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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Theatre for Thought, March 29, 2011

A Musi-Call to Arms
Canadian artists have a burning desire to be a part of musical theatre why aren't we?
joel fishbane

The musical is a much maligned art and nowhere has it been more maligned than Montreal, a city which supports the creation of new musicals but has little desire to train its artists in how one actually works. Students who come to one of our many theatrical training programs are not trained in either performing or creating musicals; and if we have been blessed with one or two unique musical events (will Schwartz’s: The Musical be another?) then we have only fortune to thank. Because the schools have certainty not been doing their job. 

Simply put, it is deplorable that that none of Montreal’s many theatre schools offer specialized musical theatre training. Nowhere is this more the case then NTS, which claims to be a national theatre school but remains uninterested in teaching its actors, playwrights and directors about an artform that remains a part of our national theatrical identity.

The NTS program does not appear to encourage (or permit) the creation of musical theatre...

Although it is true that many schools offer courses in “voice” and “movement”, these classes do not offer the sort of rigorous training required to teach someone to sing and dance seven times a week. To the best of my knowledge, none of Montreal’s schools offer courses in music theory, musical theatre history or performance classes geared specifically towards the musical. Taking a character from speech into song is as challenging as the performance of classical text: both are alien to everyday life and require a set of skills that an actor must have at her beck and call.

And that’s just the acting programs. When applying to NTS’ playwriting program, the musical is forbidden fruit. The program does not appear to encourage (or permit) the creation of musical theatre nor are directors / designers trained to deal with the specific problems inherent to the form. Even the academic classes avoid it. University drama classes that study theatre as literature rarely consider the libretto to a musical. Back in my school days, we were assigned to study the life of a famous theatrical person. I listed nearly a dozen musical theatre practitioners, all of which were turned down (eventually, my professor allowed me to study George Gershwin, mostly just to shut me up.)

There is now a significant upswing in the number of musicals being both developed and produced.

Years ago, I attended a musical theatre training school and it was clear to me then what is still clear now: Canadian artists have a burning desire to be a part of musical theatre history (Hair was written by a Canadian, lest we forget). This desire has been intensified by The Drowsy Chaperone – a musical that started at the Toronto Fringe and ended on Broadway. There is now a significant upswing in the number of musicals being both developed and produced. 

Over in Toronto, a collective devoted to musicals called Theatre 20, started by artists like Brent Carver and Colm “the Phantom” Wilkinson, has already snagged the rights to Sisters, the English-language version of the musicalized Les Belles Soeurs. Then there is Noteworthy, a program started by Acting Up Stage Company designed to unite composers and playwrights. Meanwhile, Winnipeg Theatre Centre just announced they are developing Grumpy Old Men: The Musical. And let’s not forget what’s going on closer to home. This week Centaur premieres the aforementioned musical about smoked meat; and in less then a year, we’ll see the new and improved Haunted Hillbilly

No law school wants to turn out half a lawyer. How is half an actor any better?

The job of any school is to give the students the tools they need to succeed in their chosen field. A significant portion of the theatre industry involves the musical and to disregard the form – whether through bias or ignorance – is to cheat students of training they need. It is akin to teaching a lawyer only half the law. At the end of the day, you will only have half a lawyer. No law school wants to turn out half a lawyer. How is half an actor any better?


  1. John Abbott College's professional theatre program produces 1 musical every 3 years. The last 2 productions were Hair and Fiddler on The Roof. Both were highly acclaimed and enjoyed sold out runs.
    The acting and voice classes both cover skills necessary for the musical theatre.
    Our next musical will be in spring 2013 and you Mr. Fishbane, are invited.
    Rob Burns

  2. Hi Rob,

    John Abbot does provide accomplished theatre training, but I'm afraid your remark only proves my point. 1 musical every 3 years does not provide students with adequate exposure to the genre. Let's put it another way: would you only produce 1 non-musical every 3 years? Would you consider that adequate training?

    Further, while acting / voice classes are essential, unless a school offers comprehensive dance training, its students will be unprepared to compete in the professional world. I can only re-iterate my argument that schools need to offer more specialized musical theatre training that covers all areas of the field.

    Thanks for writing!

  3. You'll get no argument from me. Many theatre schools are apprehensive to produce musicals because they feel it is not a legitimate acting exercise. Exposure to the genre shows this is not the case.
    The final acting project for the graduating class at John Abbott is scenes from the musical version of Spring Awakening. Chosen not only because of what it offers in voice and movement (the staples of any program), but ultimately because it offers acting challenges more profound than most plays.
    If musical theatre skills are better nurtured in the city, then the professional companies are more apt to produce them. That would mean more people would go to the theatre. Something everyone wants.


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