Musical Theatre | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Musical Theatre

Musical theatre. A broad performance genre combining music and drama or comedy. Thanks to large-scale productions and cross-pollination, the genre has become increasingly difficult to differentiate from other marriages of music and drama.

A broad performance genre combining music and drama or comedy. Thanks to large-scale productions and cross-pollination, the genre has become increasingly difficult to differentiate from other marriages of music and drama.

Original Canadian musical theatre composition has only relatively recently become commonplace. Foreign works and productions monopolized 19th-century theatres, and Canadian content was present only in short burlesques. In the 20th century, a Canadian style developed in revues before beginning to emerge in musicals in the late 1970s.

Pageants and Entertainments
Canada's first theatrical presentation, Marc Lescarbot's European-style Theatre of Neptune (1606), was a masque with music performed aboard ship in the harbour of Port Royal to celebrate the governor's return. L'Ordre de Bon Temps (1928), a dramatization of life in the colony by Louvigny de Montigny, was translated in 1928 by John Murray Gibbon as The Order of Good Cheer and utilized French-Canadian folksongs harmonized by Healey Willan. It was performed at the CPR Festival in Quebec City in 1928.

F.A. Dixon, who had presented original musical entertainments at Rideau Hall in Ottawa during Lord Dufferin's term, collaborated with the composer Arthur Clappé on a masque entitled Canada's Welcome (1879) in honour of the Marquess of Lorne's installation as governor general.

In the 20th century the masque gave way to the spectacular pageant, usually historical and commemorating significant events, perhaps best exemplified by the annual Grandstand shows at the Canadian National Exhibition (CNE), Toronto, during the 1920s and 1930s, which featured such themes as the settlement of western Canada, incidents in British history, or successions of events in Canadian history.

Father Daniel Lord's mammoth 1949 Salute to Canada at the Martyrs' Shrine near Midland, Ont, marked the 300th anniversary of the massacre there. Neil Harris composed the music for Portrait of a City, a pageant celebrating Saskatoon's 50th anniversary in 1952. In 1968 From Sea to Sea (by Howard Cable, Gordon Lightfoot, and Don Harron) utilized the entire CNE Stadium in Toronto to tell the story of the building of the CPR. (See also Brébeuf.)

Light Opera and Operetta

In 1774 the men of the English garrison in Montreal performed 'a piece in two acts consisting of vocal and instrumental music.' Although 'acts' probably refers to the two halves of the program, rather than a cohesive dramatic work, popular operatic numbers would certainly have been included. (See also Opera performance.)

Throughout most of the 19th century Canadians enjoyed operettas from abroad. The Holman English Opera Troupe, built around the George Holman family, was the most important Canadian musical touring company from the 1860s to the 1880s. The Holmans added H.M.S. Pinafore to their repertoire of grand and light operas and burlesques in 1879, only a year after its London premiere. The Mikado created a sensation in Toronto in 1885, the same year it opened in London. Amateur performances followed throughout English Canada. The Orpheus Club of Halifax performed it in 1887. In 1898, Calgary and Brandon amateurs were presenting Sidney Jones's The Geisha, only three years after its premiere. John Philip Sousa's The Charlatan had its premiere in Montreal in 1898, and Victor Herbert's The Fortune Teller, Cyrano de Bergerac, and The Singing Girl had theirs there in 1898, 1899, and 1899 respectively.

The Appearance of Canadian Light Opera
Canadian light opera began appearing in the late 18th century, when Frances Brooke, who resided in Quebec 1763-8, wrote the libretto for the widely performed Rosina (1782). John Bentley's pantomime music The Enchanters, or The Triumph of Genius (Montreal, 1786) may be regarded as the first light stage work to have been written in Canada. Joseph Quesnel is acknowledged as the first Canadian light opera composer for his 'comedy with ariettas,' Colas et Colinette, produced in 1790 by Montreal's Théâtre de Société. (See also Lucas et Cécile.)

