Say Yes

the cast of broadway’s jesus christ superstar

The Tony Awards are a shared story for a lot of people who work in the theatre. Once upon a time we were all little boys and girls in cities far and wide from Manhattan watching the glorious and shining stars of Broadway sing and dance across our television screens. It was something we aspired toward, something of a collective dream.

Ten years ago I graduated from High School in Halifax, Nova Scotia. I was seventeen years old. What I expected from these annual awards as a seventeen year old girl was the same thing I anticipated every year before; that I would be given a glimpse of the best theatre in the world: the theatre on Broadway. I waited eagerly to see Bernadette Peters, Carol Burnett, Angela Lansbury, Sutton and Hunter Foster, Mandy Patinkin, Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Adam Pascal, Jesse L. Martin, Anthony Rapp, Chita Rivera, Ann Reinking, Bea Arthur, Julie Andrews, Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, Betty Buckley, Liza Minnelli, Bebe Neuwirth, Audra McDonald, Jane Krakowski, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Nathan Lane, Harvey Fierstein, Marissa Jaret Winokur and Tim Curry perform. It never occurred to me to ask, “Where are the Canadians?” I had been conditioned, as I believe most of us are, to assume, subconsciously I think, that we were not good enough to be there.

Of course I knew that some Canadian performers got to work on Broadway, as part of an American or British company. Martin Short was in The Goodbye Girl with Bernadette Peters. Louise Pitre was Donna in Mamma Mia. Julie Martell was in Sam Mendes’ production of Gypsy. Later, Bob Martin led a mostly American cast of a Canadian-written musical in an impressive Broadway run. But even as ardently interested and supportive of my regional theatre as I was, I never imagined even the possibility of a Canadian company’s production transferring to Broadway. That wasn’t within the realm of the world of Broadway that I had seen and I didn’t know enough about Canadian theatre to challenge the status quo.

Tonight there are children going to sleep across this great country of ours having seen the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar performing on the Tony Awards. They were waiting eagerly to see Paul Nolan and Chilina Kennedy and Mark Cassius and Bruce Dow and Marcus Nance and Josh Young. These kids, the theatre performers, directors, designers, writers and audience members of tomorrow, know unequivocally now that they do not need to leave Canadian companies behind to become a Broadway star. They know that the Canadian theatre community is not only good enough to compete, but that we are among some of the best in the world.

One hundred years ago Canadian actors flocked to the United States because the theatres here were overrun with British and American tours and opportunities were scarce for those who wished to make a livelihood. Slowly a system emerged that sought not only to foster the development of a national Canadian theatre movement, as well as a sense of a Canadian theatrical culture and tradition, but also to bring communities across the country world-class theatre productions using indigenous theatre artists. These were called the Regional Theatres. In the same way that the Stratford Cast of Jesus Christ Superstar has successfully burst into an American dominated arena, so too did the early Regional Theatres forge a trail for Canadian artists amidst a market saturated with American talent. Soon most Regional theatres were hiring mostly Canadian artists for their productions and in time the most successful of these theatres, for example The Citadel Theatre in Edmonton and the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg, began hiring a large percentage of artists from the community that they wished to serve.

In his article “Time for theatre to get past the first stage of grief: denialThe Globe and Mail Theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck asks, “Is the experience of seeing God of Carnage live with Canadian actors putting on Brooklyn accents worth the extra $53 (plus gas, plus parking, plus babysitter, plus rushing through dinner to make curtain time)? What does it contribute to Canadian culture beyond the economic spin-offs that arts-funding defenders drone on about ad nauseum?” I would argue that the same question could be asked of Stratford’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Why should Canadian companies perform any non-Canadian play at all? Why should anyone want to see anything live when it all can be downloaded for free without ever leaving one’s basement? Of course I would rather see something live performed by Canadian actors. That is the ultimate experience for me because I love the Canadian theatre. We can do these plays in Canada and with Canadian talent and we can do them terrifically. Perhaps if our prospective theatre audiences were not continually being conditioned by the media in this country to believe in the national inferiority complex and to prescribe to the idea that theatre is on the brink of collapse, more people would be inclined to attend. There is still a destructive and dangerous tendency here to bring in third rate touring productions of hit Broadway and West End shows, of plays just like God of Carnage, rather than staging them inventively here using Canadian talent. From an artistic point of view, shows like Doubt and Wit and Art offer incredible opportunities for Canadian performers, designers and directors to sink their teeth into a style of theatre that can be quite different from the work that is created here, while offering patrons the opportunity to see first-rate productions of the shows they were either going to go down to New York to see anyway or wished that they could.

