Until the last few years, musical theatre buffs in Toronto and the GTA had to rely on commercial theatres to satisfy their tastes, looking to companies like Mirvish Productions to keep them up-to-date with Broadway and West End hits. Today, things have changed to the point where musical theatre regularly appears in the city’s not-for-profit (NFP) theatres in forms new and old. And performers who cut their teeth in shows produced by Mirvish, Dancap and (the now-defunct) Livent Corp. are achieving marquee status with new and different audiences.
Musical Theatre and Dance
DECEMBER: With minutes to spare, I pick up my ticket for Seussical at Young People’s Theatre (YPT) on Front St. and dash to my seat. The matinée audience of primary school students squeals and squirms with excitement, their eyes darting intermittently to the red and white striped hat that sits in the middle of the stage. I read a programme note in which Allen MacInnis, director and choreographer of the production (who also happens to be the artistic director of YPT), expresses his own excitement at remounting the show which was eminently successful in 2006 when he first directed it for the same theatre. Questions about why he is redoing it so soon are immediately answered: “I wanted to revisit the musical adaptation of Dr. Seuss’s stories because it is a perfect fit for a season of plays that are thematically linked by the power of change.”
How coincidental, I think: my late arrival at YPT resulted from a traffic snarl on King St. E. where the Occupy Toronto protest had swollen across the borders of St. James Park in response to a City eviction notice. More than seasonal change is in the air, a fact evident in much of the musical theatre on view during the next two months, in and beyond the GTA.
Settling into my chair to watch Seussical, a shortened version of the show by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty that premiered on Broadway in 2000, I didn’t have to wait long to recognize its relevance to the idea of change that permeates our current social climate. “A person’s a person, no matter how small,” Horton the Elephant introduces in the rallying cry in his very first song, Horton Hears a Who!, also the title of one of the stories by Theodor Geisel (Doctor Seuss) that the musical incorporates into its book. Although Horton is unable to see a Who, he can hear one, namely Jo-jo, a resident of the tiny world of Whoville who cries for help from her perch atop a speck of dust precariously caught on a clover leaf. Unable to convince anyone in the Jungle of Nool, where he lives, that Jo-jo exists, Horton becomes a subject of ridicule, suffering humiliating indignities that increase after Mayzie LaBird leaves him to guard an egg that she subsequently abandons. Captured by a team of mischievous monkeys, Horton is put on display in a circus where, despite his outcast status, he continues to protect Mayzie’s egg and strives to rescue Jo-jo and the citizens of Whoville in whatever way he can.
For director MacInnis, Seussical is “a good fit” for YPT for a number of reasons. “I’m obsessed with the ways in which kids come into their own power,” he explains in an interview, “how they learn to give and take it.” Power, he suggests, is as much a sensation as a force: one senses it internally and externally, and not just in relation to physical prowess. Horton has power because he believes in himself — in what he alone can hear. Because he senses the capacity of his belief to change things, no matter how small, his power strengthens and begins to affect others. MacInnis likens Horton’s belief to imagination, which is one of the reasons he includes a musical in every YPT season. “Musicals make the audience work — they give them room to fill in the gaps and make connections, to use their imagination in ways that naturalism doesn’t allow.” This makes them ideal for young people, especially those who let their imaginations run wild.
Seussical is a terrific show, and not just for kids. The physical skills of the cast, as much as their musical talents, maintain its snappy pace and help to elevate its simple staging to a sophisticated style that is as clever as Ahrens and Flaherty’s eclectic score which covers a range from rap to rhythm ‘n’ blues and even includes a lullaby. George Masswhol brings a melancholy resolve to his performance of Horton (along with a voice like an angel) that grounds the production with sincerity and compassion to which the rest of the cast play with confidence. His real-life partner, Sharron Matthews, essays a mesmerizing Mayzie, especially when she vamps her way through How Lucky You Are. Running until December 30, Seussical offers family fare that is as timely as it is tuneful. There’s no better gift for the holidays than this wise and winning tale.