Several decades passed before composers in Canada began to write operettas. One who introduced Canadian subject matter into his works was Célestin Lavigueur, composer of two operas and the operetta La Fiancée des bois (words by Pamphile Lemay; mid-19th century). Calixa Lavallée's operettas, including The Widow (1882), were produced in the US after he left Canada. The same held true for the works of the later expatriates Geoffrey O'Hara, who wrote 12 operettas, and Clarence Lucas, whose Peggy Machree was performed in England in 1904 and in the US in 1907, and Edward Betts Manning (see United States of America), whose Rip van Winkle was performed in New York in 1919.

A few composers did manage to arrange amateur presentations of their operettas in Canada. Prince Tommy by William Delaney of Lunenburg, NS, was produced in 1898. Amedée Tremblay's L'Intransigeant was performed in Ottawa in 1906. In 1911 Ralph Horner's own group in Winnipeg presented his The Belles of Barcelona. Montrealer Henri Miro's Le Roman du Suzon and Lolita were given for the first time in 1914 and 1922 respectively. The Golden Age by Joseph Nevin Doyle was staged in Ontario in 1915. Performances of Oscar Telgmann's 'military opera' Leo, the Royal Cadet (1889), in Kingston and other Ontario towns, exceeded 150 over the next 40 years, a record for a Canadian stage work surpassed, much later, by that of Anne of Green Gables. In 1895 Hamiltonians saw an amateur production of J.E.P. Aldous's short comic opera Ptarmigan.

Rose Marie and Later Canadian Operettas
Despite the number of operettas written by Canadians at this time, the best-known 'Canadian' operetta was Rose Marie, by Rudolf Friml, a Czech-American composer who briefly visited Canada in 1902 and who knew little about the nation. In time, other operettas came to prominence, such as Healey Willan's version of The Beggar's Opera (1927), the first of his ballad operas. Sir Ernest MacMillan's Prince Charming (1933), another ballad opera, was written on French and Scottish tunes.

Other Canadian composers of operetta and light opera were Violet Archer (Sganarelle, 1973), Marius Benoist (Secret des Amati), Irvin Cooper (Full o' the Moon), Clifford Higgin (The Queen of Romance), J.-B. Labelle (La Conversion d'un pêcheur de la Nouvelle-Écosse, 1868), Alphonse Lavallée-Smith (Gisèle), John F. Leonard (1881-1967) of Langley, BC, who wrote The Maids of Hamelin (1943) and The Girl of the Bandolier (1952) for high school performance, Omer Létourneau (Coup de soleil, 1930), Oscar O'Brien (Philippino, 1931-3 and other works), Percy Faith (The Gandy Dancer, ca 1943), Harry Somers (The Homeless Ones, 1955), Herbert Spencer (The Cavaliers), and Joseph Vézina (Le Lauréat, 1906).


While the English amateur performer Horton Rhys was touring Ontario and Quebec in 1859, he concocted a burlesque entitled A Country Manager's Perplexities, supplementing existing songs with two of his own. Most of the made-in-Canada burlesques that followed in the next 40 years also were written for specific productions. Often they satirized Canadian politics and society. In 1865 'Sam Scribble' (pseudonym) of Montreal wrote two pro-Canada musical satires: Dolorsolatio, 'a local political burlesque,' and The King of the Beavers. In 1880 Eugene A. McDowell's professional company toured Canada performing William H. Fuller's political satire H.M.S. Parliament, which utilized Sullivan's music for H.M.S. Pinafore only two years after its premiere and one year after its Canadian premiere.

The Northwest Rebellion provided the stimulus for two other burlesques. Sgt L. Dixon's 'Our Boys' in the Riel Rebellion, staged in Halifax in 1886, included both borrowed and original melodies. George Broughall used a similar mixture of old and new music in his 90th on Active Service, presented in Winnipeg in 1885.


Revue became perhaps the most successful form of indigenous Canadian musical theatre in the 20th century. Minstrel shows, variety, and vaudeville were its forerunners. The renowned Christy Minstrels (US) played in Montreal as early as 1861 and countless other troupes performed across Canada in the following decades. Cool Burgess and the celebrated step-dancer George Primrose were Canadians who became stars by "blacking up," using burnt cork to impersonate black stereotype characters, as was the custom in minstrel shows. When vaudeville was organized, Canadian theatres quickly joined large US circuits.

