In a province that takes its red-headed orphans seriously, the nearly half-century run of Anne of Green Gables: The Musical at Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre of the Arts is an institution unto itself. Billed as the longest-running musical production in Canada, the show attracts up to 30,000 visitors a year, many of them from Japan. The musical has toured the world, hitting Broadway in the 1970s (one grumpy New York Times critic called it “the kind of show that will appeal most to the unsophisticated in heart”), as well as London and Osaka, Japan, during Expo ’70. As for the Confederation Centre, which relies on federal and provincial grants for roughly one-third of its $12-million operating budget, the flagship Anne musical is its single most important production.
Which helps explain the rather frosty response from the Confederation Centre to a new Anne musical that’s opened up directly across the street. Dubbed the “Battle of the Annes” by Charlottetown’s Guardian newspaper, it’s a tale of rivalry in a city where Anne is as much a commodity as a beloved fictional character.
Last year, Campbell Webster decided to bring the production Anne & Gilbert to Charlottetown’s Guild Theatre, which happens to be right across from the Confederation Centre. Written in 2000, the musical has been staged across Canada, but never in P.E.I.’s capital. It’s based on the second and third books in the Anne Shirley adventures— Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Islands —and tells the story of two childhood foes (that would be Anne and Gilbert) who grow to become good friends before eventually falling in love. It’s a sequel of sorts, picking up the story within days of where the original Anne musical leaves off.
Webster’s idea was to create something of an “Anne Zone,” as he puts it, a corner of Charlottetown dedicated to all things Anne. The idea quickly caught on with several tourism agencies on the island keen to expand their Anne-themed offerings to tourists. What Webster didn’t anticipate was the negative reaction of the Confederation Centre, where the original Anne musical has been staged for 49 years. “We always thought the musicals could lift all boats together,” says Webster. “It was not competition, it was a continuation.”
About eight months ago, Webster first heard whispers of opposition to the launch of Anne & Gilbert. In order to quell any conflict, he wrote a letter to Confederation Centre CEO Jessie Inman, offering to work to their mutual benefit, citing a strategy that he believed would have enhanced the scheduling, ticket packages and advertising of both productions.
Inman didn’t just decline the offer. She fired off a letter, cc-ed to the same institutions that had offered their support for the new musical, explaining in detail the fallout the original production faced if the upstart show went ahead. Her primary concern: a second Anne production could hurt ticket sales at the Confederation Centre. “As CEO of the Confederation Centre, my primary goal in life is to make sure the place is economically and financially healthy,” she says. With 486 jobs on the line, she argued, ticket sales for the Anne musical are crucial to the Centre’s survival.
Inman also suggests the Guild’s show would dilute the value of the Anne “brand” the Confederation Centre has worked so hard to maintain through the musical’s professional actors and elaborate staging. “Our theatre is rated as a class-A theatre, which means we have to put on a class-A production,” she said in an interview. “It is just quite a different scale of production.”
In the end, the counteroffensive failed and both Anne musicals hit the boards by July, each garnering positive reviews. Webster says Anne & Gilbert has been sold out most of the summer, and he expects that to continue until the end of the season in October.
As for Inman, she stands by her decision not to partner with Webster. She also says it’s unclear just yet what impact the second show has had on the Confederation Centre’s sales. There is hope for a détente, however. Anne & Gilbert, Inman now admits, is a “lovely performance.” Perhaps, like Anne and Gilbert themselves, the two productions can find a way to get along. Now that would be an ending of which Lucy Maud Montgomery would approve.
Maclean's August 19, 2013