They’re slamming the doors, Singing, “Go away!” It’s less of a sail than a climb.

the bread and circus theatre

When I started TWISI almost four years ago, I became quickly swept up in what I perceived to be a resurgence and flourishing of the independent theatre in Toronto. Artists all across the scene were suddenly taking charge of their theatrical destinies and making incredible and inspiring things happen.

Toronto’s Cabaret tradition was suddenly thrust back into the spotlight, much to the delight of hundreds of people who clamoured to sing and to experience Jenni Burke and Michael Barber’s joyful and impressive weekly show Curtains Down, which brought a vivacious new vibe to Church Street. I went to my first Acting UpStage event at the Diesel Playhouse, a performance venue I loved in the heart of the Queen West district. Across Bloor Street, Gary Rideout Jr. would open Comedy Bar as a place to centralize the immense talent of Toronto’s sketch, stand up and Improv masters. Not long after, The Bread and Circus opened its doors, offering a cozy multifunctional space for independent theatre productions, music, an ideal Fringe venue (well, except for the lack of AC), and Cabaret shows (which at one point were cropping up like weeds thanks to the fostering and incubation of talent that existed each week at Curtains Down). The Bread and Circus became one of the homes of another exciting new theatre company, The National Theatre of the World, whose Carnegie Hall Show filled every Wednesday with music and laughter, drinks and debauchery that spilled into the lobby (and often into the street in Kensington Market) well into the night.

In hindsight, it seems so appropriate that TWISI should have emerged and grown up alongside this surge of activity, optimism and enterprise in Toronto’s independent theatre scene. I could feel the enthusiasm percolating every single day and I felt that we were all standing on the edge of something incredible that was going to eventually revolutionize and revitalize the Canadian theatre.

How could it not? The momentum that people like Jenni Burke and Gary Rideout Jr. and Michael Rubenfeld at SummerWorks created in these last four years has been extraordinary. Jeigh Madjus, one of the earliest regulars at Curtains Down, is now a Dora Nominated musical theatre force to be reckoned with, embarking on a yearlong American tour of La Cage Aux Folles. I have witnessed dozens of young musical theatre performers who literally went from being unknown, first-time singers, introducing themselves to Jenni Burke to emerging as the bright, young stars of countless musicals in theatres around Ontario and across the country. I have seen them devise their own Cabaret shows and, in some cases, their own Fringe shows, and in some cases, go out on a huge limb and to do extraordinary and unexpected feats of imagination and artistry. (I am thinking here of Eric Craig, who I first saw in 2007 in a reading of Edges, produced by (then relatively unknown) Sara Farb and Gabi Epstein, who recently performed in The Godot Cycle at the 2011 Toronto Fringe Festival.

Sara Farb and Gabi Epstein were the first young producers that I encountered in Toronto, people who were taking their careers into their own hands and making their own work in a city whose large musical theatre machine was not conducive to offering many parts for young Canadian performers. They inspired countless others who would follow in their footsteps. Mitchell Marcus, the bright, young producer of Acting Up Stage was proving vividly every year that quality musical theatre productions could be created by our own community here in Toronto and his fresh perspective has been instrumental in empowering Canadian performers, inspiring others and leading directly to the flourishing careers of a great many of our city’s promising young stars.

A lot has changed since 2007. Toronto’s musical monoliths are making a concretive effort to immerse themselves back into the theatre community of this city. They are hiring more local performers, lending their support and resources to a number of indigenous theatre ventures and I think that they are even doing more interesting work of a higher calibre than they did four years ago. The Comedy Bar has grown and flourished into an institution of laughter that I don’t ever want to imagine Toronto without and it is churning out comedians and shows that are filled with ingenuity: a cornucopia of talent seven days a week. The National Theatre of the World has matured into one of Toronto’s most exciting and beloved theatre companies and has helped to merge the Comedy and Theatre and Musical Theatre communities in the city, as well as bring together a multitude of multifaceted performers to enrich the experience of Toronto’s artists and audiences even further. People like Sharron Matthews and Thom Allison, who were big, well known stars four years ago, have skyrocketed to superpower status, seemingly taking over the world, proving to fellow artists and audiences alike that the possibilities in a career in the theatre in Canada are endless.

Yet, at the same time, the last four years has also seen a lot of what at first seemed so promising come to an abrupt end. Curtains Down became a casualty of the precariousness of its home at Statler’s Piano Bar. It weathered one changeover of ownership in the venue but then went on hiatus, finding refuge at the Pantages Hotel and seeking to re-establish itself in the Monday nights of the musical theatre community. Sadly, the show went on hiatus again in February indefinitely. Soon Statler’s would re-open, prompting many to anticipate that Curtains Down would be reinstated to its former glory. Instead, a new duo, Donavan LeNebat and Jennifer Walls created their own Curtains Down inspired show, entitled SINGular Sensation Mondays which ran steadily throughout the Spring. Unfortunately this show, “due to circumstances beyond LeNebat and Walls’ control,” is now also experiencing an indefinite hiatus as well.

I knew the Bread and Circus Theatre was in trouble months ago when I heard that it had lost its liquor license, and sure enough, this fantastic little venue that housed so much great theatre for the past three years, is going the way of the Diesel Playhouse before it, and closing its doors for good. This sends one of The National Theatre of the World’s shows, and their only show that has kept a strict and constant schedule for an impressive three years, The Carnegie Hall Show, homeless out into the streets. It is worrying what this means for this beloved show, but I am optimistic that the National Theatre of the World has established themselves firmly and impressively enough as successful, inventive, co-operative, enthusiastic and viable, a company that producers can rely on to bring in the crowds and keep them eagerly coming back each week for more. I’m hopeful another venue will snatch them up and quick so they can get on with doing what they do best: entertaining the masses.

I don’t want to sound like I am placing blame on anyone for the demise of these ventures and these venues. I think we all owe everyone who has given Toronto something new, something we relished in (if only for a short while), a place to play and a source of empowerment our gratitude. Yet, what I would like to focus on here is addressing the question of why so many of these independent ventures seem to run out of steam before they are able to reach stable sustainability and, more importantly, what we can do to improve on our ability as artists, producers and theatrical entrepreneurs to surmount these challenges. I see a lot of venue hopping happening, I see a lot of change-over in ownership, but what I don’t see is a lot of conversation about how the new owners of places like Statler’s, or the new venues that crop up, are going to make changes to avoid the same problems that plagued their predecessors. So often we, the concerned artists and public, are not made entirely aware of what the issues were that doomed our favourite venues and if we are not made aware of the obstacles that obviously so many owners of performance spaces are facing how can we ever hope to build a sturdier future here? What made the Bread and Circus, a venue that was often at capacity, that had steady bookings and loyal patrons, close, while a place like The Comedy Bar continues to flourish? Is it that the co-owner of the Comedy Bar building, Gary Rideout Jr., is a performer and so his vested interest in keeping the business open for the comedy community that he is such an integral part of ensures its success? Can more artists follow in Rideout’s footsteps and secure their own venues? I always find myself looking to the Varscona Theatre in Edmonton, as my source of venue inspiration. It is a cooperatively run theatre space which houses five professional resident companies. Surely a space like this would be beneficial for Toronto to give some security to companies like The National Theatre of the World, who could perhaps share with a show like Curtains Down. It could certainly be a Fringe and/or SummerWorks venue and could also be the space to house the type of shows that played at the B&C and The Diesel Playhouse.