Canada's first international success in musical theatre was the revue The Dumbells, Merton Plunkett's World War I all-male soldier troupe. The Dumbells' revues, presenting a mixture of topical songs, entertainment routines, and broad comedy, continued to play for several years after the war, and one (Biff, Bing, Bang) enjoyed a triumphant Broadway engagement for two months in 1921. It is believed to have been the first Canadian production on Broadway, and their conductor, Ivor (Jack) Ayre, was the first Canadian to conduct a hit Broadway show.

At the beginning of World War II a few of the original Dumbells regrouped to appear in Chin Up. After two editions of the all-forces revue Ritzin' the Blitz (1941 and 1942), each armed forces service developed its own show featuring such young entertainers as Alan and Blanche Lund, as well as Wayne and Shuster (see The Army Show; Meet the Navy; RCAF Blackouts).

More intimate satirical musical revues developed from informal club shows dating back to the late 19th century. Toronto and Montreal were early centres for such entertainments. In Toronto the Arts and Letters Club presented its first revue (The Old Court Minstrels) in 1918 and staged the first of Napier Moore's annual Spring Revues in April 1930. The latter recurred annually until 1939, sporadically during the 1940s, and annually again beginning in 1954. They also inspired local imitations such as Town Tonics (Toronto, 1930s). In Montreal Gratien Gélinas produced his successful Fridolinons! annually 1938-46, using music derived from traditional French-Canadian sources and presenting satires on everything from language to Canada's national image.

Spring Thaw, Rivals and Imitators
Canada's most celebrated revue, Spring Thaw, lasted 24 years and toured extensively. Its director, Mavor Moore, set the pattern for its enduring success in the initial 1948 edition by mixing songs and dances, comedy and satire, all with the emphasis on Canadian topics. Its greatest legacy was a generation of experienced performers which included Dave Broadfoot, Jack Duffy, Robert Goulet, Barbara Hamilton, Don Harron, Eric House, Rich Little, Jane Mallett, and Toby Robbins.

Spring Thaw had many rivals. John Pratt starred in two, which toured Canada and some US centres 1949-51. The first, There Goes Yesterday, used mostly imported material, with additional words and music by Dorothy Watkins and Jessie MacDonald; the second, One for the Road, was more original and featured music by Roy Wolvin. Other imitators of Spring Thaw included Fine Frenzy (1955), Araby Lockhart's Clap Hands (1958-62), and Our First Affair (1959), all in Toronto; Bonfires of 1962, in Winnipeg; and Up Tempo, produced by Jack Greenwald during the 1960s, and Squeeze, presented in the early 1970s, both in Montreal. Other Montreal revues include Vive la différence, produced by Peter Symcox, and Gélinas's Le Diable à quatre, both in 1964.

University Revues
The McGill University spoof My Fur Lady (1957), Spring Thaw's best-known heir, gave national exposure to the talents of the choreographer Brian Macdonald and the composer Galt MacDermot. It began as an edition of McGill's annual Red and White Revue. Other university and college revues included Ryerson Polytechnical Institute's Riot, the University of Montreal'sRevue bleu et or, and the University of Western Ontario'sTachychardia.

Other Later Revues
The producer Louis Negin's late 1960s revue Love and Maple Syrup ended up in New York as a display of Canadiana compiled from the work of musicians such as Gilles Vigneault and Gordon Lightfoot and writers ranging from Stephen Leacock to Leonard Cohen. Though less in vogue in recent decades, musical revues continue to be produced, notably by Corey Castle of Montreal, who is responsible for Blokes, Blokes Deux/Two, and Troubadours Through Time.


After the 1964 success of Suddenly This Summer at Toronto's Theatre in the Dell, light cabaret stressing entertainment rather than satire flourished across Canada on similar intimate, usually liquor-licensed premises. Many cabaret shows have comprised collections of songs by famous composers (ie, Roderick Cook's Oh Coward, 1970) or of one kind of music, such as Flicks (film music, 1978). Sneezy Waters used dialogue and songs to recount the story of the great country singer Hank Williams in Maynard Collins' Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave (1977).

