Musical brand

& Juliet Shows How Canadian Musicals Can Succeed Without the Broadway “Brand Name”

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

It might not be the story you’re used to, but it’s the one being told at the Princess of Wales Theater in Toronto.

& Julietthrough August 14, is a new musical that offers an alternate history for Shakespeare’s character Juliet as she continues to live an independent life – to the songs of Swedish pop hitmaker Max Martin.

And although the 2019 piece was originally created in London’s West End, it had a major Canadian connection long before it made its way to that country. Behind the curtain, Schitt’s Creek writer David West Read wrote the play alongside Martin, again with the intention of bringing it back to his 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, for me, it’s as good as it gets – putting on a show here.”

Although he’s always had a desire to bring big stage production to Canada and despite his ability to work regularly in other industries in Canada, Read says it’s never been easier.

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

Aside from COVID-related closures – the last of which closed theaters across the country for nearly two years, with Toronto’s Mirvish Theaters just this year announcing their first full season since 2019 — Read says the way the industry is organized prevents both audiences and actors from embracing Canada as a theater capital.

Early in his career, Read said he had to move to New York to break into the industry, a common decision made by many creators and actors in that country. But part of the reason for that, he said, is due to performers and audiences assuming that Broadway is the be-all and end-all, without acknowledging the talent and variety of productions here at we.

“It’s 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 in the talent 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 sleepy chaperone arrived in New York after its Toronto premiere in 1997 — winning five Tony Awards, including Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score — while a few years later Brian Hill’s The story of my life did a short Broadway run in 2009.

The British Columbia Musical Ride the Cyclone brought the comedy about six teenagers trapped on the Cyclone roller coaster off Broadway in 2015. Earlier there was Billy Bishop goes to wara satirical production about Canada’s First World War flying ace, and Rockabye Hamlet, a rock musical based on the Shakespearean tragedy.

And, of course, there is Come from afar.

This play, which tells the story of 7,000 air passengers stranded in Newfoundland following the September 11 attacks, is widely considered the most successful Canadian musical of all time. It opened on Broadway in 2017 and has surpassed The sleepy chaperone674 performances to become the longest-running Canadian musical on Broadway. It will end in October of this year after entertaining more than a million guests and running 1,670 performances, making it not only the longest-running Canadian musical, but also the 49th-longest-running musical in the world. Broadway story.

WATCH | The actor attributes the end of Come from Away’s run to a lack of government support:

Canadian production of ‘Come From Away’ ends for good after brief return to the stage

Canada Tonight guest host Hillary Johnstone speaks with ‘Come From Away’ cast member Ali Momen about the permanent end of the theater production due to COVID-19, lack of support from the government and what it meant to be part of the biggest successful musical.

While these Canadian musicals have made their mark, there are still far fewer Great White Northern musicals on the Great White Way than there are American ones. While this is partly because there are simply fewer artistic creators in Canada, it also comes down to an image issue.

“Most Broadway shows fail…because of the nature of the economy.” said Lynn Slotkin, a Canadian theater critic. But while on average only one of five Broadway shows recoups its investment, there’s also been difficulty in making a profitable run in Canada, because “they don’t have as good an opportunity, the Canadian shows.”

Slotkin said the main difference is in the support the theater receives from the government. Whereas Come from afarThe Broadway tour ends in October 2022, the Canadian production closed in December 2021, just a week after returning from a 21-month COVID hiatus.

LISTEN | David West Read on Reinvention Romeo and Juliet with the musical jukebox & Juliet:

20:37David West Read on reinventing Romeo and Juliet with musical jukebox & Juliet

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

“In other parts of the world, the government has stepped up support for the commercial theater sector by providing a financial safety net for the sector to reopen and perform during the pandemic, protecting the tens of thousands of good jobs that the sector creates,” theater producer David Mirvish wrote at the time of closing.

“But in Canada, there is no such government support. And without such a safety net, it is impossible for production to take another extended break. The costs of reopening are prohibitive and risky.”

At the start of the pandemic, the US government approved approximately US$16 billion in aid for entertainment productions – with more than 30 million US dollars alone hamilton – which, according to Slotkin, reflects a broader 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 this year, many industry players said it was too little, too late for beleaguered arts workers who have already had to go through two years of little or no work.

“It’s the difference between thinking and knowing that 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.”

“The Broadway brand is hard to beat”

And the ripple effect — as subsidized musicals succeed in the same avenues in a few rarefied places — is a mistaken belief among audiences and actors that a musical hasn’t succeeded as long as it was not played on any of them.

“All major cities will have very, very good theaters. [There are] theatrical possibilities in Canada that are comparable to New York City,” said David Jeffery, an actor from Medicine Hat, Alberta.

“It’s kind of dispelling this idea that if you don’t go to New York, you haven’t gone as high as you can. While the Broadway brand name is hard to beat, it’s not like that top of the chain if you don’t get there you haven’t made some sort of thing out of it.”

Red Deer’s David Jeffery will reprise the role of Connor Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen, a Broadway musical that aired in December 2016. (David Jeffery)

Jeffery himself kind of accidentally stumbled into a role on Broadway, eventually landing a spot as Connor Murphy in Dear Evan Hansen after sending a casting director an impulsive email. But the difficulties of getting permission to work in the United States, traveling back and forth between the two countries, and auditioning as a non-American (as the Actors’ Equity Association often requires American actors to be considered first) means that going south is little more palatable than staying in Canada.

Nonetheless, Read, Slotkin and Jeffery said audiences often only see a musical as “successful” if it made it to Broadway. This rules out a lot of productions – and drives talented actors to leave, simply because there’s no Broadway or West End name to point to.

Meanwhile, & Juliet also hopes to make it to the United States and finds itself in what the producers call its “pre-Broadway run”. But Read explained that getting the musical to air in Toronto, and bringing it to an audience that seems to like it even more than London, epitomizes the reason he created it.

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