The bottom line is that Toronto needs these small venues to nurture the companies creating new work not just during the summer but all the year through. These venues are stepping stones to a place like Theatre Passe Muraille, which, as we know is a stepping stone to Factory, Tarragon and Canadian Stage, theatres from whence our plays and our artists reach success across the country and around the world. Toronto needs space for its Cabaret scene to continue to grow, it needs space for something like The Carnegie Hall Show, which is so unique to our city, to the four performers who have created it, and that needs and deserves to be protected. Toronto’s musical theatre community needs a place like Curtains Down, where people can go and sing to gain confidence, to gain exposure, to promote their shows, to test Cabaret material, to test audition material, to cut their teeth, to socialize and schmooze and build friendships and partnerships and network and contacts in a business where all these things are essential. I watched in amazement for two years as I saw the direct impact that Curtains Down had on revitalizing Toronto’s own musical theatre community and sending inspired young performers into their futures filled with hope, optimism and strength. These artists knew that they could accomplish their goals and, most importantly, that if the institutions in the city were too American-centric to give them a chance, that they had bright and exciting alternatives, whether that be a company like Angelwalk or Acting UpStage, or producing their own Cabaret or working with one of the many exorbitantly talented Toronto-based musical theatre composers on a reading, or producing a musical of their own. We need this momentum to continue. It has brought us Theatre 20, it has brought us Jersey Boys it has brought us Sharron Matthews Superstar and a whole generation of musical theatre performers who rallied together and believed in one another, in themselves and in the theatre of this country. We all have a responsibility to make sure that this bright light does not get snuffed out.

TWISI has not been immune to any of this precariousness either. I have been on “indefinite hiatus” here in Halifax since March, likely for many of the same reasons that venues are closing and producers are scrambling to keep their weekly shows afloat. It’s not easy. Sharron Matthews has been a beacon of light for the last year with her wildly popular and critically acclaimed shows in Scotland and New York, but at the end of the day, if Sharron Matthews is not getting grants from the Canada Council and instead reliant on fundraising efforts, given that she is one of the biggest stars of the Canadian musical theatre (and has been for over a decade) and is nearly single handedly responsible for the Cabaret Renaissance in this city, the rest of us are, quite frankly, screwed.

Yet, in the past few days I, like most people in this country, have been spending a lot of my time thinking about Jack Layton and reflecting on his life. I recently was reminded how small the NDP’s presence in Parliament used to be, and not too long ago. I was reminded of how many people told Jack that Canadians would never elect the NDP in any substantial way. How they would never be able to make gains in Quebec… and that they would NEVER have an MP in Alberta. I was reminded how when Canadians seemed to be telling Jack the same thing, when they were voting Liberal and Conservative six ways from Sunday, when he kept looking like he was getting beaten and losing the fight… he always got up swinging. He always said YES, I CAN. YES I WILL. YOU JUST WATCH ME. He never seemed to wallow in defeat. Look at all he accomplished out of that.

I don’t want to wallow in the closure of the Bread and Circus, I don’t want to wallow in the hiatus of SINGular Sensation or Curtains Down… or indeed, in TWISI and I hope that you won’t either. I hope that we can start to investigate alternatives to venue hopping. This is certainly something that I intend to cover in more depth and hopefully with more research and insight, upon my return to Toronto (which will be soon).

My beloved Toronto theatre community, we are still on the brink of something extraordinary. I am still exorbitantly proud of all of you and all that we have accomplished in the last four years and I am still determined and hopeful and optimistic that TWISI will very soon rise up, like a phoenix, to be the Canadian Theatre resource that you all deserve. I am working very hard and I am filled with unbridled enthusiasm, passion and excitement for the future for all of us together.

I can’t wait to see what happens next. Let’s all make some magic.

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Thom Allison is Sailing Away

