Montreal continues its new-found love for song-and-dance spectaculars this week with the opening of Lies My Father Told Me, a quasi-new musical. Quasi-new? Well, basically they’ve taken previously written material and, without changing a word of the script, have added a load of new songs (all written by wunderkind Elan Kunin). Meanwhile, over at Centaur, the vaudevillian show about smoked meat is finishing up its extended run and subscribers are hopefully lining up to get seats to Sidemart’s new musical, Haunted Hillbilly, due in 2011.
Is this the start of a Renaissance for musical theatre in English Montreal? Being a rabid fan of the genre, the possibility makes my little musical heart start to, er, sing. But while we wait for new geniuses to put forth Café Cleopatra: The Musical, it may be a good idea for companies to whet their whistles (pun intended) on a few shows from the canon of established shows. With this in mind, here are my suggestions for musicals which would suit the mandates of several local companies. Call it my musical dream season, if you like.
Mainline Theatre – The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1978)
Any show that starts with the line “It was the nicest little whorehouse you ever did see” has Mainline Theatre written all over it. Brimming with satire, the show revolves around the crisis when moralists collide with the denizens of a popular brothel - touching on themes which Mainline Theatre has returned to again and again. The score features clever songs like “A Lil Ole Bitty Pissant Country Place” and “Texas Has a Whorehouse In It!”, along with strong character ballads and a cast of smart prostitutes and dumb politicians. Best of all, the show is one of the few Broadway musicals to be written by a woman – Carol Hall won a Tony for her music and lyrics. Memo to Jeremy Hechtman: ignore the movie version with Dolly Parton and go right to the script.
Black Theatre Workshop – Once on this Island (1990)
There aren’t a lot of musicals written by people of color and this one is no exception – but it’s based on a book by African-American write Rosa Guy and is set entirely on a fictional Caribbean island. A romantic fable, it concerns the doomed love between Daniel, a member of the wealthy “bonhommes” and Ti Mone, a peasant girl. On top of being a tremendous opportunity for all our actors of color, the show is also family friendly, allowing BTW to appeal to both its adult audiences and the schools that make up its market. Another Broadway musical with a woman behind the scenes, the show has music by Stephen Flaherty and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. I dare anyone to watch the opening scene (YouTube below) and not be enthralled.
Segal Centre – Parade (1998)
This show, one of my faves, is by Jason Robert Brown and Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright Alfred Uhry and it’s right up Segal’s alley. The story centres around Leo Frank, a Southern Jew who was railroaded through the courts on trumped up murder charges and then hung by a lynch mob after his sentence was commuted. A tough, uncompromising musical that tackles anti-Semitism, racism and corruption, all with a love story between Frank and his wife that is as moving as that of any opera. If Segal can’t find the script, I’d recommend the Donmar Warehouse recording, which was recorded to mimic a radio play and includes dialogue as well as songs not heard on Broadway.
Montreal Opera Company – Porgy and Bess (1935)
And speaking of opera….MOP doesn’t appear very often in these pages - there seems to be an unwritten consensus that it’s separate from the theatre community, French or Anglo. I’ll have more to say about this another time, but for now, I would urge MOP’s AD Michel Beaulac to consider George Gershwin’s exquisite Porgy and Bess. The tragic story of a crippled beggar and his doomed love for Bess was once so famous that it became the first American show to be performed behind the Iron Curtain. For years there was a debate as to whether this show was truly an opera – but if it was good enough for the Met, surely it’s good enough for Place des Arts.
Persephone Productions – Kiss Me Kate (1946)
It’s no secret that Gabrielle Soskin loves Shakespeare, so why not attack this clever, classic about a theatre troupe who stage a musicalized The Taming of the Shrew. The show-within-a-show premise gives the play a fun, post-modern feel and Soskin’s usual repertoire of youthful actors would have fun with Cole Porter’s score, which was the best work he ever did. Even the libretto is clever – no small feat, given the atrocious librettos that came out of the so-called golden age of musicals.