& Juliet shows how Canadian musicals can succeed without the Broadway ‘brand’

Everyone knows the story: Romeo meets Juliet, Juliet falls in love with Romeo, and their doomed love pits family against family. Seeing no other choice, Romeo drinks a vial of poison and Juliet…runs off to a nightclub in Paris.

That may not be the story you’re used to, but it’s the one being told at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre.

and julietrunning now through August 14, is a new musical that looks at an alternate history for Shakespeare’s character Juliet, as she continues to live an independent life, set to the songs of Swedish pop hitmaker Max Martin.

And while the 2019 play originally opened in London’s West End, it had a significant Canadian connection long before it came to this country. behind the curtain, Schitt’s Cove writer David West Read co-wrote the play with Martin, always with the intention of bringing her back to her home province of Ontario.

“It’s really special for me to be here and to work with other Canadians again,” Read said in an interview with CBC. “I mean, to me, this is the best thing there is: putting on a show here.”

Despite always having the desire to bring a major theatrical production to Canada, and despite his ability to constantly work in other industries in Canada, Read says it has never been so simple.

Actors Stark Sands, left, and Betsy Wolfe appear in this & Juliet rehearsal photo. (Matthew Murphy)

Adding to the COVID-related closures, the latest of which kept theaters across the country closed for nearly two years, with Toronto’s Mirvish Theaters this year alone. announcing its first full season since 2019 — Read says the way the industry is organized prevents both audiences and actors from accepting Canada as the theater capital.

Early in his career, Read said he had to move to New York to make his way in the industry, a common decision made by many creators and actors in this country. But part of the reason, she said, is because artists and audiences alike assume Broadway is the beginning of everything, failing to recognize the talent and variety of productions here at home.

“Sometimes it’s hard for Canadians to find that international stage,” Read said, “and I think sometimes Canadians don’t celebrate other Canadians enough until they’ve been celebrated by the world.”

“I wish Canadians had a little… more pride in the talent that we have here.”

To be fair, Canada doesn’t yet have a long history as a purveyor of Broadway.

In 2006, Don McKellar’s satirical musical The sleepy chaperone came to New York after its Toronto premiere in 1997, and won five Tony Awards, including Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score, while just a few years later Brian Hill’s The story of my life had a brief run on Broadway in 2009.

the b.c. musical ride the cyclone brought the comedy about six teenagers stuck on the Cyclone rollercoaster to the outskirts of Broadway in 2015. Previously, there was Billy Bishop goes to wara satirical production on the Canadian World War I flying ace, and rockabye Village, a rock musical based on Shakespeare’s tragedy.

And of course there is come from afar.

That play, which tells the story of 7,000 airline passengers stranded in Newfoundland after the 9/11 attacks, is widely known as the most successful Canadian musical of all time. It premiered on Broadway in 2017 and surpassed The sleepy chaperone‘s 674 performances to become the longest-running Canadian musical on Broadway. It will close in October of this year having entertained over a million guests and run for 1,670 performances, making it not only the longest running Canadian musical, but the 49th longest running musical in Broadway history.

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While those Canadian musicals made their mark, there are still far fewer Great White North musicals on the Great White Way than there are American ones. While part of that is simply because there are fewer artistic creators in Canada, it’s also due to an image problem.

“Most shows on Broadway fail…because of the nature of the economy.” said Lynn Slotkin, a Canadian theater critic. But while, on average, only one in five Broadway shows recoup their investments, there is also a struggle to make a profitable career in Canada, as “they don’t have such a good shot, Canadian shows.”

Slotkin said the main difference is the support the theater receives from the government. Weather come from afarThe Broadway run will close in October 2022, the Canadian production closed in December 2021, just a week after returning from a 21-month COVID hiatus.

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David West Read is on a roll. He’s a writer and producer known for Schitt’s Creek, but he also wrote the book for the hit musical & Juliet, which incorporates music from composer Max Martin’s giant pop chart. Read joined Tom Power to talk about writing an alternate ending for Romeo and Juliet and turning the tragedy into a modern romantic comedy.

“In other parts of the world, the government has gone out of its way to support the commercial theater sector by offering a financial safety net for the sector to reopen and play during the pandemic, thereby protecting the tens of thousands of good jobs it creates. the sector”. theater producer David Mirvish wrote at the time of closing.

“But in Canada there is no such government support. And without that safety net it is impossible for production to take another long hiatus. The costs of reopening a second time are prohibitively high and risky.”

Early in the pandemic, the US government approved approximately $16 billion in aid for entertainment productions, with over US$30 million hamilton – which, according to Slotkin, reflects a broader trend of supporting theater productions there than in Canada.

While Canada announced $60 million in support for the live performance sector, which went into effect in April this year, many in the industry said it was too little too late for beleaguered art workers who have already had to go through two years of little to no work.

“It’s the difference between thinking and knowing that theater, Broadway, whatever it is, is important for tourism in your city and your country,” Slotkin said. “And the governments here don’t value that as much.”

‘The Broadway brand is hard to beat’

And the ripple effect, since subsidized musicals are successful on the same avenues in a few rarefied places, is a mistaken belief among audiences and performers that a musical hasn’t been successful until it’s played in one of them.

“All the big cities will have very, very good theaters. [There are] theatrical opportunities in Canada comparable to those in New York City,” said David Jeffery, an actor from Medicine Hat, Alta.

“It’s kind of dispelling the notion that if you didn’t make it to New York, you didn’t make it as high as you can. While the Broadway brand is hard to beat, it’s not like this top of the chain.” If you don’t get there, you didn’t make it.”

Red Deer’s David Jeffery will take on the role of Connor Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen, a musical that has been running since December 2016 on Broadway. (David Jeffry)

Jeffery himself accidentally fell into a Broadway role, eventually landing a spot as Connor Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen after sending an impromptu email to a casting director. But the difficulties of getting a permit to work in the United States, moving back and forth between the two countries, and auditioning as non-Americans (since the Actors’ Equality Association often requires that American actors be considered first) it means going south is hardly more palatable than staying in Canada.

But still, Read, Slotkin and Jeffery said audiences often only see a musical as a “successful” one if it has made it to Broadway. That rules out a slew of productions and pushes talented actors out, simply because there’s no Broadway or West End name to point to.

In the meantime, and juliet he also hopes to head to the US, and is in what the producers are calling his “pre-Broadway career.” But Read explained that having the musical play in Toronto, and bringing it to an audience that seems to enjoy it even more than London, embodies why he did it.

“I think the best musicals feel like they bring people together, that there’s a sense of community,” he said. “It’s like why we go to the theater, to be with other people and feel the common bonds of our experiences.”

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