thom allison
I vividly remember the first time I met Thom Allison. It was September, 2007 and Acting Up Stage was having their annual Toronto Musical Theatre Stars Sing Songs from Legendary Pop Culture Phenomenons Evening of Song and so Thom Allison was singing songs of the Beatles. I was “just off the boat,” as they say; my life in Toronto had barely started, as a matter of fact, I consider this evening to be the very moment that my life, my career, my love of Toronto, first began to bloom. With uncharacteristic panache (clearly swept up in my excitement for the new life I was obviously seizing by the horns) I went up to Thom Allison after the performance and said to him, “Wow! You should have “Superstar” tattooed across your forehead!” (right!?) And thus, my love affair with Thom Allison began.
It was bittersweet, then, to be in the audience for his most recent show, last night at Tallulah’s Cabaret at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, as it was a fond farewell for Thom to the city where he has lived and built a illustrious, rich and brightly inspirational life and career since moving here from Winnipeg to attend Ryerson in 1987 (when he was six). It is disheartening, of course, to see Thom go, he is such a radiant talent to behold, a warm, sweet, generous and vibrant member of our community, but it is all these things that have led to him embarking on this exciting new adventure, performing on Broadway with Priscilla Queen of the Desert. I know that he will make us all proud in this next chapter of his career.
His cabaret began with a Gershwin tune “A Foggy Day (in Toronto Town),” a jazzy and smooth ode to our fair city. A bit of Judy Garland followed with “Lose that Long Face” a brassy number written to be tap danced to, which lifted the whole energy of the room, although my favourite moment was his allusion to the forced rhyme of “vac-cu-um,” which really does beg for an eyebrow raise. He then sang the gorgeous powerhouse ballad “A Lovely Day to Be Out of Jail” from Cy Coleman’s The Life, which is one of my favourite songs that he sings. It always makes me think of what Tom Joad would sing if Grapes of Wrath were a musical and Thom captures that same rugged simplicity of walking freely into the world so perfectly.
Special Guest Sara Farb sang an uncharacteristic Rodgers and Hart tune, “My Funny Valentine” an old faithful standard in a sultry legit voice that harkened back to a more soulful and genuine time. Thom returned with “She Touched Me” from Drat! The Cat!, a joyful, rejoicing type number typical of musicals of its time and then hit us with a blissful rendition of Steven Schwartz’s “Lost in the Wilderness” which I’m pretty sure made the hearts of the entire sum of the theatre simultaneously turn to strawberry jelly. Thom is particularly talented at his ending notes, which always soar with an intensity that threatens to sweep up the breaths of everyone in its path. He then sang “I’d Rather Be Sailing” from A New Brain, and in my opinion, Thom’s is the definitive rendition of this song. Whenever he begins, it seems so effortless, as though William Finn wrote it expressly for him. It is the song that you want to curl up inside of and stay there for the whole winter.
Thom was accompanied in his Cabaret by the very talented young Chris Tsujiuchi, who performed his piano rendition of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” which keeps reminding me that any song can be made to sound heart rending, it is all in the way that it is performed. Thom returned with “Gorgeous” from The Apple Tree, which he sings with delicious exuberance, while showing off his dreaminess, laughing maniacally and hitting a sky scraping note at the end. “Being Alive” ended the first act, inspiring the thought that I would love to see Thom play Bobby in Company someday. The second act began with a haunting rendition of “The Meadowlark” and the beautiful ballad “Who Can I Turn To?” which showed off his lower register deliciously. Gavin Crawford then joined us and treated us to his impeccable and uproarious Rufus Wainwright impression and introduced us to Wainwright’s new album, “Christmas Carols for Atheists” which is comprised of parodies of Christmas songs with lyrics that reflect the Age of Not Believing. I was floored by the detail of Crawford’s performance and delighted by the pastiche of it all. I was delighted that Thom sang “The Trolley Song” from Meet Me in St. Louis, which is one of the first songs I heard him sing in Cabaret. George Masswohl came to the stage and sang a heartbreaking rendition of “Send in the Clowns” in memory of Goldie Semple, who starred with him and Thom in A Little Night Music at the Shaw Festival in 2008. Many have asked Sondheim what this song “means” but I will tell you, that is all immediately clear in the dexterous hands of George Masswohl.
Rounding out the cabaret was an exquisite rendition by Thom of the Shirley Bassey tune “The Living Tree,” Harold Arlen’s “A Sleepin’ Bee,” which I think is a lovely twin performance to Audra Mcdonald’s version on her album, very similar, yet strikingly different. Sharron Matthews came up for the eleven o’clock number which was undoubtedly her epic one woman “Bohemian Rhapsody”, which is a self-contained show all unto itself. She sings parts of it with all the intensity of Fantine from Les Miserables, erupts into opera rock superstardom and pulls out all the diva stops, it’s no wonder it’s Thom Allison’s favourite thing. The ending of the cabaret was heartfelt and sweet, but in no way saccharine, just a lovely rich voice floating overhead and wafting, drifting slowly beyond all of us into the night.
I will miss Thom Allison. I will miss his infectious smile, his exuberant “seize the moment and revel in it” laughter, which only intensifies when the theatre gods play their tricks, and most of all the warmth that emanates from him that has blanketed this community in acceptance, inspiration and love since good fortune brought him our way in the first place. I know New York will fall in love with him just as hard as we all have and I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.

