but also is instrumental in fostering new Canadian musical development) produced Assassins at the same time that Acting Up Stage Theatre produced A Light in the Piazza. Even though these two shows were running concurrently, and A Light in the Piazza (2005), a beautiful operatic musical written by Adam Guettel, had never been produced in Toronto before and harkens back to a far more innocent time, both of their runs sold out. These theatre companies cannot compete with Mirvish and Dancap when it comes to their advertising budget, but both still managed to draw in crowds of theatregoers and sell out, because, I would argue, A Light in the Piazza and Assassins are both brilliantly conceived, original book musicals and audiences were craving just that. It did not hurt that both these shows also boasted of the very best of Torontonian musical theatre talent. I don’t believe that audiences are consciously choosing to patronize Jukebox musicals instead of book musicals because they prefer them; I think that the producers are simply not giving their patrons adequate options.
Mirvish Productions is trying to balance being a roadhouse for American touring productions, trying to foster some quirky Canadian shows (such as My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding), likely in the hopes of stumbling upon another Drowsy Chaperone, and reclaiming its former position as the city in which to premiere shows such as the Upcoming Priscilla Queen of the Desert: The Musical in North America before it heads to Broadway. It can be argued that David Mirvish is doing a reasonably good job at juggling his theatre’s three functions, and yet, I remain too much of an idealist to be appeased. My problem with Mirvish Productions really isn’t a problem with Mirvish at all; it is a problem with the musical theatre performers who live in Toronto. They are, in general, simply too talented to be thrust aside for the shows that David Mirvish is choosing to bring to Toronto and there are far too many of them for the few meagre opportunities for jobs that Mirvish Productions is offering them.
Every year dozens of highly trained musical theatre performers pour out of Sheridan College’s Music Theatre: Performance Program and the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts. What are we training them for? Where are they supposed to go to get work? Every year I watch more and more young, talented, bright, ambitious, excited singers and dancers become increasingly frustrated and disillusioned as they produce their own Cabarets, sing at Curtains Down and leave the city for out of town summer stock, Dinner Theatre, and regional theatres across the country without hope that the infrastructure even exists for them to even dare to strive towards a goal of someday working in Toronto. This creates a ripple effect across the country, as, since performers indigenous to Toronto are unable to find work there, they find themselves encroaching on the job opportunities of local actors in other Canadian cities, which can lead to needless resentment and awkwardness developing between the theatre communities from province to province.
David Mirvish owns four large theatres in downtown Toronto, and often I think their space is being wasted. Toronto is a great city with a strong theatre history, marred by a scandal I think has haunted us far too long. I believe that because Toronto produces brilliant theatre on its own, not just musical theatre, but classical and contemporary and brilliant new Canadian plays, that a production should have to be of supreme quality and artistic worthiness in order to justify taking theatre space from our own fiercely talented artists. These productions exist, but they are not often the ones that Mirvish chooses to invite into his theatres. Peter Brook warns about the “deadly theatre” in his book The Empty Space, and he spends an entire chapter explaining his very intricate perspective on the deadliness that plagues much of the theatre produced and written in the 20th Century. For me, I have often considered touring productions of Broadway musicals to be a hotbed for some of the deadliest theatre one could ever hope to see. Touring Productions have their merits and they can be extraordinary, but they also tend to suffer from the exhaustion of the performers, the monotony of what has become a monthly or yearly routine which can zap previously sparkling performances of their freshness and sprinkle the entire stage with dust. If David Mirvish was continuously bringing in productions like Steppenwolf Theatre’s August: Osage County, I would admit that the company was providing Toronto with an opportunity to see exceptional performances and vivid new productions, but that simply is not the case.
