Meanwhile...Our Online Magazine
Happy Canada Day! 🇨🇦
In this issue of Meanwhile we salute our country by looking back at our past and looking forward to the future.
SnL speak with some of the real Newfoundlanders who are portrayed in Come From Away. Our Did You Know? columnist reflects on the homegrown plays that have graced our stages since 1907. Ali Momen, one of the stars of Come From Away and the Off-Mirvish smash hit Disgraced, has a bold and exciting proposal for the arts during what he calls The Great Intermission. And we introduce to you a song from a brilliant new Canadian musical that premiered at Theatre Calgary earlier this year and is destined to join the ranks as one of the best this country has produced.
SHOW TUNE IDOL FINALISTS - ROUND 2
Thanks to the thousands of readers who voted last week for their favourite video out of the first dozen shortlisted Show Tune Idol entries. This issue we present the second and final dozen. Please watch this round and vote for your favourite. The #1, #2 and #3 winners will be announced in the July 14th issue of Meanwhile.
Can you spot a lie? Participate in our Two Truths and A Lie challenge and you could win a $100 Mirvish Gift Card. No purchase necessary to participate!
In this week’s Check In From Away, SnL reconnect with the Newfoundlanders whose kindness and selfless hospitality provided the story for Come From Away. You have seen them portrayed on stage, now meet the real-life heroes of Gander and the surrounding towns. Through digital magic, SnL share stories and laughs with the irrepressible and irresistible Claude, Beulah, Oz, Diane, Bonnie, Derm and Brian. Make sure you watch to the very end of the episode because, after SnL sign off, they return with trivia questions. Those who email them the correct answers will be entered in a contest to win unique Come From Away prizes.
By Ali Momen
On the final night of Come From Away, I had a profound lightness to me. Walking into the Royal Alexandra Theatre, I was so happy to see everyone — a group of artists who were at first colleagues, then friends, and now family. We had a great show that night. The audience, while smaller than we were used to, was buoyant. Deep down, I think we all knew this was it — we wouldn’t be here again for a long time.
When they asked the great philosopher Marcel Proust what he would do if he knew a meteor was headed to earth, about to destroy everything, he answered, “life would suddenly seem wonderful to us.” I felt that way. We felt that way. The meteor was coming.
The next morning we all received a text from our stage manager instructing us to not come into work.
More than three months in, the effects of this pandemic on the arts have been devastating. What began as mere delays are now inevitable demises. Livelihoods are lost or are hanging in the balance. It all seems so hopeless. But should it be?
A week into the Great Intermission I sat wondering if as artists we had ever been here before.
In preparation for my podcast, SOFT REVOLUTION, which I co-host with STARS frontman Torquil Campbell, I remembered the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was a works program created by the Roosevelt administration after the Great Depression. It put artists to work to achieve, according to George Biddle, the man credited with the program’s conception, “a picture of democratic justice and spiritual beauty.”
The results of the WPA were, as Jennifer C. Lena, Columbia professor, sociologist, writer, and as they say “friend of the pod” says , “astonishing.” When it was all over, the WPA was responsible for 2,500 murals, more than 100,000 paintings, millions of posters, over 17,000 sculptures, 6,000 music teachers and 225,000 concerts. Much of this flowering took root in underserved marginalized communities and rural areas. As I read about the WPA, I wondered, “why not here? Why not now?”
I can not help but feel that in respect to the arts community this has all been a bit of a missed opportunity. It is as if when the theatres shuttered, so did our creativity.
As artists we are in a unique position as our contributions do not need to be tied to conventional contracts. Contributions that could be staggering. In essence we are sitting when we should be soaring.
Imagine playwrights commissioned to write plays that could be performed socially distanced and in care homes.
Imagine novelists commissioned to write the stories that chronicle this period.
Picture musicians, composers, producers, and sound engineers sent across the country to teach the making and recording of music.
What if acting instructors were sent across the country to teach not just acting but communication and public speaking? There is not a corporation that would not benefit from that.
Filmmakers could be commissioned to create documentaries and films about the greatness and darkness of our country, or modern-day city-guides for when the planes start flying again into our great country.
Would it not be great if the Art Gallery of Ontario decided to create an entirely augmented reality experience of their museum? Think of the amount of crew, photographers, computer programmers, graphic designers, and web designers it would employ. Most inspiring, picture a young artist in Nunavut who could pull out their iPhone and see the Group of Seven as if she were there, in the museum.