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Musical Theatre Stars Look to the Rainbow

ari weinberg
Sometimes I attend certain theatrical events that overwhelm me with feelings of pride in the incredibly talented and generous theatre community that we have here in Toronto. This was most definitely the case on Sunday evening at Ari Weinberg’s Shameless (for a Cause) at Buddies and Bad Times, an evening to celebrate diversity and to raise money in support of Buddies’ LGBT youth initiatives.
Hosted by the ever vivacious and quixotic Ari Weinberg, this evening brought together some of Toronto’s most iconic and illustrious musical theatre stars with the brightest young performers our city has to offer to sing songs and tell stories centering on embracing uniqueness in the midst of adversity. Weinberg decided to launch this evening in response to the horrific string of suicides by gay youths which have recently come to light and have been linked to both relentless bullying, ignorance and intolerance by peers at school, and also policies of hatred and discrimination that seem appallingly intrinsic to various organizations from service industries to school boards and within the government, not just in the United States, but also here in Canada and around the world. Dan Savage, American author and journalist best known for his frank and inclusive sex column, Savage Love, which runs in many regional papers, launched the It Gets Better Campaign in conjunction with The Trevor Project, which has grown into a slew of videos being made and shared via YouTube mostly by gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals, along with many from celebrities and public figures, reaching out to youths who may be struggling with bullying and feelings of alienation and despair due to their sexual orientation and also providing a strong sense of solidarity in sending the message that bullying will not be tolerated in our schools, and that hatred and discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgendered individuals is wrong and is not welcome in our communities or our society as a whole. “The Trevor Project is an international organization that provides life-saving and life-affirming resources including an American 24/7 crisis intervention lifeline, digital community and advocacy/educational programs that create a safe, supportive and positive environment for everyone.” Weinberg wanted Shameless for a Cause to focus on the local LGBT community here in Toronto, which can provided more specific and centralized help to youths in Ontario, including the youth initiatives at Buddies in Bad Times theatre, and Youth Line, which is an Ontarian organization with a similar mission and toll free crisis intervention, and support network hot line (1 800 268 YOUTH (9688) or, if you’re in Toronto, 416 962 YOUTH (9688)).
The evening began with the ever-charming Kyle Golemba, the Belle of the Ball, recently back in Toronto rehearsing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum after spending the Spring and Summer at the Stratford Festival. Golemba is particularly adept at the storytelling aspect of Cabaret, as he not only knows how to tell stories effectively, but also how to structure each one so that it has a specific comedic arc. He sang Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” a fun twist, in an earnest lovely deep voice mixed with dreamy belting. He then sang one of my favourite Canadian musical theatre songs, “A Day With Julia” from Leslie Arden’s The Last Resort, in a brilliantly jazzy rendition, but still with a palpable sinister darkness. David Lopez, who is currently appearing in Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Princess of Wales Theatre, told us about how when he was ten years old the thought of kissing a girl actually made him violently ill. He has a gorgeous deep, rich voice. First he showed off his shrewd storytelling skills singing “Mr. Right Now” and then he kicked the house down with an electric, soaring, goose bump inducing rendition of “Unexpected Song” from Song and Dance, in an arrangement that suited the lower registers of his voice perfectly. Superstar Bruce Dow, also in Toronto from where he usually stars in Stratford, to do A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, sang an extraordinary rendition of “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”, fraught with charm and jazz and smooth notes like butter to melt in your mouth. He then sang an utterly enticing, soft and captivating song called “Lazy Afternoon,” which was languid in a way that drew the audience in and held them aching for every unfurling note. It was pure magic. It has been said that inside every gay man, there is a big, soulful, divalicious black woman vying to get out, and Jordan Bell had the opportunity to share his inner Effie with all of us with a rousing performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” the iconic torch song from Dreamgirls. Bell infused the song with an exorbitant amount of energy and was riffing in a way that left me gleeful. Jeigh Madjus sang “Here’s Where I Stand” from Camp and once again, I have to tell you how effortless Madjus makes singing like an angel, or belting huge, warm, rich notes that spread out like hot fudge and are equally as delicious. His performances are flawless and joyful and it seems as though there is nothing easier or more natural for him to do in the world than perform. He is a delight to watch and his star potential is exhilarating for the whole community.
That being said, the most surprising moment of the evening for me was when the spotlight fell on superstar pianist Chris Tsujiuchi singing a heartfelt, lovely arrangement of Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” which gave that song class as I never thought possible. He also wrote this piano solo into the middle of the song which was absolutely breathtaking. His intensity allowed us all to consider the lyrics of the song, as most of us probably never had, within the context he had set up in an eloquent and touching speech before he began about how Sharron Matthews had once shared with him the idea that we are all born exactly as we are supposed to be, with a full pot of gold and that we don’t need anything else from anyone. Our job then, through our lives, is to protect our pots of gold and to never stealing any gold from anyone else. Suddenly, “Hit Me Baby One More Time” became about someone who is continually allowing their gold to be stolen by someone they love, which I think is an experience that everyone can relate to.
