In May 2010 when I realized that Canadian Stage was changing its mandate and it looked like that company would no longer be presenting musical theatre shows to Toronto audiences once or twice each season, I asked where the place for us, the musical theatre community was. I asked who would be presenting large-scale musical theatre in Toronto made up entirely of Canadian casts. This city is filled with brilliant, bright performers, someone needs to stop the exodus to New York, someone needs to make a reason for our most talented musical theatre stars (because they *are* STARS) to stay in this city and this country and for that reason to be a truly rewarding one. I didn’t know at that time that Adam Brazier and sixteen other artists had been asking themselves the exact same questions for almost two years and that they were determined to do something, something bold and daring, something truly heroic, to change the landscape for musical theatre in this country. Out of these questions, out of this need, out of the desire to give Canada a voice, its own distinct, proud voice, in the realm of musical theatre, both within this country and internationally, came Theatre 20, valiant and filled to the brim with promise.
In May I had visions of a theatre company that would bring the productions of shows like Sweeny Todd, Les Misérables, Kiss Me Kate, The Drowsy Chaperone, Hairspray, West Side Story, Sunday in the Park With George, the ones that are done every year with Canadian casts in regional theatres across the country and at Stratford and Shaw, to Toronto. I hadn’t dared to even wish for a company that would foster the development of our own Canadian written musicals, and that would actually produce shows like War Brides: The Musical, or Pelegie, or Two Pianos Four Hands or Variations on a Nervous Breakdown or something I have never seen from Marek Norman or Leslie Arden or Reza Jacobs or Daniel Abrahamson, or Allen Cole or Bob Martin or Waylen Miki or Jonathan Monro or Jim Betts or the dozens of Canadian musical theatre composers whose names are not familiar to me because their work largely sits on a shelf unread and unproduced. The fact that Theatre 20 seeks to do both is extraordinary.
I know that I sound a bit like a broken record to my avid readers, but I do ardently believe with every fibre of my being that the artists that we have in this country are world class, bright sparks of genius and more than capable of bringing us theatre that can be lauded and heralded as being of distinction on the International stage. I think that the only thing that prohibits us from taking our rightful place as the proud home of our own unique, flourishing, riveting, envy-inducing musical theatre tradition is a theatre company willing to invest in it. I also think that with the talent that we have in this country, investing in these artists, investing in these projects, believing in us and fostering our community is not an arduous task. Adam Brazier and his sixteen compatriots believe in this truth as fervently as I do and I am so excited to see where their passion and their nurturing and pioneer spirits leads all of us.
Theatre 20’s first initiative is an especially exciting one, as they are working with Montreal’s Copa de Oro Productions on the English translation of René Richard Cyr and composer Daniel Bélanger’s adaptation of Michel Tremblay’s seminal play Les Belles-Soeurs. The French production of this new musical ran for eight months in Montreal, which is record-breaking for a theatre show in Quebec, and now Allan Sandler has the rights for the show in English, which is being given a reading tonight in Toronto, with a cast of fifteen women, including a wide assortment of Canada’s most celebrated female musical theatre actors. The cast performed a number from the show at the launch, led by the always vigorous powerhouse of wonder, Louise Pitre. I have to tell you that visually, having the opportunity to see fifteen women, women of all ages, standing in a line onstage, singing their hearts out is a jubilant feat of its own. You don’t realize how rare it is to see that many people singing on a Canadian stage, and for them all, every single one, to be women, until the reality of it is upon you, and then you wonder why such deliciousness is not savoured far more often. From the little one can garner from a single song, Les Belles-Soeurs, named Sisters in English, looks to have all the promise of a fantastic new musical. I look forward to seeing more of it in the very near future. Theatre 20’s immediate focus is on fundraising and launching their concert series, but the founding members of the company are already looking forward with zeal to their inaugural season at the Panasonic Theatre in 2012. The company is also dedicated to education and community outreach and have programs in the works for schools, opportunities for mentorship and also opportunities to work with at-risk youth and providing avenues for all sorts of participation in various aspects of theatre as well as fostering and inspiring and cultivating the theatre audiences of tomorrow.
I think what our theatre audiences need, and what our prospective theatre audiences need, is that they need to realize that although we all operate from underneath a great big cloud of inferiority, that the reality is that we are not second rate. Canadian work is not boring, it is not mediocre, it is not merely adequate and we need to change the language and the dialogue that we have when we intersect with the theatre artists of this country. The people who will undoubtedly change this entirely flawed perception that I think many people have and that I am continually infuriated to see blindly perpetuated by the mainstream Canadian media, are the founding members of Theatre 20. Tamara Bernier Evans. Adam Brazier. Evan Buluing. Brent Carver. Dan Chameroy. Juan Chioran. Ma Anne Dionisio. Susan Gilmour. David Keeley. Trish Lindstrom. Nora McLellan. Eliza Jane Scott. Rosie Shaw. Carly Street. Steven Sutcliffe. Louise Pitre. Colm Wilkinson. When they all stood onstage together, I was gobsmacked just by the sheer power of their combined auras of greatness, and when they started to sing “Sunday” I was so overwhelmed, with goosebumps in places I’ve never had goosebumps before, I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to hold in the tears of joy and pride that threatened to rain down my cheeks. I knew if I gave in to the inclination it wouldn’t be tasteful tears on my cheek, but messy crying of an overwrought musical theatre dork who was watching as one of her dreams began to bloom right before her astonished and mesmerized eyes. Overwhelmed, the vision of all seventeen of them, my seventeen special superheroes, standing up for all of us, paving the road for everyone, asserting our own Canadian identity on this art form… I knew I was witnessing a piece of Canadian history and one that I will hold onto forever.
I love that we have gotten the good fortune to claim Colm Wilkinson as our own (although I wonder why he hasn’t been appearing in every single musical that has been produced here that fits into his busy schedule…?!) regardless… I am honoured and delighted that he is helping to see the fruition of this beautiful company. Adam Brazier also read a lovely email of support from David Mirvish, extending his well wishes and exerting his confidence not only in Adam but in all the musical theatre performers in this country. It was the first moment in three years where David Mirvish has been humanized for me and I am thrilled that this company has his support and that he seems to want to see it succeed and to thrive. As Mr. Mirvish said, very eloquently, in his letter, Canada has been exporting its talent to the United States and abroad for far too long, it is time to bring it all back home.