How unjust it is that the "fine" arts are relegated to the rich, and to the urbanites.
We have a chance to fix all this.
This is why I, and an ever growing cohort of artists and arts lovers are calling for a modern-day WPA, or as we are calling it, an Arts New Deal, that puts the artists of Canada to work to transform this country and have art touch every aspect of it.
But this is not a program merely to employ artists. The Arts New Deal seeks to make sure the entire arts sector receives its fair share. You might be surprised to find out that the arts sector in Canada accounts for nearly 3% of our entire GDP — that’s more than forestry!
For theatres, museums and concert halls, we ask that government aid them through this pandemic by subsidizing performances. In an age where social distancing will be the norm for the foreseeable future, an audience at 50% capacity should not mean financial ruin.
For film and television production, the government could step in with even greater tax incentives and aid in insuring productions from COVID-19 work stoppages.
For the arts lover, we ask that government create an Arts Tax Credit where each individual will receive a $200 a year tax credit on qualified ticket purchases. This will not only speed the return of the arts but incentivize engagement with them in the long term.
This is all just the beginning. But if we end this pandemic with shuttered theatres, galleries, museums, concert halls, an exodus of artists from the industry and simply a lot of time on Zoom, then we will all have failed.
How can you help? First, please head to www.change.org/artsnewdeal, sign and share the petition. We are taking this to the highest levels of government, and the more voices of support, the better.
Second, listen to Soft Revolution (softrevolution.simplecast.com) where you will hear arguments for the Arts New Deal by artists and academics across the world.
Finally: share, share, share. Get on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Let your local representative of government know that you are an arts lover and you want an #ArtsNewDeal.
Being an artist and being meek about it have gone hand in hand. It took a pandemic for me – a seemingly near-death experience – to realize just how unwarranted that dichotomy is. As we are living through this, what is pulling us through? Art. Stella Adler said, “life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one.” Art keeps reminding us of that every day. I would hate for it to stop.
People ask me what it is I miss most about performing Come From Away. For me, it is simply being able to do something in which you have to be there. Something where I can not send you a link. There is simply no substitute for the beautiful serendipity of humans together, creating, expressing and experiencing art.
I can’t wait to be there with you all again. Now, let’s get to WORK.
By Antonio Tan
In this issue of Meanwhile, we take a look at the Canadian-made shows that have trod our boards, from the early 1900s through to the present.
When the Royal Alexandra Theatre first opened in 1907, it was, like many first-class legitimate theatres of the day, a roadhouse that was part of a touring circuit of venues around North America where shows would come in for a week or two then pack up for the next city. Most of the productions that graced the Grand Dame of King Street in the early years through the Great Depression were plays, musicals, and entertainment from the United States and Great Britain, mostly written by Americans and Brits. Shows by Canadians were nearly non-existent then, and it would take several decades before Canadian-made theatre would take the spotlight at the Royal Alex and other Mirvish stages.
A professional Canadian theatre community only truly began to emerge in the 1940s, thanks in part to Ernest Rawley, who was the general manager of the Royal Alex from 1939 until 1963. He founded a company of Canadian actors at the theatre, who performed a repertoire of classic and contemporary plays. This was the beginning of that community and industry.
Prior to this, the most significant early Canadian theatre success was that of the leading vaudeville troupe, The Dumbells. They began as an amateur group of ten Canadian soldiers who performed “concert parties” to entertain the troops and build morale on the front lines during the Great War. Their first performances, which consisted of popular songs of the period and skits about life in the trenches, were done near Vimy Ridge, France. Because they were members of the Canadian army’s Third Division and because its emblem was a red dumbbell to signify strength, they took the name The Dumbells.
After the war, they turned professional and had a four-week engagement at London’s prestigious Coliseum Theatre (today it is the home of the English National Opera). That built them an international profile. They created many more original revues that they toured across Canada and even took to Broadway. Lol Solman, who was the first managing director of the Royal Alex, became their tour manager in 1925, and made the theatre their home base, bringing 15 of their shows to the theatre from 1925 through 1933.
Lol Solman was one of four partners who financed and built the Royal Alex in 1907. He also was the theatre’s first managing director.
It wouldn’t be until the 1950s that the Royal Alex saw the staging of original Canadian shows again – this time the musicals Sunshine Town and My Fur Lady. Sunshine Town was a 1955 production by Canadian theatre pioneer Dora Mavor Moore’s company called the New Play Society. Written by her son Mavor Moore (the founding artistic director of the Charlottetown Festival) the show starred an unknown Robert Goulet before his breakout role as Lancelot in Lerner and Loewe’s musical Camelot opposite Julie Andrews in 1960 (a show which had its world premiere not too far from the Alex, at Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre, now known as Meridian Hall, at Front and Yonge). My Fur Lady had the distinction of being the Royal Alex’s 50th-Anniversary show, playing there in August 1957. It was a revue co-written by Galt MacDermot (who would go on to compose Hair).
The popular annual satirical revue Spring Thaw – originally produced and created by the pioneering Moores – followed in the tradition of The Dumbells and played the Alex every year, from 1963 through 1969 (it was also revived in 1980 for one season). It featured such Canadian legends as Dinah Christie, Don Harron, Barbara Hamilton, and Dave Broadfoot.
In 1966, an original Canadian comedy was launched at the Royal Alex. Like Father, Like Fun had been a hit in Vancouver. It was further developed and played a successful run here. Encouraged by the Toronto engagement, the show’s producers revised it for Broadway. It opened there as A Minor Adjustment on October 6, 1967. It closed on October 7, 1967.
Although there have been several musical adaptations of Anne of Green Gables, the most beloved version belongs to the Charlottetown Festival, where it’s been a mainstay since it first opened there in 1965. The musical was co-written by Don Harron and Mavor Moore and played the Alex twice, in 1967 and 1968.
Theatre Toronto was an ambitious company founded in 1968 at the Royal Alex. It created an acting company that included such luminaries as John Colicos, Maureen Fitzgerald, Colin Fox, Eric House, Richard Monette, and Joseph Shaw who starred in both classic and modern plays. Sadly, after its second season in 1969, the company folded.
After the establishment of Mirvish Productions in the late 1980s which was led by David Mirvish (who took over producing duties from his father, Ed, who had bought the Royal Alex in 1963), there emerged a mandate to present more Canadian plays, with many commercial transfers of acclaimed productions from the smaller “alternative theatres,” such as Theatre Passe Muraille, Tarragon, and Factory – all established in the late 60s and early 70s as part of the nationalistic artistic movement that followed Canada's Centennial. This movement's mission was to promote a true Canadian culture that was not dependent on British, French, and American works.
(Side note: under David Mirvish’s leadership, the number of theatres owned and operated by Mirvish Productions expanded from the Royal Alexandra Theatre to include the Princess of Wales Theatre in 1993, followed in 2007 by the acquisition of the Ed Mirvish Theatre (formerly the Pantages/Canon) and the CAA Theatre (formerly the Panasonic). There was also a brief period when all our theatres were full and programming spilled over into the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre and the Harbourfront Centre.)
From Theatre Passe Muraille came the groundbreaking, Dora Award-winning Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing by Cree writer and composer Tomson Highway. It played at the Royal Alex in 1991 to phenomenal acclaim and brought the life of Canada’s Indigenous people to the country’s most prestigious theatre.
Also from Passe Muraille came Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, a play about the creation of a seminal piece of Canadian theatre, The Farm Show. Mirvish transferred the production to the Winter Garden Theatre in 2001. Its success there helped to make it one of the most produced plays in North America in the first decade of this century. (Another Healey play, The Innocent Eye Test, was commissioned by David Mirvish, co-produced with the Manitoba Theatre Centre and played at the Royal Alex in 2006.)
Already a hit at the Tarragon Theatre, David and Ed presented the first commercial run of 2 Pianos 4 Hands at the Royal Alexandra in 1998, starring its original authors, Ted Dykstra and Richard Greenblatt. A riotous comedy about a pair of virtuoso pianists working towards their goal of concert pianist stardom, the show was so popular it was brought to New York for an Off-Broadway run and then taken to Washington’s Kennedy Center. It was also presented in London’s West End at the Comedy Theatre (now the Harold Pinter).
From the Factory Theatre came Adam Pettle’s Zadie’s Shoes at the Winter Garden Theatre in 2002, then their acclaimed revival of the beloved David French classic Salt-Water Moon played at the CAA Theatre in 2017.