Though many cabarets featured music from the US or Europe, a number of original Canadian shows have been performed. David Warrack, the writer of Oops (1972) and Tease for Two (1974), is typical of the generation trained in cabaret. Warrack also contributed to Sandra O'Neill and Barbara Hamilton's Sweet Reason, an affectionate look at women's liberation. Another successful cabaret writer was Jim Betts, the creator of I'll Tell You Mine... If You Tell Me Yours (1977). Allan Guttman's Tonight at 8:30... 9 O'Clock in Newfoundland completed its second edition in 1979.

A new cabaret form, the mini-musical, emerged in the late 1970s. In the mini-musical, a plot line supplies the frame for the songs. Examples are David Warrack's Counter Melody (1976), Jim Betts's Stagefright (1978), Jeri Craden's The Clowns (1975), and Blaine Parker's Sweet City Lights.

Cabaret was a popular form in Quebec. Heureux celui qui meurt, by Jacqueline Barrette, a leading contributor to cabaret in Quebec, ran several months 1976-7. Occasionally shows became more political and satirical than elsewhere in Canada. For example, Jean-Guy Moreau's Mon cher René, c'est à ton tour was a tribute to Quebec premier René Levesque. Another important composer was Clémence Desrochers, whose revues, given at her little theatre le Patriote à Clémence, included La Grosse Tête (1967), Les Girls (1968), La Belle Amanchure (1970), and C'est pas une revue, c't'un show (1971), with music by Pierre Brault, François Cousineau, Jacques Crevier, and the team Gaston Brisson and Louis-Philippe Pelletier.

In English Canada, many talented composers began to outgrow the restrictions of cabaret just at the time that cabaret theatres began to disappear. Shows such as Toronto, Toronto (Mark Shekter and Charles Weir, 1980), Anglo (Rod Hayward and Allan Nicholls Montreal, 1984), and Sex Tips for Modern Girls (Vancouver, 1985 music by John Sereda) stand as epitaphs for an era.

Musicals to 1978

From the days of the performance of the prototype musical comedy The Black Crook (Montreal, 1875) to the present, Canadians have loved big Broadway shows. One professional theatre, Winnipeg's Rainbow Stage, even specialized in them. Melody Fair in Toronto devoted its seasons in the 1950s to Broadway musical hits There was nevertheless a homegrown Canadian tradition of musicals starting in the early 20th century, such as John Ernest Lawrence's The Western Countess (1911, described as 'A musical cyclone from the wooly west in two breezes'), Frank Laubach and Charles Shrimpton's The Mystic Light (Regina, 1913), William Dichmont and Charles S. Blanchard's Miss Pepple of New York (Winnipeg, 1916), and N. Fraser Allan 's The Canadian Passing Show (Toronto, 1917).

Mavor Moore, however, deserves credit as the father of modern Canadian musical theatre. He first tried to establish an indigenous musical theatre in the 1950s with Sunshine Town, his tribute to Stephen Leacock, and The Optimist, adapted from Candide, but neither venture proved successful. In 1964 he became the first director of the Charlottetown Festival, which under his successor Alan Lund dedicated itself to producing original Canadian musicals by composers such as Howard Cable, Marian Grudeff, Ray Jessel, and Ben McPeek. The festival's triumph has been Anne of Green Gables (music by Norman Campbell, book and lyrics by Elaine Campbell and Don Harron). It has also staged several other noteworthy efforts: Johnny Belinda (John Fenwick/Mavor Moore), Ballade (Michel Conte/Arthur Samuels), Kronborg: 1582 (Cliff Jones's rock version of Hamlet) and Fauntleroy, written by Mavor Moore using the songs of the US songwriter Johnny Burke.