JANUARY: When I undertook to interview Mitchell Marcus, artistic producer of Acting Up Stage Company (AUSC), about Caroline, or Change, the American musical that receives its Canadian premiere on January 21 at the Berkeley Street Theatre (downstairs), I didn’t consider that Seussical might make a useful comparison. After all, what possible connection could exist between a musical compilation of Dr. Seuss’s fantastical parables and a character-driven study of an African-American maid working for a Jewish family in Louisiana in 1963? The answer is obvious to me now: change.
With a book and lyrics by playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America), Caroline, or Change arrives in Toronto with a string of awards but limited commercial success. This alone provides a parallel, of sorts, to Seussical which, in its original Broadway incarnation, failed to win popular success or critical approbation. In retrospect, both shows suffered from unrealistic expectations and bloated production values. Only after Seussical was down-sized to a 90-minute version (which subsequently was further condensed to the 70-minute show on view at YPT), did it appeal to critics and audiences alike. While Caroline, or Change won critical success on Broadway in 2004, and in London in 2006, it failed to generate enough interest to garner subsequent productions of note, or to tour—the prime requisite for musical theatre longevity. For Marcus, this marks it as “an underdog musical,” and qualifies it as a perfect choice for production by AUSC.
Marcus defines an underdog musical as one “that was so successful in a not-for-profit run that it usually has some momentum beyond its original production, even though it’s not gone on to become a big commercial hit …” Invariably, such shows — he cites The Light in the Piazza (book by Craig Lucas, music and lyrics by Adam Guettel) as an example — “redefine our expectations of musical theatre,” a central goal of AUSC which, Marcus explains, “seeks to produce thought-provoking, contemporary, intelligent musical theatre pieces, and to bridge the commercial side of musical theatre — the large entertainment spectacle musical — with the theatre scene in Toronto which I associate with provocative plays in intimate spaces, with great cast members.”
Even a cryptic description of Caroline, or Change indicates how the piece fits AUSC’s mandate. Completely sung-through, the book chronicles the relationship between Caroline Thibodeaux, a black maid and single mother, and Noah Gellman, the eight-year-old son of her Jewish employer. After the death of his mother from cancer, Noah increasingly relies on Caroline for guidance, especially when his new stepmother, Rose, convinces the maid to teach Noah a lesson about leaving change in his trouser pockets by asking her to keep the money she finds. Loathe to take money from a child, Caroline needs it for her own children, so she co-operates. Soon, Noah, deliberately, is leaving her change, fantasizing that Caroline’s family acknowledges and appreciates his beneficence. The situation grows complicated when a $20 bill goes missing …
“From a book perspective, it’s more a long piece of poetry than a forward-moving drama,” Marcus suggests. “The audience has to be willing to accept the poetic journey that Kushner takes it on, which does move forward, but not as quickly as most people expect. This is a musical about feelings. This is a musical about people … being …”
The change in form that the producer identifies finds a corollary in the music composed by Jeanine Tesori, best known for her scores for Thoroughly Modern Millie and Shrek, the Musical, which, Marcus is quick to point out, differ considerably from Caroline.
Although fully sung-through, Caroline doesn’t have a single song you can isolate. It’s really like récit in opera, with all these different musical forms thrown together. Spirituals, blues, classical music, Motown, Jewish klezmer, folk music: the style shifts whenever a new character enters. The musical palette sounds like a radio in 1963, with someone changing the station every few minutes …”
The book further emphasizes change by setting Caroline’s situation against a sweeping historical backdrop that includes the assassination of President Kennedy, conflicts over the Vietnam war and the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. “It’s interesting to see a musical that focuses on the way an individual reacts when the community is changing around her. Artistically, the show pushes boundaries; socially, it offers so many opportunities for discussion …”
To produce Caroline, or Change, AUSC is partnering with Obsidian Theatre, whose mandate stresses its dedication “to the exploration, development, and production of the Black voice.” Partnering, by increasing production budgets, allows companies to mount larger, more ambitious productions (such as Parade, which AUSC co-produced with Studio 180 last year). It also enables them to cast performers they otherwise couldn’t afford. Caroline stars Arlene Duncan, a regular on CBC’s Little Mosque on the Prairie, as well as seasoned professionals like Deborah Hay who played Eliza Dolittle in My Fair Lady at the Shaw Festival last summer. But the move is more than just practical, as Marcus points out. “By building relationships with other independent theatre companies, we can pool our audiences,” a move essential for the evolution of musical theatre and the development of Toronto audiences. “We are being entrusted to push the boundaries of this genre and, at the same time, to develop new audiences for it, to open their minds to the possibilities of the musical form.”