In the spirit of solidarity, there were also songs sung by those who are not necessarily “queer” in their orientation, but who, like me, consider the eradication of homophobia to be a vital mission worth crusading for. Alex Saslove and Justin Grant sang a simple and sweet rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend” with Grant providing accompaniment on the guitar, and then Weinberg and Saslove were joined by Sara Farb for a powerful performance of “Hold On” from The Secret Garden in chilling three part harmony. It was incredible to see Weinberg singing so genuine and intensely down in his lower register and Farb proved beyond any doubt that she should be playing Martha in the upcoming production of The Secret Garden that Mirvish has slated for the New Year. Kapow. Kapow. Kapow.
Two time Tony Award nominee Gavin Creel performed as a very special guest. A vibrant member of New York’s Broadway Community, Creel is will be performing a concert of his own music with his partner Robbie Roth, who is Canadian, at the Factory Theatre this Sunday November 28th at 8pm. Creel is also a very active member of the American Crusade for LGBT rights and he spoke passionately about how important he feels that it is for LGBT individuals to come out to their families and their friends, and for straight people to come out in support not only of their friends, but for equality and the eradication of hatred, discrimination and homophobia in all its forms. Creel’s speech reminded me how much I think some of us are able to take for granted in certain communities here in Canada and that there really is still much to be changed, much to fight and lobby for, and that we cannot forget that there is still a great big world beyond our own insular realm of positivity and acceptance, and that we should all be doing our part to help make all of it a place where people can respect love without judging it and encourage children to grow up expressing themselves and following their hearts, regardless of what path that leads them on. Creel sang a beautiful song called “For Nancy” about a child asking his mother not to be ashamed or alarmed, just to love him because he is still the same as he has always been. It’s such a simple song, but so intense in all the emotion that Creel brings to it, it becomes utterly heart wrenching. He then sang a joyful rendition of “I Got Life” from Hair, the most recent show that he performed on Broadway. Creel is a very poignant performer, and along with his dreamy voice, he is also wildly charming and zealous in his desire to share the conversation surrounding gay rights with as many people in an inclusive, positive way, as possible, which I think is so admirable and important.
What I love about Buddies in Bad Times is that every time I walk into that theatre I feel, usually wordlessly, this overwhelming sensation of “you belong here.” It is implicit in Shawn Daudlin and Patricia and everyone else who works there, it’s implied in the work that they choose to produce, and the homey space that they give to Cabaret artists like Ari Weinberg and Sharron Matthews (whose CD release is in Tallulah’s Cabaret this Friday November 26th and Saturday November 27th, you should go). Matthews broke my heart on Sunday evening when she told this story about some mean spirited girls that she befriended as a young, impressionable girl and that she ached and tried everything in her power to stay friends with them despite the fact that they were terrible to her. She then sang her now famous emotionally devastating powerhouse rendition of “Creep” and I doubt there was a dry eye in the whole house. She is so truthful in her performance, so beautiful, I always feel thankful when I watch her perform. I think that most people can relate to wanting to be accepted so ardently, to feeling inferior and having other people take advantage of your vulnerability in their quest to make you feel small. I know that I certainly can relate, as these are all things that I still grapple with. Thom Allison also shared his experiences of feeling inadequate, which made the joy of the bliss that his performance always conjures even more comforting and celebratory than usual.
Yet, despite our stories of feeling isolated or mistreated, here we all were at a theatre where we belong, and I feel like this evening, that inclusion, that force of camaraderie and music and positivity in the face of adversity, hatred and feeling ostracized, is exemplary of our musical theatre community here in Toronto, which is indicative of the greater theatre community that we have not just in this city, but in our entire country. Yes, sometimes competition rears its ugly head, I’m sure jealousy and vindictiveness havebeen known to snap at our heels from time to time, the business is flawed, I’ll be the first to admit it, but in general, overall, the people who live here and work here, who we really are, is what Buddies is, a community where everyone can feel that they belong, and that they are supported and accepted. Hopefully within our community we are being inspired every day to embrace the person that we truly are on the inside and to not be afraid to shine. At the end of Shameless for A Cause Weinberg sang a very touching and hopeful rendition of “Alone in the Universe” from Seussical the Musical. I think part of what makes us so fortunate and so strong and capable is that we are not alone. We all have wings, we can all fly and as long as we keep believing in one another and in ourselves, our theatres will thrive, our city will thrive and we, as human beings of the universe, will all thrive too.

