Sister Act: Toronto’s Johnson siblings redefine musical theatre

With Brantwood, Jacob Two-Two and an infamous Orphan Black plot line under their belts, catch the next phase of Britta and Anika Johnson's work this year at the Fringe Festival

LIFE AFTER with music and lyrics by Britta Johnson. Presented by the Life After Collective and the Fringe at Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson). Get tickets and showtimes here.

THE FENCE by Johnson, Johnston and Wilde. Presented by Edge of the Sky Theatre at the Randolph (736 Bathurst). Get tickets and showtimes here.

Move over, Justin Bieber. The title of “most famous entertainer to have grown up in Stratford, Ontario” might soon be up for grabs.

Siblings Britta and Anika Johnson are revolutionizing the musical theatre world. As co-writers of last year’s must-see immersive musical, Brantwood writers of the hella fun reworking of Jacob Two-Two and, this Fringe, as writer and star of Life After, a musical that could rip your heart out, they’re dominating the local scene.

Despite one of Anika’s (co-written) musicals being featured on a show called Orphan Black, their audience base has been relatively small – for now. But it extends far beyond tweens. Plus, they’re way nicer than the Biebs.

And besides, musical theatre seems to be having a moment right now, with shows like Hamilton wooing a whole new demographic.

“It’s a really exciting time to be involved in this,” says Anika, bursting with energy at the NOW Lounge. “Musicals were dismissed for a long time. We’d often talk about how in the early days of the musical the top-40 hits would come out of shows. And I don’t know why that can’t still be the case.”

Britta, who seems a little lower-key than her older sibling, bemoans the recent era when composers thought they could turn anything into a musical. 

“You’d have ‘Blank: The Musical,’ and there was a lot of bad stuff,” she says. “But people are coming around to the fact that music is a very powerful force. If you invite it into the storytelling, there are so many possibilities. Hamilton is an amazing example of that. There are no rules.”

Take Life After, for instance. Originally written a few years ago while Britta was a composer-in-residence at Paprika, it’s about Alice, a teenager (played by Anika) mourning the accidental death of her self-help guru father. The revised show isn’t completely autobiographical, but the siblings lost their father to cancer when they were teens.

“Death and grief are big subjects, and I think they lend themselves to music,” says Britta. “When you lose someone, there are these new cracks that let in different colours. And I thought this emotional world could be musicalized.”

Anika, who got cast in the show after auditioning for director Robert McQueen, agrees. 

“Everyone’s experienced loss in some form, and I think music is an amazing medium to express things that are too abstract and impossible to articulate otherwise.” 

Both assure me that the piece is also very, very funny. That won’t surprise anyone who’s seen and heard their shows, which crackle with cleverness and pop-cultural savvy.

For Brantwood, which they developed with writer/directors Mitchell Cushman and Julie Tepperman and co-composer Bram Gielen, they had to concoct music and lyrics to represent each decade of the past 100 years, everything from doo-wop to hip-hop. 

“It really was like songwriting boot camp,” says Britta. “If you look at what we wrote before and after the show, it expanded our musical palette exponentially. Composers have tricks they use, habits, certain chord progressions. ‘This is what I do when I want people to cry,’ for instance. But we had to rethink what it meant in these particular styles of songs.”

You might say the two were destined to become entertainers. Both their parents were in the orchestra for Stratford musicals, and their father, jazz musician and composer Jerry Johnson, played with the National Ballet and the Mirvish musicals. So music was in their blood.

“All of our parents’ friends worked in the theatre – that was just our world,” says Britta, who recently graduated from U of T’s music department. “So entering this field was a practical choice because we were surrounded by so many artists who had made lovely lives for themselves and made interesting things.”

“It would have been much weirder if we were sort of normal,” says Anika, who also performs with the physical theatre company CORPUS and is part of Johnson, Johnston and Wilde, the songwriting team behind last Fringe’s Summerland. This year that same trio (Anika with Barbara Johnston and Suzy Wilde) are putting on a Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well-style song cycle at the Fringe called The Fence, which looks at the lives of artists the decade after they leave school. The three are also mounting Daughters Of Feminists, a site-specific Fringe show at the Boat. And during Pride, they’re glamming it up in their Spice Girls tribute band, Wannabe.

A third sibling, Eliza, is an opera singer. All three kids began playing piano at three, and, as Britta points out, being competitive motivated them to practise. 

“Being the youngest, I remember thinking, ‘I better get good at this fast,'” she says. During a recent fundraiser for Life After, Britta performed some numbers she wrote for a show at the Blyth Festival when she was 16. The songs’ complex rhythms and witty wordplay were astonishing. Clearly, Sondheim was an early influence. 

“Yes,” says Britta. “I remember being young and thinking musicals were dumb. I liked serious plays by Chekhov, plus Radiohead and Sondheim,” she says with self-mockery. “Sondheim wrote things like Assassins, which cool people could like.”

Anika remembers coming home from Ryerson University, where she studied theatre and met future collaborator Barbara Johnston, and seeing Britta’s precocious high school musicals. 

“I told Barb we should write a musical,” she says. She looks at Britta. “I was copying you.”

So far it’s turned out great for everyone. The siblings are working on a project for Outside the March, a site specific, immersive piece in which the audience will be attending a memorial service for a cult leader who’s passed away. And they’re collaborating with Morris Panych on a new musical with Sheridan College’s Canadian Music Theatre Project, the same place where Brantwood was developed. 

And there are rumours about a Brantwood remount. 

Although they have dual citizenship – their father was born in the U.S. – they’re happy to be so busy right here, part of a thriving Canadian musical scene that includes David Hein and Irene Sankoff, whose Come From Away is opening on Broadway next year, and Jacob Richmond and Brooke Maxwell, whose Ride The Cyclone is playing off-Broadway this fall.

“There’s suddenly a lot of energy and momentum behind Canadian musicals,” says Britta.

“There’s a real community here,” adds Anika. “I lived in New York for a year, and it’s exciting but overwhelming. People are accessible in Toronto, we’re all talking to each other, and suddenly the world is paying attention to us. Not just in musicals but in pop music and sports. That’s thrilling.”

THE TORONTO FRINGE THEATRE FESTIVAL featuring 150 local, national and international companies at 32 venues and the Fringe Club. Opens Wednesday (June 29) and runs to July 10. $12 at the door, $2 surcharge on advance tickets, discount passes available. Day-of discount tickets for selected performances $8, at Fringe Club box office. FringeKids! $5 for those 12 and under. 100 per cent of tickets available in advance, up to one hour before performance time, online, by phone or at the festival box office at the Fringe Club (581 Bloor West). If available, remaining tickets go on sale at the venue an hour before show time. No latecomers. 416-966-1062,

Get more Fringe 2016 here. | @glennsumi

Brand Voices

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *