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.