The Toronto Fringe Festival proved to be a great discovery ground for new plays. The Drowsy Chaperone played its first commercial transfer as part of the 2001 Mirvish season at the Winter Garden Theatre, before undergoing further workshops and eventually landing on Broadway in 2006 where it would win Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score (you can read the full story about the show in this issue’s Archives). Da Kink in My Hair by trey anthony was launched at the Toronto Fringe in 2001. An expanded version was produced at Theatre Passe Muraille in 2003. The show was expanded again in 2005 for its debut at the Princess of Wales Theatre, becoming the first Canadian play to be produced at that theatre. (Fun fact: Jully Black, the recipient of the 2020 Toronto Theatre Critics Award for Best Lead Performance in a Musical for Caroline, or Change had her first professional theatre performance in Da Kink in My Hair.) My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding was first done at a Kensington market storefront theatre as part of the Fringe. Mirvish commissioned a longer version and produced it at the CAA Theatre in 2009 and 2010. It was the first show by a new writing team who also happened to be a married couple, Irene Sankoff and David Hein. More about them soon.
From Montreal’s Centaur Theatre came Steve Galluccio’s Mambo Italiano (a kind of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, except gay and Italian) at the Elgin Theatre in 2003. Djanet Sears’ The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God – a re-envisioning of a George Bernard Shaw short story of a similar title – from Nightwood Theatre and Obsidian Theatre played a hit five-month run at the Harbourfront Centre that same year. Theatre Gargantua’s prescient exploration of human cyber communication e-DENTITY played at the Royal Alex in 2007. From the Theatre Centre and Why Not Theatre came Nicolas Billon’s thriller Butcher, which played the CAA Theatre in 2017.
In addition to bringing new works from Toronto’s alternative and independent theatres to mainstream audiences, Mirvish has also brought in the works of acclaimed Canadian theatre artists such as internationally-renowned Quebecois director Robert Lepage’s epic The Blue Dragon (Royal Alexandra Theatre, 2012), Mary Walsh’s (This Hour Has 22 Minutes) Dancing with Rage (CAA Theatre, 2013), and multimedia artist Rick Miller’s BOOM (CAA Theatre, 2015 and 2018). Dan Needles’ beloved Wingfield series starring Rod Beattie – a collection of one-man plays about a stock-broker-turned-farmer and his misadventures – played three separate occasions: Wingfield On Ice (Winter Garden Theatre, 2002), Wingfield’s Inferno (Royal Alexandra Theatre, 2006), and Wingfield Lost and Found (CAA Theatre, 2011). Quebecois circus troupe The 7 Fingers brought three of their acclaimed works to our stages: Traces (CAA Theatre, 2015), Cuisine & Confessions (Princess of Wales Theatre, 2016), and Reversible (CAA Theatre, 2018).
Needfire, an original show celebrating Canada’s Celtic heritage that premiered at the Princess of Wales Theatre in 1998 then returned to the Royal Alex in a retooled version a year later (under the new title The Needfire). While originally thought of as a Canadian Riverdance, the show was different in that it featured a storyline and showcased works originating in Irish and Scottish cultures. It starred Nova Scotian Denny Doherty, of The Mamas and the Papas.
But perhaps the most successful of all Canadian shows is one that needs no introduction – Come From Away. The remarkable true story of the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, that welcomed the world on 9/11, from the authors of My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. Not only is it a show by Canadians, but it's also a show about Canadians. The musical was workshopped at Sheridan College before being picked up by Tony-winning Broadway producers Junkyard Dog Productions (Memphis), with successful pre-Broadway runs in La Jolla, Seattle, Washington, D.C., and finally at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre before opening at Broadway’s Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, where it’s been running since 2017. So successful was the initial pre-Broadway Toronto engagement that Mirvish was encouraged to produce a sit-down Canadian production with an all-Canadian cast, which opened in February 2018 and continues to run to this day. Since then, productions have also opened in London’s West End and Australia, and it is on tour across North America.
With the global success of Come From Away, hopefully the trend continues with more Canadian-made shows taking the world by storm. Perhaps the next one could be The Louder We Get.
Check future Meanwhile issues for more theatre and showbiz DID YOU KNOW? trivia by Antonio Tan.
Early in the first act of The Drowsy Chaperone, Man in Chair asks “You know what I do when I’m sitting in a darkened theatre waiting for the show to begin? I pray. Oh, dear Lord in heaven, please let it be a good show.”
He’s not the only one.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, well it takes a whole city to produce a successful musical. Each member of the team has their own version of that prayer.
The Drowsy Chaperone is one of the most successful Canadian musicals ever. In 2006 it won five Tony Awards, and was nominated for Best Musical, as well as seven Drama Desk Awards including Outstanding Musical.
