Musical Theatre

The Canadian musical, like Canadian film, has always suffered in the public eye by comparison with its larger, more affluent American counterpart. The American musical, with its emphasis on extravagant production, has been the most successful commercial theatrical form of the 20th century.

Les Miserables
(Corel Professional Photos)

Musical Theatre

The Canadian musical, like Canadian film, has always suffered in the public eye by comparison with its larger, more affluent American counterpart. The American musical, with its emphasis on extravagant production, has been the most successful commercial theatrical form of the 20th century. Although it has spawned a host of imitators, it is only in the closing years of the century that serious challenges to American supremacy in the form have been mounted. During the first half of the century, when the economic dominance of the American roadshow meant that original Canadian musicals had little opportunity to get professional productions, the American musical was often the only model accessible to Canadian audiences - a situation raising inevitable comparisons with the Canadian film industry. The few Canadian musicals written were small in scope and disappeared without the opportunity of a second production.

Prior to the development of Canada's regional theatres, Canadian musicals were written to imitate the American form, which had roots in Viennese operetta, the Savoy Operas of Gilbert and Sullivan, the comic operas of Offenbach, and the American popular entertainments of vaudeville, burlesque and the minstrel show. Musical comedy, expensive to produce because of its dependence on a large cast and high levels of production, is fundamentally a commercial and popular form. In Canada, the development of an indigenous musical theatre has been hampered by lack of access to markets.

The establishment of regional theatres, starting in 1958 with the founding of the MANITOBA THEATRE CENTRE, and followed in the 1970s by alternative theatres, provided venues for Canadian plays. The idea of a professionally produced Canadian musical became a realistic possibility. The regional theatre movement opened the way for a generation of musicals smaller in scope than the Broadway giants and characterised by intimacy and innovation rather than spectacle and formula; Canadian writers began to adapt the form to their own cultural visions.

Early Ventures

It is arguable that the first play written and produced in Canada, Marc LESCARBOT's Théâtre de Neptune (1606), which incorporated dance and song in its presentation, was the first North American musical. However, most theatre historians locate the beginnings of the modern musical in the late 19th century in the USA when vaudeville, Gilbert and Sullivan, and the Viennese operetta were brought together and gradually transmuted into an indigenous American form. H.M.S. Parliament, a libretto written by William Henry Fuller to the music of Gilbert and Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore and performed at the Montréal Academy of Music in 1880, satirised Sir John A. MACDONALD's NATIONAL POLICY, providing an early example of what would in time become a strong tradition in Canada - the linking of musical theatre with political satire.

In the early years of the 20th century the typical American musical consisted of a series of songs and sketches woven loosely around a feeble plot. Canadian musicals leaned more towards revues, abandoning the idea of plot in favour of sharper satire in the music hall tradition, and relying for unity on the reappearance of performers in a variety of roles. The DUMBELLS, for example, originally an all-male soldier revue, stayed together after World War I and had considerable success on tour, winding up on Broadway in 1921 in a revue called Biff, Bing, Bang - probably an attempt to capitalize on the success of an earlier US Navy revue called Biff, Bang (1918).

Canadian theatre relied heavily on New York and London for its professional theatre during the interwar years, with touring productions forming the mainstay of theatre seasons in most centres. Attempts to create an indigenous theatre were modelled on European national theatres - particularly the Abbey - which did not emphasize the integration of music and dramatic action. Thus, while Americans were engaging in the great experiments of Showboat and the Gershwins' shows, Canadian musical theatre continued to exist largely in the form of the revue.

Versions of Canadian revues were performed in Toronto in the 1930s through such organizations as the Arts and Letters Club. The widespread popularity of the Workers' Theatre Movement brought revues with political agendas: We Beg to Differ in Montréal, Beer and Skits in Winnipeg, and a series of cabarets in Toronto all used original musical material to make their political points. During the war years, Gratien GÉLINAS' Fridolinons! revue provided social and political commentary in Québec.