Creating an ambiance of panic in the world of the Regional theatre does not make for smarter programming, it makes for safer and more cautious Artistic Directors who throw out the balance between artistry and economics. This makes the seasons at these theatres stale, tepid and weak. If there are independent theatres doing bold and brave, exciting and challenging work in the city, it is no wonder that audiences are flocking there instead. Each regional theatre and every theatre community is different. You cannot sum these issues up in sweeping generalizations. For example, it could be argued that since Matthew Jocelyn has taken tenure at Canadian Stage, Toronto no longer has a regional theatre. Perhaps with the growing and thriving number of strong independent theatre companies in that city it has outgrown its need for one. Yet, in Halifax, Neptune Theatre, the regional theatre, is the only theatre in the city that offers a full season of shows (September-May) and one of a tiny handful with its own venue. Newfoundland does not even have a regional theatre and all the Newfoundland-based artists that I have spoken to on the subject have told me that they think that their province would benefit from having one. So, in this case, something that could be seen as being an archaic model that no longer suits one Canadian city would be a novelty in another.

I grew up in Halifax and in and around Neptune Theatre all my life. I grew up loving seeing Nova Scotian-based actors putting on Brooklyn accents and doing the equivalent of God of Carnage and thinking that I was the luckiest person in the world to be able to live here and witness that. The regional theatre was the only theatre I had. That is the reality in many communities in this country, and an experience that is not reflected at all in Nestruck’s article. Many of the people that I watched at Neptune Theatre, people who began as actors from within the community of Nova Scotia, are now working for companies like Stratford, Soulpepper, Shaw and Mirvish. The regional theatre was their training ground and in many cases, their theatre school. I was in no way shape or form alone in my desire to see the people from my city onstage in my regional theatre. Nova Scotians love to support their own and that is not just a regional experience.

I know what the challenges are that Neptune Theatre faces at the moment and I can tell you that they are not the same challenges that the Vancouver Playhouse faced and not at all the same as the ones Aubrey Dan faced with DanCap. We cannot paint these occurrences with the same brush or ignore the theatres such as The Manitoba Theatre Centre, where the exact same production of God of Carnage that received such a lukewarm response in Vancouver, played to steady and impassioned crowds in Winnipeg. Our focus should not be exclusively intent on dissecting what the theatre executives in this country in financial disaster did wrong, but we should be learning from what the theatre executives in this country in theatres that are thriving are doing right. How has Steven Schipper at RMTC gotten roughly 800 high school aged subscribers– teenagers who are subscribing to the theatre’s season independent of their parents? How did Bob Baker at the Citadel connect the theatre to the growing independent and Fringe theatre scene in Edmonton? What impact did his commitment to hiring Edmontonian actors and staging Edmontonian plays have on the success and the growth of the theatre complex? It is easy to point fingers and blame and to condemn, but it is far more constructive to ask, “How can we improve on this? What lessons can we learn from those who are where we want to be?”

As I have written before, Garth Drabinsky being a crook, the same as Aubrey Dan not being a very savvy theatre producer, have absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the Toronto musical theatre community, the quantity of the potential audience or is any reflection of any trends or failings of our community in general. They are two individuals whose emphasis on monetary success led them to make flawed decisions that eventually led to their downfall. We have to stop blaming ourselves for their shortcomings or allowing the press to insinuate that this is somehow proof that we are inferior to the United States, that we don’t have what it takes or that we are somehow doomed to be constant failures when attempting to produce big budget shows with Canadian casts.