Looking back, it can seem like the show’s success was inevitable, like it was destined for greatness. But there were many points along the road to the Great White Way that were anything but certain.
Original Fringe Production Photo - Bob Martin as The man in the Chair and Janet Van De Graaff as Janet Van De Graaff
Believe it or not, the show began as a wedding gift to Bob Martin and Janet Van De Graff, presented by their friends at the couple’s stag and doe party in the backroom of the Rivoli on Queen West. This short and sweet wedding gift charmed Martin so much that he suggested to his friends that he join them and that they develop it into a 40-minute musical. So Bob Martin, Don McKellar, Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison refined and expanded the show and were lucky enough to win one of the lottery spots in the Toronto Fringe in the summer of 1999.
(L-R) Early poster of The Drowsy Chaperone / Original Fringe Festival Flyer
It was a hit there and was seen by John Karastamatis, Director of Communications for Mirvish Productions, who believed that the show could be viable beyond the confines of the Fringe Festival. At that time there was no precedent for a Fringe show in Canada to go on to find a wider audience (although that had happened with many shows at the Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland).
David Mirvish loaned the producers, Karastamatis and Best Man Productions (a.k.a the four authors), $100,000 to put up the production as a trial run in a 200-seat house at Theatre Passe Muraille to see if the show worked as well outside of the in-the-know context of a Fringe Festival audience paying only $8 a ticket.
The show was expanded again to a 60-minute version. New characters were written and new songs added.
As this production had no subsidy whatsoever, the show would need to be a box office success in order to repay David Mirvish’s loan. The budget was closely monitored and complimentary seats were not allowed because 97% of the seats needed to be filled with paying customers to break even. When Karastamatis arrived at the theatre a few days before the first performance he counted the seats in the auditorium and discovered there were only 150, not 200. Luckily the Royal Alexandra Theatre was dark at the time, which meant that the loose chairs in the orchestra pit were not in use. The stage manager of the show happened to have a pickup truck, so Karastamatis and he loaded the chairs into it and drove them to Passe Muraille.
November 1999, the curtains rose and everyone said their silent prayer. They needn’t have worried. It was a hit. The producers repaid David Mirvish and even turned a tiny, tiny profit. More importantly, the show was received with so much love and affection that it convinced Mr. Mirvish to further invest in the show.
The show was developed further and played the 1000-seat Winter Garden Theatre in 2001.
Producers from New York and London were invited to see it. No one was really that interested. But there was one man who thought it was among the funniest and most clever musicals he had ever seen. His name was Roy Miller and he was the associate producer of the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, a non-profit subsidized regional theatre. Unfortunately he could not interest his boss at Paper Mill to pick up the show.
Instead, Miller asked his friend, actor and businessman Paul Mack, to help him take the show to Broadway. The two worked tirelessly for years to showcase the musical to potential Broadway investors and regional theatres.
In 2004, they organized a workshop performance at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre festival in New York. Broadway producer Kevin McCollum attended and together with a handful of other producers took on the project.
Further development under the eagle eyes of director Casey Nicholaw was done. An out-of-town engagement at the Ahmanson Theatre in LA helped to further tweak and hone the show.
From Bob Martin and Janet Van De Graff’s wedding to the 2006 Broadway opening was almost a decade of writing, rehearsing and refining.
I believe Man in Chair says it best:
“So, that was The Drowsy Chaperone. Oh, I love it so much! I-I know it's not a perfect show; the spit take scene is lame and the monkey motif is labored. But it does what a musical is supposed to do: it takes you to another world. And it gives you a little tune to carry with you in your head for-for when you're feeling blue. You know?”
The Louder We Get is a new musical based on the real-life story of Marc Hall, the Oshawa student who in 2002 was barred from going to his high school prom because he wanted to bring his boyfriend as his date. The story made international headlines and has been adapted into a musical that opened at Theatre Calgary in January 2020. It received some ecstatic reviews and played to sold-out houses.
The musical is brilliantly written and directed. It is filled with genuine emotions and honestly tells its story with humour and empathy. Its feel-good conclusion fills the audience with joy and hope. No doubt when this pandemic is over, The Louder We Get will find its way to new productions around the world, including Toronto.
This year, there are no proms, so the creative team and cast of The Louder We Get have filmed a music video of one of the show’s songs, “This Dance Is For You,” which is designed to be a substitute for the prom students can’t have. Enjoy!