The success of the Dumbells during World War I may have inspired the proliferation of morale-boosting revues from each of the main branches of the service during World War II, including The Navy Show, featuring the philosophical "You'll Get Used to It"; The Army Show; and the RCAF Blackouts. Perfomers who later became Canadian stars began their professional careers in these shows, including Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster (seeWAYNE AND SHUSTER) and Alan LUND with his wife, Blanche.

The greatest success story among Canadian revues remains Spring Thaw, which mounted a new show annually for 24 years, beginning in 1948. Under the original director, Mavor Moore, the pattern of satire combined with song and dance was introduced. Contemporary Canadian society and politics provided the subject material. Canadian performers who got their start in Spring Thaw include Don HARRON, Barbara Hamilton, Dave Broadfoot, Jack Duffy, Jane Mallett, and Robert GOULET.

During the 1940s and early 1950s, some of Canada's larger centres saw the establishment of professional and semi-professional stock companies that staged productions of Broadway-style musicals. The best known include Vancouver's Theatre Under the Stars (est 1940); Toronto's Melody Fair (which had a short existence in the early 1950s); and Winnipeg's RAINBOW STAGE (which continues to produce Broadway musicals). The contribution of these companies to the writing of indigenous musicals is negligible, although Theatre Under the Stars produced the original BC musical Timber! in the early 1950s. However, these companies exposed their audiences to the book musical (in which the music is strongly linked to the dramatic action), creating an interest in the form which was sustained after the establishment of the regional theatres. Probably the greatest successes among Canadian-written musicals of the 1950s were Mavor Moore's Sunshine Town (1955), produced by the New Play Society, and My Fur Lady (1957), a student show from McGill University that featured songs by Galt McDermot, who would later compose the music for the Broadway hit Hair. Both of these shows toured the country.

The Role of Regional Theatres

In the 10 years following the establishment of the CANADA COUNCIL in 1958, a number of professional regional theatres emerged in Canada. These theatres opened the door to Canadian playwrights, many of whom had been introduced to musicals by the stock companies. The distinctive form of the Canadian musical was consolidated in the early regional theatres and in the alternative theatres that grew up in the 1970s.

The emergence of the distinctive Canadian musical began with a number of original and powerful shows that combined the satirical revue with the book musical and other dramatic forms. Some of the most successful examples of original Canadian shows from this period include Gabriel CHARPENTIER's Klondyke (THÉÂTRE DU NOUVEAU MONDE, 1965), a Brechtian approach to the gold rush; George RYGA's Grass and Wild Strawberries (VANCOUVER PLAYHOUSE THEATRE, 1969), a rock extravaganza; Gravediggers of 1942 (Toronto Free Theatre, 1973), where Tom HENDRY and Steven Jacks ironically contrasted upbeat wartime tunes with the horrors of Dieppe; and Satyricon (STRATFORD FESTIVAL, 1969), a large-scale adaptation of the Petronius satire by Stanley Silverman with a rock score. The eclecticism of approaches is apparent.

Productions that made music an important part of the dramatic action include Ryga's Ecstasy of Rita Joe (Vancouver Playhouse, 1967), in which Ann Mortifee's folk-oriented score evoked the relationship to the land that the title character had been cut off from; and Pat Rose, Merv Campone and Richard Ouzounian's Jubalay (Manitoba Theatre Centre, 1974), which used what was essentially a revue format to create a kaleidoscopic view of the world through the eyes of an innocent child. This show, in a considerably changed form, later toured and had a successful run in New York as A Bistro Car on the CNR.

