Hotbed of New Musical Theatre

Sheridan sets the stage for tomorrow’s top productions

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Camila Diaz-Varela (2013) in Come From Away, John Jones Photography

In 2014, over 400 students auditioned for a coveted spot in Sheridan’s music theatre performance program. Given such numbers, the program’s audition committee expects to hear songs spanning a broad spectrum of the music theatre repertoire.

But one young applicant’s song choice was particularly memorable this time around. She sang “Promise Me This” from The Theory of Relativity, an original musical developed in 2012 by Sheridan’s Canadian Music Theatre Project (CMTP). Here was proof of Sheridan’s place as a hotbed of new and influential musical theatre works.

For Michael Rubinoff, Sheridan’s Associate Dean of Visual and Performing Arts, and the driving force behind the CMTP, seeing the impact of its work come full circle is nothing short of thrilling. “It is so exciting to see how we are making a significant contribution to the canon of musical theatre, and all within four years.”

Launched in 2011, the CMTP is Canada’s first incubator for the development of new musical theatre works by Canadian and international composers, lyricists and book-writers. Writers work with a cast of students to bring their new musical to life through workshops and staged readings. Students and writers also benefit by receiving a demo recording that gives them a leg up in promoting their work internationally.

Scene from Come From Away, John Jones Photography
Scene from Come From Away, John Jones Photography

The Theory of Relativity is just one of several new musicals developed through the CMTP that have been performed around the world to critical acclaim. In May, The Theory of Relativity made its professional debut at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut. Originally performed as part of the Goodspeed Festival of New Musicals in 2014, The Theory of Relativity was asked to return for a three-week run based on the positive audience feedback the show received. Created by New York-based Canadians, Neil Bartram and Brian Hill, the musical centres on the real life experiences of college students.

Another CMTP production, Come From Away, had its professional premiere in May at California’s La Jolla Playhouse, the theatre which has brought hits like Jersey Boys and Memphis to Broadway. Come From Away is based on the true story of how Gander, Newfoundland welcomed seven thousand people who landed on their doorstep on September 11, 2001. It was written by Toronto’s Irene Sankoff and David Hein.

Perhaps the strongest example of how Sheridan is breaking new ground in music theatre is Brantwood 1920-2020 which saw its world premiere on April 14. Brantwood1920-2020 the largest production of immersive, site-specific musical theatre in Canadian history – is staged in a real-life Oakville school slated for redevelopment.

Check out a behind the scenes look at Brantwood 1920-2020. More about the premiere here.

Created by Julie Tepperman and Mitchell Cushman, the production features 11 era-specific storylines, one for each decade of the school’s history, plus a look into the future. Spectators decide which storylines to follow as they wander through classrooms and halls in a production featuring 90 characters (portrayed by 40 actors), 200 scenes, 40 musical numbers and dance sequences – with 15 scenes occurring simultaneously at any given time, all interwoven by a crew of 40 students from Sheridan’s Technical Production for Theatre and Live Events program. Read The Toronto Star’s review of Brantwood here.

Just as exciting as the innovative Brantwood and the success of previous productions is the unique opportunity they give Sheridan students. “Working directly with writers offers students an insight into the creative process that can’t be experienced in a more traditional arts education,” said Hill and Bartram.

“You can’t get this type of education anywhere else.”

JJ Gerber, Bachelor of Music Theatre Performance, 2015

For Brantwood cast members JJ Gerber and Sam Gaetz, the advantage of being part of the CMTP is crystal clear.  “They have brought in theatre professionals that I would never get a chance to work with. So learning from one of these people, and including one of these professionals on a resume is priceless. You can’t get this type of education anywhere else,” explained Gerber, who along with Gaetz will graduate this spring. “Sheridan is unprecedented. There is no school in the world that is doing this,” Gaetz added.

Sheridan been always been a leader in music theatre education since the program’s inception over four decades ago. But, now that Sheridan is shaping the future of music theatre, it is the top choice for an aspiring artist, Rubinoff believes. “We are not just a place that reinterprets, we are actually creating music theatre and that is the best educational experience a young performer can have. We are leading the way in our industry, in our academic practice and in our professional practice.”

For writers and composers, partnering with Sheridan has been essential to getting their projects off the ground and in front of the right people. “We were offered development time and support unmatched as far as we know anywhere else, with exceptional student performers, crew, and some of the best guest artist directors, music and music directors,” said David Hein.“None of Come From Away’s success would have been possible without the Canadian Music Theatre Project,” he added.

In a move that further expands the CMTP’s influence, Rubinoff has aligned the program with NAMT – National Alliance of Music Theatre. He is a panelist on the NAMT committee that selects the new musicals to be featured at the annual conference in New York each October. Read more about NAMT here.

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Sheridan already enjoys a deep history with the theatre industry.  Alumni have appeared on Broadway and in London’s West End, in Mirvish Productions and at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals. In 2015 alone, graduates Chilina Kennedy and Scott Campbell are starring in Broadway’s Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Alumni are again part of the Shaw and Stratford seasons, and three fourth year students landed roles in Toronto’s Once (Emily Lukasic), Kinky Boots (Vanessa Sears) and Shaw’s Sweet Charity (Colton Curtis).

Scene from The Enlightenment of Percival von Schmootz, John Jones Photography
Scene from The Enlightenment of Percival von Schmootz, John Jones Photography

Meanwhile, a new crop of creative minds are hard at work on CMTP’s latest musical productions. Theatre Sheridan opened the 2014/15 season with workshops of four new projects which are in development. One of those productions – The Enlightenment of Percival von Schmootz – will be part of Theatre Sheridan’s 2015-16 season.

The success of CMTP productions so far bodes well for these new works. In the years to come, faculty can fully expect to hear more aspiring students audition songs from the growing canon of music theatre nurtured right here at Sheridan.

Learn more about CMTP’s current works here. 

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