Pushing boundaries, opening minds. As I hurry home from my interview with Marcus in the cool autumn air, I recall MacInnis’ comments about imagination and power, which lead me to wonder about musical theatre as an instrument of change. Seussical begins when the red and white striped hat in the middle of the stage begins to slide across the floor, all by itself — or so it seems to the audience. For the children at YPT, the moment equalled sheer magic. Unaware of the “smoke and mirrors” of stage-craft, they watched in amazement as an inanimate object moved on its own — or so they thought. What will the Toronto audience think of Caroline, or Change, a piece that conflates life’s tumultuous changes with the change in a person’s pocket?
At the end of Kushner’s script, Caroline returns to her employer’s basement to wash the laundry, resigned to her lot in life even as she curses God. Change, it would seem, is beyond her.
What would Horton say to her, I wonder? “A person’s a person, no matter how … what?”
Robert Wallace is a Toronto-based, retired university professor who writes about theatre and performance. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Theatrical Treats for Your Musical Sweet Tooth
Music theatre is as prevalent as candy canes at this time of year, in and beyond the GTA. If traditional treats satisfy your sweet tooth, check out A Christmas Carol – the Musical at Brampton’s Rose Theatre that runs from December 15 to 18. This popular version of Dickens’ haunting of Ebenezer Scrooge benefits from a melodic score by Alan Mencken that strikes all the right notes. If the dates don’t fit, Runnymede United Church presents a dramatic reading of the poem on which it’s based on December 4, with holiday music performed by Ben Heppner, accompanied by a string trio and two choirs. Soulpepper Theatre offers a longer run of the yuletide treat, but without the musical icing, in Michael Shamata’s stage adaptation that opens on December 6 in the Distillery District, with Joe Ziegler heading an all-star cast.
White Christmas, a musical based on the 1954 film starring Bing Crosby with music by Irving Berlin, has grown in popularity since it premiered in San Francisco in 2004. Toronto’s Civic Light Opera presents the melody-fest from November 30 to December 17 at the Fairview Library Theatre, in a production designed and directed by Joe Cascone. The Berlin show’s iconic songs are unlikely to grace Angelwalk Theatre’s Off Broadway On Stage, a musical journey of a different sort that opens for one week on December 7 at the Studio Theatre in the Toronto Centre for the Arts. Conceived by Brian Goldenberg, with musical direction by Anthony Bastianon, the show includes songs from The Fantasticks, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living In Paris and Altar Boyz, productions that succeeded in small venues without marquee stars.
For less traditional treats, look no further than Like an Old Tale: An East Scarborough Retelling of The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare. The score of this Jumblies Theatre production, composed by Juliet Palmer, showcases the remarkable soprano of Neema Bickersteth, who plays Hermione; it also incorporates traditional Tamil singing by Sarada K. Eswar, and First Nations singing by Rosary Spence. Presented at 793 Pharmacy Ave., the production runs from December 8 to 18. Another retelling of a traditional tale finds a wonderful setting in Toronto’s Evergreen Brick Works when Theatre Columbus presents The Story, a new version of the nativity by Martha Ross, featuring rotating corps of local choirs and drummers under the direction of John Millard. The show opens December 13 and runs to the end of the month.
