How is it that the suburban town of Oakville, Ontario has become Canada’s new hotbed for musical theatre development? To find out, I recently sat down with Michael Rubinoff, Sheridan’s Associate Dean of the Department of Visual and Performing Arts, a lawyer and producer turned educator, and the brainchild behind the Canadian Music Theatre Project (CMTP).
Appreciating the Art Form
Long before Rubinoff came to Sheridan in January, 2011, he practiced entertainment law and ran a commercial production company in Canada, bringing works to stage such as Love, Loss and What I Wore at the Panasonic in Toronto and Boygroove The Musical, winner of Toronto’s inaugural Dora Mavor Moore Audience Choice Award for Outstanding Production in 2006.
“I’ve always loved music theatre and I think everyone has a show that really inspires them. For me, it was the Canadian company of Les Misérables at the Royal Alex. Music theatre is all about when you can no longer speak the words. The music takes over and heightens the emotion of a certain moment. It’s compelling, moving and beautiful.”
“I also love that it’s a live medium,” he adds, “even more so in this world of technology and social isolation.” It’s a stark admission for a person who confides that he has a social media obsession. “I love the idea of sitting in a room with people and engaging in this activity together. It’s become rare. There’s something exciting about that.”
The Rise of an Incubator
Rubinoff, who served as the former Chair of the Professional Advisory Council for Sheridan’s music theatre program was recruited to Sheridan by Ronni Rosenberg, Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Animation and Design. “What excited me most was coming in at a time to provide leadership on the implementation of a new Bachelor degree program in Music Theatre performance. It opened up a world of possibilities.”
Rubinoff was deeply motivated by the challenge of finding a meaningful, applied learning experience that would serve as the new degree students’ capstone project.
“I looked at that opportunity through the lens of a producer who’s been active in developing new musicals. I was very interested in putting together a program that served our academic needs and that provided Canadian and international writers with a home where they could do meaningful development.”
Drawing on his previous experience as President of Script Lab, a not-for-profit focused on the development of new musicals, Rubinoff set out to institutionalize a program that would nurture talented writers. “Like any good lawyer, I did my research,” laughs Rubinoff, in talking about a visit he made to Northwestern University in Chicago to learn about its American Music Theatre Project.
Rubinoff’s formula for his Canadian equivalent provides writers with dedicated time and space to create new works and places the emphasis on development over performance. He then matches the writers with exceptional students who test drive their content.
“They may not be age appropriate all the time, but they have a level of talent and critical thinking skills that makes them enormously useful.” Success is furthered by a significant amount of donor support that covers the expenses related to bringing in international artists – something his program budget can’t cover.
CMTP found its legs during the last production slot of the 2012 Theatre Sheridan season. Rubinoff decided to experiment and present two new musicals in a reading format to enable the writers to learn from the audience’s reaction. One of those shows was Come From Away.
Come From Away
“This was the story of 38 passenger jets grounded in Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11 and the extraordinary humanity showed by Gander and the surrounding towns to their 7,000 unexpected visitors, on one of the darkest days in our recent history.” Rubinoff was convinced that it should be told through music. “I knew that the Celtic and rock infused Newfoundland sound and culture would provide a very poignant way to tell this story.”
He searched for writers to pen this musical long before coming to Sheridan. He thought back to a musical he saw in Toronto called My Mother’s Jewish Lesbian Wiccan Wedding that was written by Canadians David Hein and Irene Sankoff, and went on to receive international acclaim.
“As soon as I arrived at Sheridan, I wrote a letter of support to the Canada Council for the Arts to obtain a travel grant for David and Irene to visit Gander on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. I committed that their show would be the first one we’d develop through CMTP. They visited Newfoundland in September 2011 and in April 2012 we presented the first 45 minutes of this new musical at Sheridan.”
Come From Away returned to the Theatre Sheridan playbill in 2013 as a fully realized, two-act performance. It has since appeared at the invitation-only New Music Festival at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut and the National Alliance of Musical Theatres’ Festival of New Musicals in New York City. At that point, it was optioned by Junkyard Dog Productions, a Tony award-winning, Broadway-producing team. Come From Away had its co-world premiere at the LaJolla Playhouse in San Diego in June, 2015 and will open at the Seattle Reparatory Theatre later this fall. Click here to read the California review.
The Theory of Relativity
CMTP also spawned The Theory of Relativity, a story about the wonders of human connection and our surprisingly interconnected lives. Rubinoff invited the Drama Desk Award nominated team of Neil Bartram and Brian Hill to Sheridan to write it.