The Subway Songs is Ready to Go

sara farb and evan alexander smith
According to an essay that David Rhymer wrote in the Winter/Spring 2010 Issue of WORKS the journal of Canadian Theatre presented by the SummerWorks Theatre Festival, a few years ago he was invited to be a panellist at a Playwright’s Guild of Canada symposium entitled “Why Can’t Canadians write successful musicals?” In his essay “Kleenex™ vs. Tissue” Rhymer argues that the issue is not that Canadians cannot write successful musicals, but that often because our musicals do not fit a familiar and traditional American formula that theatre producers, practitioners and audience members often have difficulty recognizing them as belonging to the genre of musical theatre. While I understand Rhymer’s point and I celebrate Canadians having their own unique style of musical, I also propose that Canadians are just as proficient at writing in exactly the same style of musical that has been churned out of New York for the last one hundred and twenty years.
The Subway Songs, a song cycle written by the young Canadian composing team of Colleen Dauncey and Akiva Romer-Segal, which I had the pleasure of seeing in a Canadian Actors’ Equity Association approved Co-op on June 22nd at the Bread and Circus Theatre, is a perfect example. Since Jason Robert Brown’s iconic Songs for a New World (1995), a production which sits on the boundary between being a musical and a song cycle featuring songs connected by a unifying theme rather than a narrative, this formula has become prevalent among contemporary American and Canadian composers. The Subway Songs, as the title suggests, is a collection of songs that explore the unique characters and situations that one may encounter on a subway in the city during the morning commute and at rush hour.
The songs Dauncey and Romer-Segal have written are sophisticated and professionally polished. Dauncey’s music is a nice mixture of musical theatre and rock n’ roll with some powerful four-part harmony, while Romer-Segal’s lyrics have tight, clever rhymes by times reminiscent of the work of Stephen Sondheim. Some of the songs explore a specific theme, such as “The Subway Has Everything,” a love letter to the train from a quirky woman who takes transit to feel less alone in the world. Others, such as “Walk of Shame” and “Better Off,” tell an entire story arc, both of which start out as hilariously urbane tunes that then derail into more serious territory and reflect the complex inner issues and turmoil that exists beneath the facade of cell phones, IPods and attitude that so many of us adopt in public places. Then there is “Field Trip,” an unexpected exuberantly, joyful song that bursts out of the end of the First Act, which is an absolute delight.
The cast that was assembled for this Co-op was absolutely ideal and I hope that when this song cycle receives a full production that it will be these four brilliant performers who will be the inaugural cast. “Walk of Shame” has been tailor made to suit Sara Farb’s voice and belting prowess and it shows. The song is the story of a hung over girl, clearly in a destructive drinking cycle, desperate to piece together the details of the night before. Farb begins with her signature apathetic causticity, which always inspires a laugh, but she also reveals an endearing gentleness to this girl which melts the pretence with an adorable sheepish smile. I was also thrilled with the opportunity to hear Farb sing in the higher registers of her voice with “Stepping Stone” which allowed her voice to soar through the theatre with simple, pure, loveliness. Similarly, Evan Alexander Smith showed off his epic patter proficiency and his ability to break an audience’s heart with “Better Off,” which vocalizes the concerns of a man about to become a Dad, and then his voice is allowed to soar beautifully in the lovely “Far As The Eye Can See,” a poetic song about what happens when your dreams grow too big for your hometown, which I think a lot of people in Toronto can immediately relate to.