Various English-Language Musicals 1950s-60s
In Victoria Leslie Grossmith wrote Zip Van Twinkle of the Canadian Rockies, and in Toronto Court Stone wrote Farmer in the Dell (1951). Together Louis Applebaum and Jack Gray wrote Ride a Pink Horse (1959). Dolores Claman's Timber!! (1952) was performed by Vancouver's Theatre under the Stars. Later, with Richard Morris, Claman wrote Mr. Scrooge, produced twice by Toronto's Crest Theatre in the 1960s. Milton Carman, Alex Barris, and Allan Manings wrote another Crest musical, Evelyn (1964). Lucio Agostini collaborated with Don Harron on Here Lies Sarah Binks (1968). Bill Solly's Made in the Mountains opened the Banff School of Fine Arts musical theatre division in 1965. Morris Surdin, who in 1962 provided the score for Len Peterson's Look Ahead, worked with W.O. Mitchell to turn a Jake and the Kid story into Wild Rose (1967) for Canadian centennial celebrations in Calgary. The US composer Stanley Silverman and the Canadian lyricist Tom Hendry produced their controversial Satyricon in 1969 at the Stratford Festival. In Newfoundland, Ron Hynes has provided songs for several Mummers Theatre collective creations.

Various Quebec Musicals 1960s-70s
In Quebec, Pierre Brault wrote the music for Clémence Desrochers's Le Vol rose du flamant (1964), claimed to be the first Quebec musical. Jacques Languirand and Gabriel Charpentier wrote Klondyke in 1965. (Languirand also collaborated with the composer Norman Symonds on the multi-media experiment Man, Inc, which opened Toronto's St Lawrence Centre in 1969.) Neil Chotem composed the music for Michel Tremblay's modern adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata (1969). Chansonnier Claude Léveillée's musicals included Doux Temps des amours (1964), Il est une saison (1965), and On n'aime qu'une fois (1967). Léveillée has collaborated with Marcel Dubé on several musicals for Marjolaine Hébert's Théâtre de Marjolaine in Eastman, Que. Léon Bernier's Un Simple Mariage double (1978) also was produced at the Marjolaine. In 1976, Montreal's Théâtre du Nouveau-Monde presented Marche, Laura Secord! by Claude Roussin and James Rouselle, with music by Cyrille Beaulieu. The Acadian folk entertainer Calixte Duguay wrote music and lyrics for Jules Boudreau's Louis Mailloux (1976).

Emergence of New Styles
The musical Hair (music by Canadian composer Galt McDermot and book by US writers Gerome Ragni and James Rado) debuted in the US in 1967, and enjoyed a Broadway run of over four years and 1,700 performances. Hair ushered in a new era, and remains universally and perennially popular.

In the 1970s Canadian writers began to liberate themselves from Broadway formulas by experimenting with other styles. Their works have been produced in many parts of the country. In Vancouver Ann Mortifee wrote a folk-oriented score to enhance George Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe (1967). The Vancouver rock band the Collectors helped to turn Ryga's 1969 play Grass and Wild Strawberries into a joyous celebration. For Edmonton's Citadel Theatre Richard Ouzounian first created Scapin!, and in 1976 he and Patrick Rose wrote Olympiad, about the Olympic Games. Theatre Calgary commissioned Allan Rae's science-fiction musical Trip (1970), and Rae and Tink Robinson's Festival. For Calgary's Alberta Theatre Projects, William Skolnick collaborated with Paddy Campbell on Hoarse Muse, about the legendary newspaper editor Bob Edwards.

In 1974 the Manitoba Theatre Centre premiered Patrick Rose and Merv Campone's Jubalay, seen later in many Canadian cities and in New York, where it appeared under the title A Bistro Car on the CNR. Theatre London first staged the Peter Colley-Berthold Carriere work The Donnellys in 1974. From Saskatoon, Cruel Tears (Ken Mitchell's 20th-century prairie truckers' Othello set to evocative bluegrass music by Humphrey and the Dumptrucks) entertained audiences across Canada in 1977. George Blackburn's A Day to Remember, about a town flooded by the St Lawrence Seaway, opened a summer theatre in Morrisburg, Ont, in 1978.