“I always wanted to work with Neil and Brian because I really respect their work and loved their Broadway show Story of My Life. Meeting them early in my producing career, I thought the opportunity to work with them was a pipe dream. They were top of my list to develop a CMTP show and I was over joyed when they accepted the invitation. We decided to create a new musical that every college and university could produce . . . something that is actually age appropriate.”
The Theory of Relativity similarly had a run at the Goodspeed Opera House’s Festival of New Musicals. It also had a professional run at Goodspeed, at the Drayton Arms in Off West End in London, and has been produced by colleges and universities in Texas, Oklahoma, the United Kingdom, and at the elite Stage Door Manor theatre camp in the Catskills. A recording featuring the 2013 Sheridan cast can be heard here. Bartram and Hill have since been commissioned to write a second show called Senza Luce, currently in development as part of the 2015 CMTP line up.
In June, 2014, Sheridan hosted Song, Stage and Screen IX, the conference of the academic journal Studies in Musical Theatre. Delegates were treated to a live musical production of The Theory of Relativity, featuring a 16 member cast that included Sheridan students and alumni as well as guests from The Boston Conservatory, the University of Michigan and the Hart School of the University of Hartford. In a dramatic display of the power of collaboration, the finale incorporated a virtual choir of 40 individuals from Canada, the US, Mexico, Spain and the UK singing with the live performers. Click here to view the video.
“This year we even had a student audition for our degree program with a song from The Theory of Relativity. I can’t think of anything more exciting. This new music we’re creating is making its way into audition books, cabarets, and people’s repertoires. That’s a sign that we’re doing something special.”
Perhaps CMTP’s biggest challenge to date has been the creation and staging of Brantwood, the largest site-specific, immersive musical in Canada. Rubinoff invited the writing team of Mitchell Cushman and Julie Tepperman to create the piece through the CMTP incubator and slated the musical to close out the 2014-15 Theatre Sheridan season.
Staged in a real-life, historic school in Oakville that was slated for redevelopment, this choose-your-own-path adventure allowed spectators to decide which of the 11 concurrent storylines they would follow as they wandered through classrooms and halls. Brantwood featured 90 characters (portrayed by 42 actors), 200 scenes and 40 musical numbers written by Bram Gielen, Britta Johnson and Anika Johnson (with 15 hours of simultaneous scenes occurring at any given time). It was all interwoven with clockwork precision and orchestrated by a crew of 40 students from Sheridan’s Technical Production for Theatre and Live Events program.
This pioneering artistic and technical feat was recognized with the Audience Choice Award for Outstanding Production at the 2015 Dora Mavor Moore Awards, celebrating excellence in Toronto’s performing arts. “We weren’t even eligible for this award,” Rubinoff remarks. “People vote on any of the productions that are nominated for a Dora and Brantwood wasn’t one of them. But fan appreciation prompted an email campaign and we got the votes needed to win.” To hear what audiences had to say, click here to see a Storify recap of people’s reaction upon seeing the show.
Filling a Void
A total of eight musicals have now been incubated through CMTP, all of which are being further developed and/or produced. Many have also been critically reviewed in Broadway World magazine and by theatre critics for the Toronto Star and National Post. Another four are in the works for the 2015/16 season, including one that includes a collaboration with Sheridan’s renowned Bachelor of Animation program, in which students will be animating one of the songs from the show.
“I also think there’s a unique way that Canadians tell stories. Arts and culture are the time capsules of history. We may be a young country but we have many examples of ordinary people who set out and did extraordinary things.” Two such stories that have gone through CMTP include a musical based on Terry Fox and his determination to run across Canada to raise money and awareness for the fight against cancer, and Prom Queen, the story of Mark Hall, a young many who fought for his right to take his boyfriend to his Catholic high school’s prom.
The Real Heroes
When asked what keeps him going, Rubinoff responds without hesitation. “It’s the students . . . because what they have to do is so hard. They have to open themselves up to critical feedback and critique of the most personal nature – how they sound, move and convey emotion. One of the most joyous parts of my job is seeing their breakthroughs, their maturity as actors, and the way they contribute to dramatic moments.”
Rubinoff equally believes in our writers and our talent in Canada. “We can do more in this country to support out homegrown talent. When we give them the tools and resources to do their absolute best work, we allow them to make a meaningful cultural contribution.”
“At the end of the day, I can now say we’re contributing both talent and new work to the cannon of music theatre – as a centre of education, as a centre of research and a centre of innovation and creativity. I don’t know of any better way of fulfilling your mandate than doing that.”