I know that the issues that these producers face are not simply artistic, but powerfully economic, but I think that Toronto audiences and Torontonian theatre performers deserve to have adequate space in the city to be able to foster not only small, contemporary productions, but larger productions of shows from across theatre history guided by the most ingenious of Canadian directors and casts of Canadian performers. Stuart Ostrow, one of Broadway’s last independent producers spoke of what he saw happening in the New Broadway Establishment of the late 20th Century saying these producers, “prefer to buy the future rather than undertake the labor of making it… Today the theatre is ruled by bottom-line thinking. Who’s the star? What does it cost? When will it recoup? Where is the profit-earnings ratio?… To be present at the creation of an original musical is what interests me most… and is of little interest to the current crop of Broadway wise guys. They are only end-game players.” (Grant 307). Musical theatre in Toronto, it seems, is being run in the same way, with little attention to the significance and the heart of the story being told and a lack of respect or understanding for the powerful connection that comes from sharing something earnestly with someone else, rather than simply reaping in financial gain. Harold Prince refers to the musicals that Ostrow described as “McShows”, a reference to the readymade, corporate, convenient, homogenized conveyor belt fast food that dominates North America. We know that this food is bad for us, and yet we continue to buy it because it is fast, convenient and formulaic so we always know just what to expect. A Big Mac, for example, tastes the exact same in Paris as it does in Halifax.
Will we accept the same for the theatre of Toronto? The same laziness to tolerate something we know is inferior, that we understand to be devoid of creativity or effort or individuality simply because it is cheaper to produce? I think we, the citizens of Toronto, deserve better than these McShows and I think our talented theatre artists do as well. As The Toxic Avenger and Young Frankenstein, like hundreds of shows before them, have proven, even with the most talented performers in the country, a poorly constructed script has little chance to allow the production to soar. So often I hear the argument that theatre producers seek to cater to their “conservative” middle-age subscription audience and that is seen as being a solid defence for why they must make safe choices and rely on that which is already familiar to lure patrons into their seats. I have made previous arguments which support the idea that theatre audiences do not like to be surprised, but at the same time, I am reminded of who these middle-aged and young senior citizen theatre patrons are. These are the same Baby Boomers who rebelled their parents’ traditions around every corner, from pushing for Civil Rights and Feminist Rights, to embracing Rock N’ Roll music to creating a counterculture of drugs and sex and a true spirit of revolution. Gerome Ragni and James Rado, the book and lyricists for the musical Hair (1969) spoke about the goal of this musical saying, “The Kids are a tribe. At the same time, for the purposes of HAIR, they know they are on a stage in a theatre, performing for an audience, demonstrating their way of life, in a sense, telling a story, in order to persuade those who watch of their intentions to perhaps gain greater understating, support, and tolerance, and thus perhaps expand their horizons of active participation toward a better, saner, peace-full, love-full world. They are trying to turn on the audience” (Jones 249). It seems an absurd misjudgement to assume that this same generation of theatregoers grew into adults unable of handling anything less tame than a show like Mamma Mia!
I am idealistic, but I am not convinced that Mirvish Productions will change its ways so dramatically that their producers will rush to break the mold of McShows that they have been offering us and to give our Torontonian musical theatre performers the opportunities they deserve to work in musicals that will challenge and inspire them toward excellence. But, someone needs to fill this void. There needs to be a theatre in Toronto that can mount revivals of productions from Les Miserables to Sweeney Todd, with Canadian casts and artistic teams dedicated to providing quality musical theatre to Toronto. There needs to be a theatre in Toronto where Canadian musicals can be produced after they have been rigorously read and work-shopped. There needs to be an entire musical theatre infrastructure in Toronto that can accommodate a higher percentage of its highly trained and proficient performers, just as the infrastructure exists for the actors in Toronto who don’t perform in musical theatre. Being a performer is supposed to be competitive; it is not supposed to be impossible.
The reality is that I am extremely concerned because I know that this is an urgent and pressing problem facing hundreds of some of our most talented actors, singers, dancers, triple threats and Cabaret Stars and I know that if this lack of infrastructure continues to plague these artists and makes it unfeasible for them to work in our city, they will leave and that will be a massive blow to the dream of our own flourishing indigenous musical theatre here in Toronto. We can do better than that.

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