The concert series for musicals in development aims to cultivate audiences as well as new shows, and use them to fine tune potential hits in the making.
Toronto has for decades been known as a testing ground for musicals. Big splashy song and dance spectacles are the bread and butter of Mirvish Entertainment, the city’s largest theatre producer. Companies and shows from out of town also test productions here before moving on to larger markets, such as with Full House: the Musical, currently running at the Randolph Theatre.
But the framework for creating and producing musicals locally, from the ground up, has been patchy. There’s certainly examples of homegrown successes, like Evil Dead the Musical, The Drowsy Chaperone, and My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. But it’s perhaps telling that that last show’s creators, David Hein and Irene Carl Sankoff, have debuted their follow-up, Come From Away, south of the border (to rave reviews).
That lack of opportunity for nascent Toronto musicals led Musical Works in Concert artistic director Tracey Michailidis to solicit for potential new shows to showcase as part of the SummerWorks festival in 2010. She’d hoped for a few interesting submissions; she got 50 that first year. Since then, the series has consistently sold out their one night only SummerWorks presentations, with lines around the block, leading Michailidis and SummerWorks artistic Producer Michael Rubenfeld to concur the series should strike out on its own. (Summerworks itself wrapped up last weekend, leaving the Factory Theatre free for Musical Works in Concert.)
“SummerWorks was amazing for us,” Michaildis told us on break from rehearsal. “It’s an incubator for so much new work. But because of the festival’s format, we could only do one performance of each show.” For this week’s debut of the series on its own, each of the four shows will get three performances—and they’ll likely change from first show to last show. “Because they’re in development, the performance is part of the workshop,” says Michailidis. She’s even programmed feedback sessions on Saturday August 22 after each show, where diehard musical fans can opt to see all four, marathon style.
The shows in the series—one act shows Out of the Lens and Fitz Happens, and the first acts of two act shows Misprint and The Yellow Ribbon—aren’t all brand new, but are all works in process. British writer David Kingsmill’s Out of the Lens, for instance, previously ran for two weeks at the Edniburgh Fringe in 2104 (as did Misprint, which was at the Toronto Fringe in 2011). “It’s been very heavily reworked, which is so often necessary with musicals,” says Kingsmill, who wrote the show here in Toronto, and brought it back to the UK to collaborate with musician and composer Nicholas Chave. For their 2014 Fringe run, they were shoehorned into a 45 minute slot. “We’d be charged about ten pounds a minute if we went overtime.” For their Musical Works In Concert debut, they’re working with Toronto performers Viktor Pokinko and Kholby Wardell, and Kingsmill goes over notes online with Chave, who’s back in London.
It’s the sheer number of people involved – often the book, lyrics, and music are handled separately – that makes it necessary to work and rework musicals to hone them, according to Michailidis. “There are just more collaborators.” That goes for producers, too: Musical Works In Concert is being presented by Theatre 20, a collective of musical artists and producers who became involved after Michailidis announced last year would be MWiC’s last as part pf SummerWorks. “Brian Goldberg of Theatre 20 approached me; part of their initiative is to develop new musical work, as well.”
Kingsmill tells us the process of reworking the show, and the on-the-fly reworking he expects to do over the weekend, is vital. “‘This doesn’t make sense in Canada’ is actually a note that came up, which is important, even though it’s a very British show, and we’ve kept the accents localized to where it’s written.” It’s all part of the fine tuning process that he as a creator craves, including dramaturgical assistance. “That’s something I hadn’t had much experience with before. ‘Dramaturgy’ was a word I knew, but didn’t really understand. Which is a shame, because it’s invaluable.”
Initiatives like Musical Works In Concert and Theatre 20 are helping to fill a niche that’s clearly needed in Canadian theatre production. And the grassroots musical theatre community is clearly growing quickly in response to audience appreciation, as witnessed by the ever growing number of musicals debuting at the Toronto Fringe, or the popularity of Toronto cabaret nights like Singular Sensation. Ensuring audiences are a part of that growth is clearly a priority for Michailidis: “We’re inviting the audience into the process, and establishing a dialogue, to build a community.”