Tonight the cast of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar shared the stage with Bernadette Peters, Harvey Fierstein, Mandy Patinkin, Audra McDonald, Judith Light, Andrew and Celia Keenan-Bolger, Alan Menken, Patti LuPone, Hugh Jackman, Neil Patrick Harris and Angela Lansbury because that is where they belong. This country is filled with world-class theatre artists who have the talent, the drive and the intelligence to accomplish whatever dream has hatched in their mind. Tonight, Tony Award winner Jordan Roth said in his acceptance speech, “There are those rare people who look at the world and see things the rest of us don’t see until they show us. These are the writers. There are a special few who can take that and turn it back into a world; these are the directors, the designers. There are fearless beings who can live in that world and show us who we are, those are our actors. There are dedicated people who know why that world matters so very much: crew, theatre staff, producers, investors, managers, marketers, and then there are the people who step forward and say, ‘show me this world. Open, change me.’ These are our audiences. And when all of these people come together and say, ‘YES’, there is theatre.”

I encourage you all to say YES. To throw yourself into the theatre in whatever way you want to experience it. To say YES to helping your fellow theatre artists, to say YES to helping to build your theatre community, to say YES to discussing how to make these institutions work for us and to investigate them and our various theatre scenes as unique and complex individual entities. I encourage you to say YES to believing in the Canadian theatre, in its power to change people, to move people, to bring people to tears, to make people laugh and to fill them with pride. I hear voices from the newspapers every day saying No. Maybe it’s their job to do so, but all I see happening is a grinding to a halt. A panicked face full of doubt. What good is this to art? Barrel through the negativity with YES. Try not to let the pettiness of jealousy or self-doubt weigh you down. Let’s work together and be kind. We’ve already proven that dreams come true.

This is only the beginning.  

I’m Filled with Glee Watching Jeigh Madjus!

I have a confession to make: I have never seen Glee. Since I am typically at the theatre six nights a week it is impossible for me to commit to following any one television program with any consistency. Even with the amount of hours I spend writing, in transit and pouring over Facebook and Twitter, there never seems to be enough hours in the day to even hunt for episodes online or to watch DVDs. I am not sure how the other theatre dorks in this city manage to stay current with television; I am so out of the loop that if it wasn’t for Twitter I would probably think Sex and the City was still on the air. Regardless, Glee seems like a show I would like- I mean it boasts of Matthew Morrison, and guest stars Jonathan Groff, Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel: what’s there not to love about that? It seems like something I will definitely obsess over once the general craze has fizzled and the world has moved on to fresher voices and newer scandals.
So, you may ask, why am I writing about something that I know nothing about? Well, apparently the producers of Glee are holding Open Call Auditions for “fresh, young, talented performers to fill new roles that will be featured during the show’s second season” and I just can’t stop watching this video.
Dear Glee, Here is Jeigh Madjus. You’re Welcome. Love, Amanda.
Kapow!