To usher in the new year, Toronto Operetta Theatre offers an unusual delight: The Gypsy Princess, a comic opera by Hungarian composer Imre Kálmán starring soprano, Lara Ciekiewicz, opens at the Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, on December 28 for ten performances. Other notable January fare, while less seasonal, is tasty nevertheless. Cabaret, Kander and Ebb’s popular musical based on the play by John Van Druten and stories by Christopher Isherwood, receives a student production at Hart House Theatre that is sure to attract a crowd. Under the direction of Adam Brazier, it opens on January 13 for two weeks. Further afield (geographically, at least), the Kingston Symphony presents musical theatre works by Andrew Lloyd Webber and others in an evening titled “Music of the Night” at the Grand Theatre on January 20. Michelle Todd, soprano, and Michael Hope, baritone, are featured.
Finally, on February 2nd and 3rd, Soundstreams presents The Sealed Angel, a musical drama by Russian composer, Rodion Shchedrin, that integrates the Amadeus Choir and the Elmer Iseler Singers with the ProArteDanza dance company in a liturgically-themed, multi-disciplinary work. With musical direction by Lydia Adams and choreography by Lars Scheibner, this ambitious production plays for two nights at the Royal Conservatory’s Koerner Hall. Festive treats, it seems, are not limited to the holidays.
— Robert Wallace
It’s been a busy summer for devotees of Broadway-style musicals in the Toronto area, with professional productions of Miss Saigon and South Pacific adding to the just-closed hit Jersey Boys, and with Wicked just around the corner. If your wallet feels significantly lighter, however, then relief is at hand as a new season of community musical theatre in the GTA kicks off this month. Ticket prices are significantly lower, usually in the $20 to $25 range, but the performing standard is often very high.
There’s the usual mixture of perennial favourites and contemporary shows, and the usual mixture of presentation styles, all of which reflect the variety in the community theatre world: the different personnel of the various groups and their musical tastes; the perceived audience market; the quite different performing spaces; and the varying musical resources they choose to use. “Something for everybody,” as the cliché goes. Even so, you can’t help wondering if there should be a bit more imagination – or possibly a bit more communication – in the programming: there are three instances of the same show being staged by two different companies, and in the case of Oliver!, the two productions will be running at exactly the same time.
Most groups choose to do only one or two shows a year, which makes for a very full schedule in November and in the spring. Surprisingly, I know of only one production in each of September, October and December. Two of those belong to the Civic Light Opera Company, the only group to present four shows a year, and whose schedule – rather like the hockey season – stretches from early September to the beginning of June (www.civiclightoperacompany.com).
It does mean, however, that they mostly avoid date conflicts with the other groups. Their first show is Paint Your Wagon, another of those shows with a gorgeous Fritz Loewe score and a problematic book by Alan Jay Lerner, which artistic director Joe Cascone will doubtless address. It runs September 8 to 25 at Fairview Library Theatre.
October sees the first of five single productions by five different groups at the Meadowvale Theatre in Mississauga, combined under the heading the Encore Series, and with attractively-priced subscriptions to all five shows (www.encoreseries.ca). Music Theatre Mississauga stages Shout! The Mod Musical, a look at the British female singers and fashions of the 1960s. It runs October 22 to 30.
A busy November starts with Scarborough Music Theatre’s Annie, the first of two productions of the show this season, and Curtain Call Players’ Bob Fosse review Steam Heat. Annie, always popular with audiences (but, trust me, not with the musicians!) runs November 4 to 20 (www.theatrescarborough.com/SMT); and Steam Heat goes from November 4 to 13 (www.curtaincallplayers.com).
Rent has proved to be particularly popular with community groups since the performing rights became available, and it’s clearly a great way to pull young performers into the theatre. Brampton Musical Theatre’s production of the show runs at the Rose Theatre for just four days, November 11 to 14 (www.bramptonmusicaltheatre.com).
The middle of November sees the two concurrent productions of Oliver!: one a short run by Steppin’ Out Theatrical Productions in Richmond Hill from November 18 to 21 (www.steppinout.ca); and the other a three-week run by Etobicoke Musical Productions from November 19 to December 4 (www.e-m-p.net).
Clarkson Music Theatre presents the second show in the Encore Series at Meadowvale Theatre, and the first of the season’s Gilbert & Sullivan productions, when they stage The Gondoliers from November 19 to 27. Civic Light Opera is the only group to try to take advantage of the holiday season in December, with the third – and revised – production of their original musical, The Wizard of Oz. Do not expect the movie! Show dates are December 1 to 19.
