Sheridan music theatre program hopes for more hits to follow Come From Away

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Sheridan music theatre program hopes for more hits to follow Come From Away

Walk through the corridors of the theatre department at Sheridan's Oakville campus and you'll hear the sound of tap shoes from one room, blending with voices one door down, accompanied on piano.

Composer-lyricist Neil Bartram stops in the middle of a song he'd just finished writing. "That's good," he tells the male singer. "But when you say the word, 'What', it's still too internalized. Let's go back and try that again."

These students are used to interruptions, as were the Sheridan students who helped develop the musical, Come From Away five years earlier

Sheridan's Canadian Music Theatre Project underpinned the phenomenal success of the Canadian musical which opens on Broadway this Sunday. The writing team of Come From Away had five weeks at Sheridan to fine tune the concept of a musical about 9-11.

It's the stuff of headlines at home when a Canadian musical opens on Broadway but Michael Rubinoff, founder of the project, hopes that someday it will no longer be surprising.

"You need the time to develop," says Rubinoff.  "And this is a safe place to do it.  I want the writers to succeed and I want them to fail.  And succeed again and fail again."

Testing musical ideas with students

Musicals are expensive to produce but at Sheridan, music teams like Neil Bartram and his partner, Brian Hill, or Irene Sankoff and David Hein of Come From Away, work on their projects under the radar, testing musical ideas with students before approaching investors and producers.

Under Rubinoff, Sheridan's music theatre program was expanded to a four-year honours bachelor degree, the fourth year dedicated to a capstone project, such as Bartram's new musical.

"A win-win situation," says Bartram.  "For the creators, you develop the show without being under a microscope. You can make your mistakes, and the students are so eager and malleable."

As for students in their final year, Rubinoff says it's a rare opportunity to work with composers on original, untested scores. "It's a chance to learn to trust their training and build their confidence."

"They have to use all their skills that they've learned here," adds Bartram, "to create a role from scratch. It's not Fiddler on the Roof where there's a template."

Another goal of the Music Theatre Project is to nurture a distinctive Canadian voice in musical theatre.

Come From Away, which got rave reviews when it opened in Toronto, isn't quite like any other musical. Set in Gander, Newfoundland, it was Rubinoff who first pitched the idea of making a musical about the welcome local people showed American airline passengers when 38 planes were forced to land because of the 9-11 attacks.

'This has got to be a musical!'

Bartram, whose own five-week run at Sheridan began this week, chose an equally unusual subject for his latest musical, based on a story he heard on CBC about a village situated in a valley which never receives direct sunlight.

When an artist decides to build a mirror that will reflect sunlight to hit the town square, local people worry about the changes direct sunlight will bring to their lives.

Bartram immediately heard those twin themes of enlightenment and fear as a musical — adjusting for a few geographic details.

"We thought, 'This has got to be a musical!"' he laughs. "But because of Frozen, we thought it was time to get out of Norway."

So the story is now set in Italy and called it Senza Luce, which means "Without Light."

A distinctly Canadian perspective

To Rubinoff, musicals like Senza Luce and Come From Away are the products of a distinctly Canadian perspective.

"We see the world globally," says Rubinoff. He's eager to get his students involved in Bartram's next musical project, about Norman Bethune, the Canadian doctor who helped the Chinese communists under Mao Zedong.  

"This will be the first Canadian-Chinese musical to ever be developed," says Rubinoff. "And something we hope will be as popular in China as it will be in Canada, in both languages."

As America's closest neighbour, Canadian work also brings a distinctive political perspective.

Without ever mentioning travel bans directly, he says, New York audiences will see both the irony and hope in a story about Canadians opening their doors to stranded Americans

As for Senza Luce, the latest musical in development at Sheridan, Rubinoff says it's just as relevant to the current climate in Washington of false news and political division.

"Why would an audience want to come see this?" asks Rubinoff, a former entertainment lawyer and producer, 

"Well, you're talking about a town with public officials that want to keep people in the dark or keep people from being enlightened.  It becomes extremely topical and that's the beauty of musical theatre."

As the heroine in Senza Luce sings, challenging the young artist-hero:

"What if you knew,

Somewhere, there's so much more?

Admit it's true,

Your point of view

Is somewhat too -- selective

Ask for a little more -- perspective."

At Sheridan, Canadians are being urged to bring a little more perspective to the great American tradition of the musical.