Kristin Chenoweth: Beyond the Bubble

When I think of Kristin Chenoweth (Tony Award winning Broadway star and Emmy Award nominated actress) the first thing that flashes into my brain is the radiance that always seems to shine from her blithe smile and her enticing green eyes. She seems to greet the world with boundless positive energy and a demure confidence that could melt a heart of stone. Of course, this is Hollywood, a world of manufactured facades and tailor-made personas for even the most grounded, modest and humble in the Show Business. For me, that is the allure of Chenoweth’s recently published autobiography A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages as it paints a portrait of a woman who not only spreads around sunshine, but who does so as best she can in an imperfect world. That makes this read refreshing as well as inspiring. Sometimes Kristin Chenoweth gets grumpy at the airport. Sometimes Kristin Chenoweth eats deliciously gluttonous food (she provides the recipes as well, so in fact, she also advocates indulging yourself with some “Chenolicious White Trash Cookies” (You know you’re curious!)). Kristin Chenoweth has had her fair share of tumultuous relationships and she has also battled Depression and Insomnia. She is not simply the vivacious, beautiful bubbly Galinda the Good Witch she played in Wicked on Broadway. Like Glinda, like all of us, her story is far more complex and rich than it may appear on the surface.
For me, Chenoweth’s book is a homage to the blessings she has found that push her to succeed, to thrive, and to find joy in an imperfect world. I use the word “blessing” and it may conjure up religious connotations for some people. Indeed, Chenoweth is very vocal about her Christian faith, and her roots in the Oklahoma Baptist Church tradition. She explores how her faith has provided a solid foundation upon which she has built her life in her book, and also speaks about how it can conflict with her decisions as an actor and the expectations of the communities of Los Angeles and New York along with those of the Devout Christian sector. That aside, however, the word “blessing,” even in a more secular sense, still seems to be the most accurate way to describe Chenoweth’s book.
She speaks adoringly of her family, particularly of her parents, Junie and Jerry Chenoweth. She speaks of her mother as she tells the story of being adopted saying, “She and I have always had a unique connection, and I wonder if, somehow, some part of her spirit knew that I was out there, that I belonged to her, and she needed to find me” (14). In this world where there is so much dysfunction and so much pain and sadness in families, this may seem slightly saccharine sweet, but in Chenoweth’s genial frankness, with her frequent smatterings of hilarity, the stories of her family come across as fresh as sweet country air. It is clear that her parents, along with her brother, Mark, and their extended family provide the un-quavering support and unconditional love that every child deserves.
The energy that continues to propel Chenoweth forward and which drives the story of her autobiography is her passion for music and for performing. She has a dedication, motivation and profound respect for her craft which mirrors the experience of so many of the aspiring performers who admire, respect and hope to follow in her footsteps. Chenoweth not only gives qualified advice for young performers in the book, but the portrait she paints of her life in New York with her best friend Denny Downs before You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown is a poignant, honest testament to the perseverance, tenacity and gumption required in the pursuit of one’s dreams. It appears a Tony Award is not properly earned until one has slept on a bunk bed with strangers and developed a parasite. Who knew?
I know that Chenoweth used a ghostwriter, Joni Rodgers, in the development of this book and Rodgers receives much credit both on the book cover and throughout the work, which screams of a fairness and generosity not always seen in Hollywood. That being said, I felt like Chenoweth’s voice was distinctly captured in the writing of this book. She has a unique, strongly captivating, and sincere voice that I found irresistible. Reading this book made me feel like Kristin Chenoweth was sitting beside me over red wine and potato chips and speaking candidly about her experiences with no pretense or agenda. It was a fun read without being a mindless one because her emotions, her rich emotions always tugged at the heart.
I would strongly recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of Kristin Chenoweth. It seems as though it was written very much with these people in mind and tells the types of stories that those interested in Wicked and You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown and The West Wing and Aaron Sorkin and Andrew Lippa will find fascinating and fun. I would also urge anyone who has felt alienated or offended or confused by Chenoweth’s seemingly contradictory choices in the past few years to read this book as it may provide some clarification. Certainly, Chenoweth came under fire by many for her appearance on Christian Fundamentalist Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club (to be fair, Robertson was not there when she taped the show), as well as for her beliefs regarding gay rights by members of the Christian community. She speaks with passion, confidence and intelligence on both of these issues in the book.
Kristin Chenoweth emanates charm and magnetism on the stage, on screen, via her CDs (with Sony Classical) and on each page of her book. She may sing and predict the weather from her “hoo hoo,” but this autobiography proves that Chenoweth tells stories from the heart and spreads passion from her soul.

A Little Bit Wicked: Life, Love, and Faith in Stages by Kristin Chenoweth with Joni Rodgers was published in 2009 by Simon and Schuster, Inc. New York City. It can be purchased at all major bookstores. It has a retail price of $25.00 US or $32.99 Canadian (hardcover).

Nobody Does It Better Than Sharron Matthews

I found myself in a strange mood tonight as I headed down to Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. I’ve had a strange, oddly emotional, quasi exhilarating, mentally exhausting past few days, and then today I found out about Bea Arthur, and then realized that this would be the last Sharron’s Party that I would have the great fortune to attend. So, it is with bittersweetness that I begin this entry.
I was grateful to Bryce Kulak who put on a wonderful pre-show show and kicked things off with his tune “You’re My Man,” which always gets me bopping like a six year old at a picnic. He then sang the beautiful “Tin Can Telephone” and then elicited the help of the illustrious Lily Ling with the Gershwin tune “Slap that Bass.” Bryce Kulak would have made a phenomenal Vaudevillian. Sometimes when I see him perform, I wish that we could revive Vaudeville, just because I think the antics he would get up to in such an ambiance would be Gee-Willikers, gosh darn swell! Know what else is Gosh Darn Swell? On Wednesday April 29th, 2009 Bryce Kulak and Lily Ling will be performing Divine Dinner Music at Statler’s Piano Lounge on Church Street from 9:30-12:30am, where they will be performing “timeless classics and unknown gems.” It’s sure to be as close to Vaudeville as Church Street gets, my friends!
One of the most endearing things about Sharron Matthews is how personable and genuinely lovely she is. Before she begins her Party, she makes sure to introduce herself to every new face she sees in the audience. She greets the familiar faces with her infectious smile and laughter, and there is always at least one special audience member who gets drawn into the show with particular emphasis.
She has been doing Sharron’s Party for four and a half years, and tonight was her forty-fourth party. There are only TWO more Parties (one May 29th and 30th and one blow-out-one-night-only-gay-a-palooza June 20th) before, like the Disney movies before her, Sharron Matthews puts Sharron’s Party in the vault.
And I know I have written about Sharron’s Party a lot, and I won’t linger too long on how beautiful her voice is and how refreshing and hysterical her stories and her medleys are, because you can read about how fantastic she is elsewhere. What I would like to express to you is how inspiring and empowering Sharron Matthews is. She wears her heart on her sleeve and she speaks with such candid sincerity about her struggles and her triumphs, the embarrassing awkwardness of life that we can all relate to. When it comes from someone of such beauty and talent and success, it fills me with such a sense that I can accomplish great things too. She is a booster shot of motivation and encouragement and I know that she has given that boost to so many of Toronto’s youngest artists who are working and making their dreams come true in this city. For that, I feel that we should all be so, so, so grateful.
The special guests for the evening were Gabi Epstein, who sang an incredible rendition of “Show Off” from The Drowsy Chaperone– Epstein always knows exactly how to tweak a song so that it suits her purpose perfectly. She then performed her and Lily Ling’s beautiful arrangement of “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” which is becoming one of my favourite songs. Then, I felt very blessed to have the opportunity to see Christopher “Big Girl” Wilson perform for the very first time. He is a whole high-kicking, fan-kicking ball of one-man-show vivacity. Wow. He sang a fantastic Barbra Streisand Broadway medley and then a gorgeous rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” which almost had me in tears. He and Matthews then shared stories from the making of The Music Man movie with Matthew Broderick and Kristin Chenoweth which included Matthews calling Wilson “super stalker snow skates,” which basically speaks for itself.
Only Sharron Matthews can perform Les Miserables in two minutes, include the line “on that neverending road to Calgary” and then sing the most extraordinarily gorgeous rendition of “Bring Him Home” that makes you wish that you’d invited Colm Wilkinson along to the Party with you. Sharron Matthews is Toronto’s theatrical gem. Catch her shows while you still can, and look forward with anticipation to her future projects because no one puts on a party quite like Sharron Matthews. She is simply the best.