The new year gets off to a fairly quiet start, with only Theatre Unlimited’s Cabaret in the Encore Series from January 21 to 29 – before St. Anne’s Music and Drama Society hits the boards at the end of the month with their double G&S bill of H.M.S. Pinafore and The Zoo. Show dates are January 28-30 and February 3 to 6 (www.stannes.on.ca).
Three contemporary shows can be seen in February: Scarborough Music Theatre’s second production of the season is The Full Monty, from February 3 to 19, (should be interesting!) and Meadowvale Music Theatre stages Urinetown as the fourth show in the Encore Series, February 18 to 26. Urinetown is another show that is proving to be extremely popular with community groups: you will also be able to catch it later in the spring when EMP mount their production at Burnhamthorpe Collegiate. Civic Light Opera’s production of The Big Bang, a two-man show about a backers’ audition for an improbably ambitious new musical, runs February 9 to 26, and the month also sees the latest in North Toronto Players’ string of imaginatively updated G&S operettas: this time it’s The Mikado at the Vaughan Playhouse (www.northtorontoplayers.com).
The Encore Series wraps up with City Centre’s Peter Pan from March 25 to April 2. Otherwise, March looks like the month for Stephen Sondheim fans, with productions of Sweeney Todd by Curtain Call Players from March 24 to April 2, and A Little Night Music by Steppin’ Out from March 24 to 26. Interestingly, there is a line of thought in musical theatre that Sondheim shows are not necessarily a great choice for community groups: for a start, they’re quite complex and difficult. But feelings about Sondheim seem to be polarized – you either like him or you don’t. If you do, you’ve probably already seen all his shows several times; if you don’t, then you probably won’t be going.
April sees the second Annie production, this time by Brampton Musical Theatre from April 6 to 8, and Scarborough Music Theatre ends its schedule with Fiddler on the Roof from April 28 to May 14. Civic Light Opera rounds out the season with Cole Porter’s Anything Goes from May 18 to June 4.
Quality musical theatre at quality prices – go see for yourself!
Terry Robbins is a musician and musical theatre enthusiast. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.
When Curtain Call Players’ production of Titanic sails into Fairview Library Theatre on April 1 for a two-week run, you will have a great opportunity to hear Maury Yeston’s sweeping score in all its majesty and beauty. You had a similar opportunity four years ago, when Civic Light Opera presented the show in the same theatre, but there is one crucial difference this time around: whereas CLOC used a full 18-piece orchestra, in the Curtain Call production there won’t be a live musician in sight – or out of sight either, for that matter.
Every community theatre group has choices to make regarding the music itself whenever it stages a musical, and the issues aren’t necessarily simple. What type of show is it? What size show will it be? What’s the orchestration? Are reduced versions available? What shape and size is the theatre space, especially the backstage facilities? What’s the orchestra budget? How many players can you afford? How good are they? How tough is the score?
Generally speaking, there are four options. Go with the original orchestration, or, if it’s too large, with as many players as you can accommodate and/or afford. Go with a reduced orchestration, if there is one. Use a small combo, with just the critical instruments covered, keyboard only. Use a pre-recorded track, usually synthesizer
This last option has always been viewed by virtually everyone – and not just the musicians – as quite literally the last choice. Apart from the huge issue of sound quality, the major problems have been always been the lack of atmosphere and – most crucially – the inflexibility of the recorded track. A singer misses a verse? Tough. You want the tempo to pick up when the show is really jumping? Sorry. Need an emergency vamp for a few bars? Nope.
With the huge developments in music technology over the past few decades, especially in the professional Broadway and West End theatres, it was surely only a matter of time before the community theatre world was forced to address the issue of pre-recorded show scores. Sound and lighting have embraced computer technology, so why should the orchestra pit be considered sacrosanct?
