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& Juliet shows how Canadian musicals can succeed without Broadway 'brand name'

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2022-07-02 Jackson Weaver
Lorna Courtney, right, onstage as Juliet in the new musical & Juliet. The musical is playing now in Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre as a new entry in the pantheon of Canadian musicals. © Matthew Murphy Lorna Courtney, right, onstage as Juliet in the new musical & Juliet. The musical is playing now in Toronto's Princess of Wales Theatre as a new entry in the pantheon of Canadian musicals.

Everyone knows the story: Romeo meets Juliet, Juliet falls for 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. 

& Juliet, on now through Aug. 14, is a new musical that looks at an alternate story for Shakespeare's Juliet character, as she goes on to live an independent life — set to the songs of Swedish pop hitmaker Max Martin.  

And though the 2019 play originally premiered in London's West End, it had a major Canadian connection far before it made its way to this country. Behind the curtain, Schitt's Creek writer David West Read wrote the play alongside Martin, always with the intention of bringing it back to his home province of Ontario.

"It's really special to me to be here and to be working with other Canadians again," Read said in an interview with CBC. "I mean, to me, this is as good as it gets — doing a show here."

Despite always having a desire to bring a large stage production to Canada, and despite his ability to work consistently in other industries in Canada, Read says it's never been that simple.  

Aside from COVID-related closures — the last of which kept theatres across the country shut for nearly two years, with Toronto's Mirvish theatres only this year announcing their first full season since 2019 — Read says the way the industry is set up keeps both audiences and actors from embracing Canada as a capital of theatre. 

At the beginning of his career, Read said he had to move to New York to find a way into the industry, a common decision made by many creators and actors in this country. But part of the reason for that, he said, is because of the assumption by both performers and audiences that Broadway is the be-all-end-all, without recognizing the talent and variety of productions here at home.  

"It is sometimes 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 for the talent that we have here."

To be fair, Canada doesn't yet have a long history as a Broadway-supplier.

In 2006, Don McKellar's satirical musical The Drowsy Chaperone made it to New York after premiering in Toronto in 1997 — going on to win five Tony Awards, including best book of a musical and best original score — while only a few years later Brian Hill's The Story of My Life had a short run on Broadway in 2009. 

The B.C. musical Ride The Cyclone brought the comedy about six teenagers trapped on the Cyclone roller-coaster to off-Broadway in 2015. Earlier, there was Billy Bishop Goes To War, a satirical production about the Canadian flying ace of the First World War, and Rockabye Hamlet, a rock musical based on the Shakespearean tragedy.

And, of course, there is Come From Away.

That play — which tells the story of 7,000 airline passengers stranded in Newfoundland following the Sept. 11 attacks — is widely referred to as the most successful Canadian musical of all time. It opened on Broadway in 2017 and surpassed The Drowsy Chaperone's 674 performances to become the  longest running Canadian musical on Broadway. It will close in October of this year having entertained more than one million guests and having shown 1,670 performances, making it not only the longest running Canadian musical but the 49th longest running musical in Broadway history.

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

"Most of the shows on Broadway fail … because of the nature of the economics." said Lynn Slotkin, a Canadian theatre critic. But while, on average, only one of five Broadway shows recoup their investments, there's also a struggle to make a profitable run in Canada, since "they don't have as good an opportunity, Canadian shows." 

Slotkin said the main difference in the support theatre receives from the government. While Come From Away's Broadway run is closing in October 2022, the Canadian production shut in December 2021, only a week after returning from a 21-month COVID hiatus.

"In other parts of the world, the government has stepped up to support the commercial theatre sector by offering a financial safety net for the sector to reopen and play during the pandemic, thus protecting the tens of thousands of good jobs the sector creates," theatre producer David Mirvish wrote at the time of the closing. 

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

Early on in the pandemic, the U.S. government approved roughly $16 billion US in aid for entertainment productions — with over $30 million US alone going to Hamilton —  which Slotkin said mirrors a wider tendency to support theatrical productions there than in Canada. 

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

"It's the difference between thinking and knowing that the theatre, Broadway, whatever, is important to the tourism of your city and your country," Slotkin said. "And governments here don't value that as much."

And the knock-on effect — as subsidized musicals find success in the same few avenues in a few rarefied locations — is a misguided belief among audiences and actors that a musical hasn't made it until it's played on one of them. 

"All the big cities will have really, really good theatres. [There are] theatrical opportunities in Canada that are comparable to New York City," said David Jeffery, an actor from Medicine Hat, Alta.

"It's sort of dispelling this notion that if you don't make it to New York, you didn't get as high as you can go. While the brand name of Broadway is hard to beat, it's not like this top of the chain if you don't get there, you didn't make it kind of thing."

Jeffery himself fell somewhat accidentally into a Broadway role, eventually landing a spot as Connor Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen after sending a casting director a spur-of-the-moment email. But the difficulties over acquiring permission to work in the United States, moving back and forth between the two countries and auditioning as a non-American (as the Actors' Equity Association often requires American actors be considered first) means going down south is hardly more appetizing than staying in Canada.

But still, Read, Slotkin and Jeffery said that audiences often only see a musical as "making it" if it has made it to Broadway. That excludes a huge number of productions — and pushes talented actors to leave, simply because there isn't a Broadway or West End name to point to.  

Meanwhile, & Juliet hopes to head to the U.S. as well, and is in what producers are calling its "pre-Broadway run." But Read explained that getting the musical to show in Toronto, and bringing it to an audience that seems to enjoy it even more than London did, embodies the reason he made 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 theatre, to be with other people and to feel the common bonds of our experiences."

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