Sunday, 14 November 2010

Glass Half Empty, or Half Full?

Part of the Canadian "Inferiority Complex" is the knack for always seeing the glass as being half empty -- and probably draining.  In 2006, when I attended the book launch for Broadway North; The Dream of a Canadian Musical Theatre, I was told that "things were terrible".  The Producers had closed early, Lord of the Rings had lost a ton of money, and Toronto may never recover from the SARS epidemic.  But, I thought, had not a Canadian musical just won five Tony awards?  And another had a successful Off-Broadway run?  The Canadian mindset has difficulty adjusting to non-mediocrity, it seems.

 It's also important to realise when things have moved on.  I recently attended a conference at Brock University called Lyric Canada.  The conference included showcases of new works for opera and musical theatre.  When I left in 1991, Canadian composers were often accused of writing "Broadway warmed over".  No more.  Writers such as Leslie Arden and Jay Turvey/Paul Sportelli are clearly charting their own courses.  Yet one of the speakers lamented a bygone time in the 1970s when cabaret and dinner theatre ruled.  You could see five original Canadian musicals in Toronto at any given time, and Ontario's cottage country summer theatres put on new musicals for the tourists.  Now, even the Charlottetown Festival has stopped producing new Canadian musicals.  However, what the speaker did not mention was that in the intervening time, Tarragon Theatre and the Shaw Festival had both turned to producing major new Canadian musicals, often on serious subjects.  Canadian Stage had presented the premieres of Pelagie, Larry's Party, Outrageous! and The Story of My Life, the latter of which would go to Broadway.  They also presented Leslie Arden's landmark The House of Martin Guerre.  Nothing on this scale was happening thirty years ago.  It may just be that a tourism-oriented summer theatre is not the best place to incubate new work.  While I share his lament for the loss of important training grounds, it's important to appreciate the gains that have been made.  If only London had it so good!  I'm based there now, and with a few isolated exceptions, the only way new musicals get mounted there is if the writers do it themselves on the fringe.  Few major companies show any active, ongoing interest in the development of new musical theatre.

And, dare I say it, it just keeps getting better.  This week the Toronto Star broke the news that Toronto will soon see the launch of a new artist-run musical theatre company, under the working title of Theatre Twenty (named for the number of actors who banded together to form it).  It remains to be seen whether they will survive all the financial and creative hurdles that lay ahead of them -- they would be well advised to study the case history of Australia's ill-fated Kookaburra -- but I think it shows that I am not alone in believing that the glass is half-full -- and filling.


Musical theatre is an international form, not just an American one.  It can take root anywhere.  Following the publication of my previous book, Broadway North: The Dream of a Canadian Musical Theatre, the response I received from all over the world suggested that the principles I laid out therein – “putting the audience on stage” – applied not just to my native Canada, but to other countries as well. 
The musical theatre is a form that is so linked in the public’s mind with Broadway that it is sometimes referred to as the “American Musical Theatre”.  In fact, the late Peter Stone,
a former president of the Dramatists Guild and a noted Broadway librettist, once claimed that no musical theatre existed outside of New York City.  On the other hand, Alan Jay Lerner, the librettist behind My Fair Lady said, “Broadway cannot live without the musical theatre, but the
musical theatre can live without Broadway.  After all, its first home was Paris and then Vienna and then London and then New York.  So changes of address are not uncommon.” 

I want to explore the work that does exist outside of New York.  I’m not talking about the
many franchised versions of Fiddler on the Roof and Grease that have played everywhere from Tel Aviv to Abu Dabi.  I’m referring to indigenous musical theatre created in places other than New York by people other than New Yorkers and drawing on traditions other than just those of

Why do this? After half a century of New York domination, our culture is again becoming more cosmopolitan. In recent years, Broadway has played host to The Drowsy Chaperone (from Canada) and The Boy from Oz (from Australia).  Until the Second World War, there were not two centres for musical theatre, but at least half a dozen.  In addition to New York and London, we had Paris, Vienna, Berlin and Budapest, among others.  (And I’m not just talking about operetta, but musical comedy.) In spite of its reputation as the place where Broadway shows die, post-war France gave us at least three internationally successful musicals – Irma La Douce, the film The Umbrellas of
, and of course Les Misérables.

However, it’s not the past that interests me so much as the future. When people talk about the future of musical theatre, the names of Michael John Lachiusa, Jason Robert Brown, Andrew Lippa
and Adam Guettel are mentioned reverentially.  When will they add to that Leslie Arden (Canada) and Howard Goodall (U.K.)?  Other countries, such as Japan, Brazil, Argentina and Singapore are also making great strides toward establishing their own voices.   So the future centres of activity might include such hitherto neglected cities as Toronto, Sydney, Melbourne, Singapore, Tokyo, Buenos Aires and others.  In Australia, I visited Kookaburra in Sydney and Magnormos Theatre in
Melbourne (sponsors of the “OzMade Musicals festival).  In Japan, Shiki Theatre have been performing both Western imports – from Broadway hits like Wicked to Canada’s seminal musical Anne of Green Gables – and original Japanese works.  South Africa has also exported Sarafina and Kat and the Kings.

My book is still a work in progress.  With this blog I would like to keep you up to date on its development.  It is also an opportunity to be interactive.  I can't be everywhere at once, and you can help me enormously by filling me in on what is happening where you are.