Dauncey and Romer-Segal give Sharron Matthews and George Masswohl one of the cutest musical theatre boy-meets-girl duets in the universe entitled “Figure You Out.” They performed it with so much geeky, awkward, adorableness I thought my heart was going to explode. Masswohl also sang a haunting song as a homeless man entitled “Someone Like Me,” which suited both his gorgeous voice and his rich, natural acting ability. The song finds a nice balance at being socially conscious without being didactic. He then gets a hilarious dancing song “Let it Show,” which I appreciated so much because I think that because of his deep, beautiful, resounding voice, he is so often seen as playing dark, broody, complex, often epic roles, and audiences more seldom get to appreciate the fact that he has shrewd comic timing as well. Sharron Matthews brings so much emotion to everything she sings and her two solo songs, “The Subway Has Everything” and “Can You Hear Me” both teem with genuine, heartfelt feeling and allow for the beauty in Matthews’ voice to envelope the whole room.
As a song cycle, The Subway Songs is a polished piece ready to be professionally produced. The music is immediate and assessable, while being original and sophisticated. It seems like the perfect choice for a company like Acting Up Stage or Angelwalk Theatre that produce contemporary musical theatre, especially since this show is Canadian.
In his article David Rhymer says, playing devil’s advocate, “Maybe Canadian composers just don’t have what it takes. After all where was our Oklahoma!? Where was our Guys and Dolls—our West Side Story?” I would argue that it is not that these musicals are not being written, nor that our composers are incapable of writing them, but that we are not looking hard enough to find them, to nurture them and to bring them into our mainstream theatres. The Drowsy Chaperone, a show I adore, is always touted as being proof that Canadian Producers will find and will support small indigenous shows if they show potential. This argument has always seemed so absurd to me because, despite its humble beginnings, The Drowsy Chaperone was conceived with the talents of Bob Martin (Puppets Who Kill, Slings and Arrows) and iconic Canadian film director Don McKellar. This show, it seems to me, is the Canadian equivalent of Larry David and Sam Mendes teaming up and writing a musical. It’s wonderful and inspiring that it’s become so successful, but is it really paving the way for the young and unknown talents in this city to follow in their footsteps?
If you venture into the Bread and Circus, if you attend Scriptlab’s Sing and Tells, if you scout out the Fringe Festivals across the country and SummerWorks’ Musical Works, as some Canadian producers do, that is where composers like Akiva Romer-Segal and Colleen Dauncey are debuting Canadian musical theatre that can hold its own against anything that’s being churned out of America. It’s not a question of “can we write this?” but of “when will the largest theatres in the country realize the wealth of talent sitting right under their noses?” Now/Later/Soon?
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