Musical theatre boom sends Toronto’s Soulpepper south for New York City debut

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Canada is in the midst of a musical theatre boom, and we’re not talking about jukebox musicals, movie parodies or precocious east coast redheads. This is a new generation of shows that are sophisticated, highly theatrical and – gasp! – fun.

Hits like the stag party spoof The Drowsy Chaperone, the personal ad musical Do You Want What I Have Got: A Craigslist Cantata and the song-and-dance love story of My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding have fueled Toronto’s hunger for unique passion projects with catchy music. Many Fringe Festivals have already started programming new musicals, even while there’s been a surge within Toronto companies to bypass the grass roots-style development by creating that next great hit with the same inimitable catchiness. Companies of all sizes are making the investment – from Sousatzka to Brantwood to Chasse-Galerie and everything in between.

This boom in original theatre development is drawing the attention of other markets. Jacob Richmond’s Ride The Cyclone has translated its successful time at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater into a much talked about run off Broadway. Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s Come From Away goes into its previews on Broadway with unprecedented anticipation and expectations that their feel-good story might be just what audiences need right now. Add to these the story of Mike Ross, who will have three original musicals performing in New York, as part of Soulpepper’s month-long festival this July.

But why would Canadian productions be of any interest to people in New York?

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Soulpepper, Of Human Design

“New York theatre-goers are certainly keen now, more than ever, to see work from our Canadian friends to the north,” says Sam Rudy, the press agent behind hits like Hamilton and Avenue Q.

“While it feels as though democracy in the U.S. has been turned on its head as a result of the recent Presidential election, we are heartened to look to Canada for its compassionate, reasoned response to a global crisis. Serious theatre-goers yearn to see work on stage that challenges them informs them and entertains them. We look forward to being challenged, informed, entertained and enlightened by the projects we will be seeing this season.”

Soulpepper might not be the obvious champion of new musicals, but the company has been on a new-work development spree, commissioning 35 new works in the past three years alone. The results speak for themselves: Of Human Bondage by Vern Thiessen (2014 Dora Award Outstanding Production) Parfumerie, adapted by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins (2010 Dora Award Outstanding Production) The Dybbuk, adapted by Anton Piatigorsky (NNNN Critic’s Pick) and Happy Place by Pamela Mala Sinha (NNNN Critic’s Pick), to name a few.

Musicals have come to play an important role in Soulpepper’s portfolio, perhaps most prominently with Spoon River, composed by Mike Ross and co-adapted with Albert Schultz. Returning to Toronto stages this March, Spoon River took home Best New Musical at the 2015 Dora Awards and the Toronto Theatre Critics’ Awards, then toured to the Charlottetown Festival last summer. The production recording album garnered the silver medal at the prestigious New York International Festival of Radio in 2016.

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Spoon River, Soulpepper

“Music at Soulpepper was really kick-started through the generosity of the Slaight Family Foundation,” says Ross. “Over the years, with support from Gary and Donna, we’ve been able to gather an incredible company of artists who are both actors and musicians, along with designers and directors and writers. That’s the joy of having a resident artist model. Working together we’re exploring the intersection of music and theatre, and creating original work and concerts that cross boundaries.”

Much of that work is based on non-traditional sources – from the children’s poems of Canada’s Father Goose Dennis Lee in Alligator Pie to tackling the canon of poet, essayist and playwright E. E. Cummings in (re)Birth: E.E. Cummings in Song. Both musicals are scheduled to appear alongside Spoon River at The Pershing Square Signature Center on 42nd Street, NYC, this July.

“It’s about filtering the most human of stories through our own sensibilities as creators, and through the unique perspectives of our artists, and sharing them with the world in the most creative way possible,” says Ross. “There’s something universal in that approach, and so we hope that New York audiences will respond as enthusiastically as our Toronto audiences.”

It’s no coincidence that Spoon River opens on Canada Day in New York. After sharing the production with over 15,000 people locally, it could well become a shining light for theatre-goers in other places that we have incredible theatre being created here at home.


Visit NOW Digital Residency: Soulpepper Spotlight to experience more of the company’s 20th anniversary season!

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