Alternative Theatres
From small alternative theatres in Ontario have come such musicals as Stephen Jack's and Tom Hendry's Gravediggers of 1942 (1973, which treats the Dieppe raid as a 1940s show) and Justine (1970, by Robert and Elizabeth Swerdlow, founders of Toronto's Global Village musical theatre). Other composers whose work has been nurtured in these intimate theatres are Glenn Morley (Fresh Disasters, 1976), Sandy Crawley (White Noise, 1977), Phil Schreibman (Jack of Diamonds, 1977), and the folksinger Cedric Smith, who provided the score for Toronto Workshop Productions' Ten Lost Years (1974), which toured Canada.

Musicals for Children
A genre unto itself is the operetta or musical for children. Specimens range from cut-and-paste makeshifts for school occasions, incorporating existing songs into practical adaptations of children's stories, to polished works in which sophisticated compositional skills create and enhance psychologically acute children's theatre. Some of the best pieces have been written by composers who have made their livings as teachers.

Early musicals for children include those of Ethel Norbury (b 1872) of Edmonton, and A.J. Dyke. Mid- and later-20th-century pieces may be exemplified by those of Keith Bissell (Rumpelstiltskin, 1947; His Majesty's Pie, 1966); Alfred Kunz (Jack and Jill, 1976); Victor Davies (Reginald the Robot, 1970); Sandra Jones and Berthold Carriere (Ready Steady Go, 1974); Pat Patterson and Dodi Robb (The Dandy Lion, 1964 etc.); Allan Rae (Beware the Quickly Who, 1971); Ernie Swartz (Aladdin and the Magic Lamp); and Paul Vigna (Cyclone Jack).

The Heyday of the Musical

The next generation of satirists chose television over theatre. In Toronto during the 1980s, Theatre in the Dell, Old Angelo's, and Teller's Cage all closed. By then David Warrack had produced his full-length Praise (1978) at the Bayview Playhouse in Toronto, and continued to write, play, produce and serve as musical director through the decade.

The musical was rapidly becoming the premier form of musical theatre in Canada. Some musicals in French produced in Quebec included Le Quadrillé (1978), book by Jacques Duchesne and music by Antoine Padilla; Trop c'est trop... même là, c'pas assez (1978), music by Michel Robidoux; Les Nuits de l'Indiva (1980), book by Jean-Claude Germain, music by Jacques Perron; Viens-tu jouer dans ma cour? (1981), book and lyrics by Louis-Georges Carrier, music by Cyrille Beaulieu; and Pied de poule (1982) by Marc Drouin (claimed to have been performed for 200,000 spectators and to have sold 150,000 recordings). Gala (1989), book by Jean-Pierre Ferland and music by Paul Baillargeon, was produced in Montreal.

Some noteworthy Canadian musicals in English included Last Call (Morris Panych and Ken MacDonald, 1982); Sliding for Home (Frank Moher, Gerald Reid, William Shookhoff, 1985); Superwheel (Geoffery Ursell, Rex Deverell); Life on the Line (Allen Booth and Steven Bush); and several from the Maritimes: The Summer of the Handley-Page (Carol Sinclair); Pogie (Chris Heide and Al Macdonald); and Sam Slick: The Clockmaker (Paul Ledoux and Al Macdonald).

Ledoux and his more frequent composer collaborator, David Young, with director Brian Richmond at the Magnus Theatre in Thunder Bay, created two of the most important musicals of the 1980s: I Love You, Anne Murray (retitled Love is Strange), 1984, and the rock-and-religion Fire, 1985. John Gray was for many years the best-known contemporary Canadian musical theatre composer, on the strength of his widely performed Billy Bishop Goes to War (1978). Gray's other musicals include Eighteen Wheels (1977), Rock and Roll (1982), Don Messer's Jubilee (1985), Health (1990), and TheTree.TheTower.TheFlood (1995).

Festivals have contributed to the popularity of musical theatre in Canada. The Charlottetown Festival became increasingly supportive of young writers during Alan Lund's final years as artistic director. Lund commissioned Warrack's Windsor (1978), Joey Miller's and Stephen Witkin's popular mini-musical Eight to the Bar (1978) and their more ambitious Ye Gods (1984), Jim Betts's On a Summer's Night (1979), Patrick Young's and Bob Ashley's Aimee! (1981), and James Saar's and Bob Ashley's Cocktails for Two Hundred (1981). In 1991, the Charlottetown Festival produced no main-stage musicals other than Anne of Green Gables; not until 1999 did the festival premiere Richard Ouzounian's and Marek Norman's Emily, also on L.M. Montgomery's books. By 1998 the festival was again commissioning musicals on Canadian themes, including Antonine Maillet's Pélagie (music by Allan Cole). As of 2006, the festival presented not only the traditional Anne but the rock musical revue Canada Rocks!, a youth musical, and a play.

The Stratford Festival started programming musicals at the Festival Theatre under John Neville. Such non-Canadian works as those of Gilbert and Sullivan, plus My Fair Lady (1988, 2002), Gypsy (1993), The Boy Friend (1995), Camelot (1997), and Man of La Mancha (1998) helped buoy the festival's budget, despite criticism from purists.

The Blyth Festival brought together the popular team of John Roby (composer) and Raymond Storey (book and lyrics), whose shows are Country Chorale 1981, Girls in the Gang, and The Dreamland, 1989, a lavish tribute to lakeside dance halls in the 1930s. The Muskoka Festival produced two notable musicals by Jim Betts (Thin Ice, a hockey musical, and Colours in the Storm). Young People's Theatre presented Mavor Moore's musical of A Christmas Carol and A Gift to Last (music by Joey Miller), which began at the Gryphon summer theatre. A summer stock staple is the spoof Return of the Curse of the Mummy's Revenge (James Saar, Joey Miller).

The Mega-Musical or Pop Opera and Other Recent Successes
The most pervasive change to the Canadian musical theatre landscape, and the one that brought it most to prominence, came with the arrival of the work of the British producer Cameron MacKintosh. The success of Cats, Les Misérables, and Phantom of the Opera, first in Toronto and then on tour across Canada, overwhelmed and forced drastic redefinition of - but by no means extinguished - Canadian musical theatre. Producers Ed and David Mirvish as well as Garth Drabinsky continued to stage new foreign "mega-musicals," sometimes referred to as "pop operas," eg Miss Saigon, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Crazy for You, Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King in Toronto, and premiered shows that had not yet gone to Broadway, eg, Ragtime.

The sudden popularity and ubiquitous marketing of large-scale musicals had several important effects. Among them are the opening up of venues not normally inclined to staging such productions and influencing Canadian creators to think in terms of the size and spectacle of these productions (or in direct reaction to them), as a result creating some of the most popular and engaging Canadian musical theatre to that point. Canadian efforts did not necessarily suffer from the explosion of the mega-musicals onto the theatre scene.

Canadian Pop Operas and Other Successes
Though smaller shows have been mounted, the most successful Canadian productions have tended to be those that followed in the footsteps of the pop operas. Before the genre had fully materialized, Luc Plamondon and Michel Berger's Starmania (1978) became a considerable international success; several of its songs became radio hits in Quebec. Later, after the furor of the initial mega-musical invasion had calmed, other home-grown projects began appearing. Demain matin, Montréal m'attend, by Michel Tremblay and François Dompierre, had a highly successful run in Montreal and was revived at the Montreal Casino in 1999. Vincent de Tourdonnet's (book and lyrics) and Peter Sipos's (music) Jeanne la pucelle, on the story of Joan of Arc, was a financial failure in 1997, though it reached over 70,000 spectators. The same year, Duddy was successfully revived in Montreal, entirely in Yiddish.

Some smaller productions have fared well. Two Pianos Four Hands, by Richard Greenblatt and Ted Dykstra, won both Chalmers and Dora awards and toured the continent. Richard Ouzounian's Dracula (1999, Marek Norman, music) played at the Neptune Theatre and Stratford, while Brad Fraser's and Joey Miller's Outrageous premiered in Oct 2000 by the Canadian Stage Company in Toronto.

Luc Plamondon again set the tone for musicals in Canada when his rock opera adaptation of Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, entitled Notre-Dame-de-Paris (music by Vietnamese-born composer Richard Cocciante), became the musical with one of the most successful opening years in history. It opened in Paris in 1998 with a mostly Canadian cast including Daniel Lavoie, Bruno Pelletier, Luck Mervil, and Garou. The production arrived in Montreal the following year with most of the same cast. It has since toured the country, been translated into English, and taken up residency in Las Vegas.