Traditional musical comedy also thrived in Canada during the 1960s and 1970s, primarily through the work of the CHARLOTTETOWN SUMMER FESTIVAL. First under the artistic directorship of Mavor Moore and confirmed under Alan Lund, who took over in 1968, the Charlottetown Festival embraced the cause of the Canadian musical. The most successful production of the Festival, and probably the best-known Canadian musical, is Don Harron and Norman CAMPBELL's Anne of Green Gables (1965), a splendid and well-crafted example of how the American form can be adapted to Canadian material. Other notable shows developed at the Festival include Johnny Belinda (Mavor Moore and John Fenwick, 1968); Fauntleroy (Mavor Moore and Johnny Burke, 1980); Windsor (David Warrack, 1978); and Babies (1986), Alexandra: the Last Empress (1988), The Rowdyman (1976), and, most notably, Kronborg: 1582 (1974), which almost made it to Broadway as Rockabye Hamlet - all by Cliff Jones. Work developed for the Charlottetown Festival's smaller stages includes Joey Miller and Steven Witkin's Eight to the Bar (1978), which received several productions across the country. The great contribution of the Charlottetown Festival has been its commitment to high-quality professional productions of original Canadian musicals, allowing talented writers to develop and refine their skills.

Throughout the 1980s alternative theatres provided suitable venues for small-scale musicals. Young People's Theatre in Toronto developed musicals during this time, ranging from the hard-edged Life on the Line (1983, Steven Bush and Allen Booth) to the mellow A Gift to Last (1986, Grahame Woods and Joey Miller). Morris Panych and Ken MacDonald wrote and performed the "post-nuclear cabaret" Last Call (1982) at Tamahnous Theatre in Vancouver. Writers who established bodies of work through these smaller theatres include the team of Paul Ledoux and David Young through Magnus Theatre, and John Roby through the BLYTH FESTIVAL. Ledoux and Roby had both been involved in cabaret/dinner theatres in Eastern Canada, which had developed a distinctive type of musical revue through companies like Rising Tide Theatre in Newfoundland and The Steel City Players in Sydney, whose Rise and Follies of Cape Breton Island played annually from 1977 to 1988.

The most successful writer of musicals to come out of the regional/alternative theatre circuit is John GRAY. Gray, born and raised in Nova Scotia and long-time resident of Vancouver, created his most successful and enduring show, Billy Bishop Goes to War, for the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in 1978. A popular and critical success, Billy Bishop went on tour, playing New York in 1980; it continues to be performed regularly at regional theatres both in Canada and internationally. Eighteen Wheels, Gray's earlier show about truckers (1977, Tamahnous Theatre), has been performed in many of Canada's regional theatres. Rock and Roll (1982, Vancouver East Cultural Centre) drew on his personal experience with a rock and roll band in small-town Nova Scotia; its success spawned a national tour and a retitled television adaptation, King of Saturday Night. Don Messer's Jubilee (1985, Neptune Theatre), staged as a barn-dance show, retold the story of popular television entertainer Don MESSER; it, too, toured nationally and has had several subsequent productions. Although Gray has turned his attention away from the musical in the 1990s to concentrate on writing essays and fiction, his legacy to the development of the Canadian musical will remain.

The Megamusical and Beyond

Canadian theatres have been used since the 1960s to launch American-written musicals intended for Broadway, but only in recent years has the strategy succeeded. In 1962, the Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson City opened with the world premiere of Foxy, a "Broadway-bound" musical set in the Klondike and adapted by Robert Emmett Dolan from Ben Jonson's Volpone. It starred veteran Broadway performers Bert Lahr and Larry Blyden. In the 1980s Edmonton's CITADEL THEATRE, with Joe SHOCTOR as producer, provided a home for a series of Broadway tryouts, including Flowers for Algernon (1978, Charles Strouse, David Rodgers), based on the popular film Charly; Duddy (1984, Leiber/Stoller), based on Mordecai RICHLER's THE APPRENTICESHIP OF DUDDY KRAVITZ; and Pieces of Eight (1985, Jule Styne/Susan Birkenhead), based on R. L. Stevenson's Treasure Island. The first of these had a brief run in London and New York; the other 2 were financial failures. Yet Canadian producers continued to believe in the possibility of mounting American-style musicals in Canada before taking them to Broadway.

In the late 1980s Toronto remountings of Broadway megamusicals billed as Canadian premieres became financially feasible partly because Toronto, by then one of the largest English-speaking theatre markets in the world, could support extended runs. Ed MIRVISH and son David had long provided a home for American productions at the ROYAL ALEXANDRA THEATRE, but with Les Misérables (1988) - essentially a duplicate of the New York show - they had a long-running hit with a mainly Canadian cast. Garth DRABINSKY at the restored Pantages Theatre had a similar success with Phantom of the Opera (1990), another "franchised" production with a largely Canadian cast, this time directed by Hal Prince, who had directed the New York version. The success of these shows, in Toronto and on tour, renewed interest in the possibility of the large-scale Canadian musical. The Mirvishes built the Princess of Wales Theatre to house Miss Saigon, and Drabinsky built the North York Centre as a venue for his Broadway-bound productions under the auspices of his production company, Livent.

Under Drabinsky's directorship Livent took a number of bold steps that appeared to revolutionalize the production and marketing of large musicals. Through Livent he developed a vertically integrated production system based on the Hollywood film studio model of the 1930s and 1940s. Musical properties were developed under a company umbrella - produced by the company and presented in company-owned theatres. During Livent's heyday in 1996 and 1997, Drabinsky envisaged a chain of performing arts centres from coast to coast in Canada and the US built specifically to showcase Livent productions. The flagship in the chain was to be the Ford Centre in North York (completed 1997).

Drabinsky's success, like that of the great Hollywood film producers, rested largely on his ability to secure proven talents to work on his productions. His collabortion with Hal Prince on Kiss of the Spider Woman (1992, Kander/Ebb/McNally) and the Kern/Hammerstein classic Showboat (1994) resulted in shows of significant artistic merit. The first of Livent's productions to be fully developed in-house was Ragtime (1996, Flaherty/Ahrens/McNally), directed by American Frank Galati. Based on E. L. Doctorow's book, it aimed for the epic quality of Showboat and achieved both critical and financial success in New York. Livent's subsequent revue, Fosse (1999), also garnered critical acclaim but the book musical, Parade (1998, J.R. Brown), like Ragtime based on events in American history, proved less successful, partly because of the darker tone of the material and partly because of the financial shadow that was cast over Livent during its development and run.

Livent's financial problems came to light as a direct result of its being, since 1993, a publicly traded company. Although shares appeared to be highly profitable, some of Livent's accounting practices were called into question in 1998, a scandal that led the company to file for bankruptcy protection. Drabinsky and his long-time partner Myron Gottlieb were ousted and the company's long-term future placed in jeopardy.

Despite Livent's success in the New York market, musicals written in Canada have not yet become American hits. Although Drabinsky has sought new musicals written by Canadians (he optioned Leslie Arden's The Return of Martin Guerre, but did not produce it), Livent has not yet produced a Canadian megamusical. Other Canadian writers have sought to enter the megamusical sweepstakes; probably the best publicized was Marlene Smith's production of Napoleon (1994, Andrew Sabiston/Timothy Williams), which failed to make back its original investment of $4.5 million. Its large scale and much publicized failure seems to have discouraged productions of big musicals by writers who have not already established big-league musical theatre credentials.

Future Directions

There is no one future for the musical form in Canada. Young writers, inspired by the success of Broadway megamusicals and lured by the potential financial rewards, have shown an increasing interest in writing for this market. Their work has ranged from the popular adaptation by Greg Robic of Aristophanes' The Clouds (Poor Alex Theatre, Toronto, 1997) and Alan Williams's arcane adaptation of Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy (Great Canadian Theatre Company, Ottawa, 1996) to Richard Ouzounian and Marek Norman's "Chamber Musical" version of Dracula (Stratford Festival, 1999) and the same authors' larger-scale Emily for the Charlottetown Festival (1999). In addition to these mainstream shows, many popular theatre groups have adopted the form of the musical to promote specific political and social agendas. Musicals aimed at marginal audiences have also emerged at FRINGE THEATRE FESTIVALS across the country. All of these have been helped by technological developments in music. Small musicals, no longer confined to the piano/bass/drums arrangements of the pre-digital period, can now have a sound as large as shows with pit orchestras, and this has made them much more attractive as an alternative theatrical form. Canada's musical theatre scene is currently more vibrant, and various, than it has ever been.


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