Is this really the way of the future, though? Are theatre musicians really a doomed species, dinosaurs waiting for the technological asteroid to crash into their planet and change their world for ever? A production of Titanic seemed the perfect invitation to explore the issue – after all, the eight musicians on the original ship played on to the very end, despite the knowledge that they were almost certainly doomed.
For Keith O’Connell, founder and artistic director of Curtain Call Players, the cost of a full orchestra, perhaps surprisingly, was not the major consideration – in fact, he will be spending more on the music by not having one. His production values for this show are high, with a two-level 40-foot wide set that uses hydraulics to tilt 6 feet in the second act, and it wouldn’t have been possible to put a full orchestra either on stage or in the wings.
Moreover, he didn’t want to. Maintaining the integrity of the set and the score were key considerations, and while a big orchestra would also have been wrong for the period, a small orchestra would have been unable to do justice to the score.
The solution? Sinfonia!
Sinfonia, which CCP also used for their recent production of Cats, is a technology developed by Realtime Music Solutions of New York, and provides either full orchestra or orchestra enhancement capability for all levels of music theatre. It runs the gamut from the top-of-the-line Sinfonia Grande (for professional touring productions and theatres) through Sinfonia Molto (for smaller spaces) and Sinfonia Mezzo (for regional and community theatre) to Sinfonia Piccolo, which offers lap-top orchestra enhancement for amateur and community groups.
What is so hugely significant about it, though, is that it has apparently solved all of the problems associated with pre-recorded music: it sounds great; it’s flexible; it will vamp on the fly; it will jump back to a certain bar number; it will transpose; you can use live musicians with it and mute or unmute instruments of your choice; it has tempo variation and control, and can follow a conductor and the constantly-changing nuance during a live performance.
Two of the three major rights organizations have warmly embraced the new technology, both Music Theatre International and the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization now have alliances with RMS, and their own specialized systems. MTI currently offers OrchExtra for 20 of their shows, while R&H have AccompanEase for rehearsal/practice purposes, and InstrumentEase as a performance enhancement tool for a whole range of top shows, including most of the Rodgers & Hammerstein classics.
Ironically, the only one of the three organizations that apparently has no interest in pre-recorded music of any description being used in their shows is Tams-Witmark – the rights holder for Titanic! The orchestration is already available on Sinfonia, however, with composer Maury Yeston’s full approval, and after checking with Yeston Tams-Witmark agreed to make an exception and allow CCP to use the system in their upcoming production.
Not that it is saving O’Connell any money: not only will CCP be paying over $3,000 for the Sinfonia system rental, but they will also still have to pay Tams-Witmark for the orchestral parts rental even though, says O’Connell, “We won’t even get to open the box!”
It’s difficult to see live music completely disappearing from the community stage – apart from anything else, pre-recorded systems are clearly not going to save anyone any money in the short run – but groups are obviously now going to have more options when it comes to the sound of the music they present to their audiences.
If you have the chance, go and see Titanic at Fairview: you will hear Yeston’s score in all its glory, and it may well be a sneak peak at the future of community musical theatre as well. Curtain Call Players production of Titanic runs April 1, 2, 3, 4, 8, 9 & 10 at Fairview Library Theatre; tickets are $24 from (416)703-6181 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Terry Robins is a musician and musical theatre enthusiast. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.
If you happened to be in Wilmington, Delaware, in late February of 1976 – or Washington D.C. in early March, or even in Boston through early April that same year – you’d have had the chance to see that rarity in American musical-theatre history: a Richard Rodgers show limping its way to an early death on Broadway.
Rex, a musical treatment of Henry VIII and his obsession with siring a male heir, opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York on April 25, 1976, and closed on June 5 after 14 previews and a total of only 49 performances, the shortest run for a Rodgers show in almost 50 years. It is still the only post-1940 Richard Rodgers musical not included in the Rodgers & Hammerstein organization’s performing catalogue.
Hopefully, that might change in the not-too-distant future, following the Civic Light Opera Company’s three-week run of Rex at Fairview Library Theatre this month. It’s another Canadian premiere for the company – the first production of the show anywhere outside the US, for that matter – and the first extended stage run since it closed on Broadway.
It’s a major coup for the CLOC’s Joe Cascone, an admitted Richard Rodgers aficionado. Cascone had known about the show since the time of its original demise, but despite his predilection for staging little-known or “problem” shows, in addition to the standard crowd-pleasers, he’d never given this particular “forgotten op” much thought.
Seeing The Other Boleyn Girl in 2008 sparked Cascone’s interest, however, and he took advantage of his excellent relationship with the R&H organization to ask if there was any possibility of staging Rex. He was warned of the show’s problems – an anti-hero wife-killing leading male role, for starters – but was promised their support if he was seriously interested.
The rights situation had certainly changed in the previous few years. Following the withdrawal of the show in 1976 lyricist Sheldon Harnick (of Fiddler on the Roof fame) and book author Sherman Yellen had frozen the rights, feeling that the show they had originally envisioned with Richard Rodgers had been lost in the constant re-working in the pre-Broadway try-outs, overwhelmed by spectacle and suffocating historical detail.
In 1999, however, New York’s York Theatre asked if they could include Rex in their piano-only, script-in-hand concert performance series, “Musicals in Mufti”; Harnick and Yellen initially said “No,” but then agreed as long as they could be given one year to revise the show. They went back to work, made drastic cuts to the script, tightened the focus, stripped away the pageantry, removed a few songs and reinstated several that had been cut pre-Broadway. The result? A well-received show that allowed the beautiful Richard Rodgers score to be heard more clearly, albeit without a full orchestra.
Harnick and Yellen have clearly retained a strong affection for Rex. Over the years, they have continued to work on the show since 2000, being involved with both the brief but fully-staged production at the University of Findlay in Ohio in April 2002 as part of the Richard Rodgers Centennial celebrations, and another piano-only presentation at the Stages Festival of New Musicals in Chicago in August 2007.
Sheldon Harnick himself called Cascone early in 2009 to let him know they’d agreed to release the rights for CLOC, and Cascone met with Harnick and Yellen twice in New York last year to discuss plans for the show. Sheldon Harnick has re-written the lyrics for one song, Dear Jane, specifically for this production. Both men have promised to come up to see the show – and Sheldon Harnick, now 85, will apparently be in the audience on opening night on Wednesday February 17.
Cascone aims to prove that the show is now well worth doing in its revised form, and hopes that a successful staging may lead R&H to include Rex in their performance rental catalogue, so that a score containing some outstanding Rodgers songs will finally be available for stock and amateur theatre companies everywhere.
How that score will be heard is a story in itself. The Findlay University production apparently featured a 30-piece orchestra, but nobody seems quite sure what instrumental parts they used; all the R&H organization can confirm is that the original parts are now buried in unmarked boxes somewhere in storage. Cascone was originally told that he would have to go with piano only for the music, but has been given permission to add a few instruments so that he can feature his usual five-piece instrumental combo.
Only one song from Rex – the ballad “Away From You” – has achieved any independent life of its own, having been recorded by Sarah Brightman on Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1989 CD The Songs That Got Away. But the score was the one aspect of the show to garner some praise in 1976, despite its somewhat anachronistic nature.
Rex was the penultimate Richard Rodgers show before his death in 1979, and it’s certainly one worth seeing and hearing. This may well be the only chance you get! The show runs from February 18 to March 6. For ticket information call (416) 755-1717 or go to www.civiclightoperacompany.com.
One other local musical theatre group has a production this month: Scarborough Music Theatre will be presenting Children of Eden at the Scarborough Village Theatre from February 11 to 27.
Music and lyrics for this 1991 show are by Stephen Schwartz, who used to have Godspell and Pippin in brackets after his name, but is now most widely known for writing the smash hit Wicked. Children of Eden, which never made it to Broadway, is based on the Book of Genesis, and deals with family issues in the stories of Adam and Eve, and Noah and the Great Flood. Rarely performed on the professional stage, it remains one of the most popular shows for youth and community groups.
For ticket information contact the Scarborough Village Theatre box office at (416)267-9292.
Terry Robins is a musician and musical theatre enthusiast. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.