Another Quebec production of note is 2005's Don Juan (book, lyrics, and music by Félix Gray), loosely based on Molière's play. It has toured Quebec City, Ottawa, and Paris since its Montreal premiere and was revived in 2006. It has also given rise to a number of French-language radio hits.

Lord of the Rings; Drowsy Chaperone
The most recent developments in big Canadian musical theatre have been contradictory in nature, leading pundits to claim that the spectacle is either resurging or dying. Those who think mega-productions are on the way to a new supremacy generally point to the most costly musical production in history, Lord of the Rings, which opened in Feb 2006 at Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre, having required some $27 million from 200 investors and having sold over $1 million in tickets during the first 24 hours. The colossal three-and-a-half hour production backed by the Mirvishes - a reversal of their historical tendency to finance projects that had proven themselves elsewhere first - was well-received by fans but only tepidly so by the critics.

Those who see a resurgence of smaller-scale musical theatre - and usually the death of the grand spectacles as well - point to The Drowsy Chaperone (music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison), a send-up of 1920s shows; it became an entry in the 1999 Toronto Fringe Festival, got reworked and played at the Theatre Passe-Muraille thanks to the Mirvishes, and played in Los Angeles before starting on Broadway in May 2006. It clinched five Tony awards, seven Drama Desk awards, and four Critics Circle awards. It has also become the longest-running Canadian show on Broadway (not particularly difficult since Billy Bishop Goes to War lasted only two weeks, although Biff, Bing, Bang played for two months in 1921). Enthusiasm for what is described as a loving, escapist comedy is not waning, and seems to point to an alternative to the expensive mega-productions.

Toward a New Definition of Musical Theatre
It should also be noted that the mega-musical genre's identity has become unstable since the 1980s, as many different streams have been incorporated into this broad category. From rock operas to pop operas, operettas to contemporary music musicals, modern musicals to post-moderns, the term "musical theatre" has acquired a hazy definition. Some have described Lord of the Rings as a show that, by virtue of its scope and emphasis, is not a musical (even though no one seems to know what it is if not a musical). Le Cirque du Soleil, though not generally characterized as musical theatre, nevertheless has many of its earmarks, and its popularity has risen in parallel with that of the mega-productions. There are many theatrical elements to Le Cirque's work, and the original music written for their shows has been a lively seller of recordings, making it impossible to relegate the music to a secondary factor.

On the classical side, some works that were termed operatic seem to have more of a "musical theatre" aspect to them: actors are used rather than singers, a pit band rather than a pit orchestra, and copious amounts of speech rather than recitative. A good example of this grey area would be Denis Gougeon's 2004 Hermione et le temps, a work that seems to be neither opera nor musical.

New Directions
It appears that, as with other art forms, musical theatre in Canada is undergoing a change in identity and expanding as the result of new influences. It remains to be seen what synthesis, if any, will come from musical theatre's current openness to various artistic streams.

Questions of genre aside, many benefits have come from the vast taste for musical theatre that the mega-musicals have sparked and local creators have fed. There has been a profusion of Canadian talent that includes, among others, Jeff Hyslop, Brent Carver, Louise Pitre, André Thérien, Robert Marien, and Garou; Loreena McKennitt and k.d. lang have also been active in musical theatre. Urban areas have been revitalized as theatres are rebuilt. Theatre programs that train aspiring actors for musicals at both high-school and university levels have proliferated. A last, and highly important, effect has been a dramatic increase in amateur musical productions, cementing the musical as one of the principle forms of amateur music creation across the country.

Awards and Support
Awards for musical theatre are regional; three are significant on a national scale. For the Toronto area there are the Dora and Chalmers awards, and for Edmonton there are the Elizabeth Sterling Haynes awards. Musical theatre is also supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and provincial arts councils.

See also Hair; TIQ (The Indian Question Settled at Last); Opera Composition; Opera Performance


Friends of Mine: Songs from Canadian Musicals. Charlotte Moore. 2004. MOORECD04


Further Reading

External Links