Saturday, May 5, 2012

Theatre For Thought, May 5, 2012

joel fishbane
In theory, there’s every reason to mourn the “hiatus” announced by Dancap, the Toronto production company created in 2007 as an alternative producer of high-end musicals.
Founder Aubrey Dan recently revealed that he would be “stepping back and re-evaluating” his involvement in the production of live theatre. Although the artistic quality of his shows remains in dispute, the fact remains that the company’s presence in Toronto did a good job threatening to throw some energy into the city’s big-budget theatrical scene. 
Toronto has long been dominated by the powerhouse that is Mirvish Entertainment and when Dancap was created, it looked as if the upstart company might give Mirvish a run for its money. I can only hope that Aubrey Dan’s lovely arrogance will be sorely missed in the coming months. His idea to be an alternative to Mirvish was audacious and not without historical precedent: the whole thing is reminiscent of  George White’s decision to challenge Florence Ziegfeld, who had been king of Broadway during the first years of the 20th century. 
Both the Ziegfeld Follies and the George White Scandals were wild extravaganzas and odes to theatrical excess...

This was the era of the musical revue which, in concept at least, exists today in the guise of late night talk shows – they were topical, performed in a sketch format and featured music and comedy from both established artists and the latest talent du jour. Both the Ziegfeld Follies and the George White Scandals were wild extravaganzas and odes to theatrical excess; other producers attempted similar feats but Ziegfeld and White had the longest run, each producing annual revues for almost thirty years for the stage, radio and film. 
Competition was fierce and the need for talent meant that the opportunity existed for plenty of future celebrities to get their start. Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, Ray Bolger, Cole Porter and the Three Stooges all used these shows as a stepping stone to fame. Composer George Gershwin premiered his first opera Blue Monday Blues at an early edition of the George White Scandals – it was pulled after one night but Gershwin and his brother Ira used the revues to build their reputation, leading to their breakthrough musical Lady Be Good in 1924.
There’s a tradition among artists to adhere to the touchy-feely creed that competition is anathema to art – the “You’re all winners!” philosophy...

Most people don’t know who Fanny Brice or Will Rogers are anymore (though if you don’t know Gershwin, you should hang your head in shame); the point is that they were famed artists of their day and their big breaks can be traced back to the competition between Ziegfeld and White. Competition drives every market; without it, a product becomes stale. There’s a tradition among artists to adhere to the touchy-feely creed that competition is anathema to art – the “You’re all winners!” philosophy – but the truth is that it’s our competition with one another (conscious or otherwise) that drives innovations and creates opportunities that might not otherwise exist.
Savvy readers may be itching to point out the difference between Ziegfeld and White and Dancap and Mirvish. Dancap and Mirvish rarely produced new work and when they did it was from established writers from Broadway and the West End. I’d argue this in itself still has potential to spark innovation. Imagine if Canada did not have the Internet; its existence, while not a Canadian invention, has still provided economic and creative opportunities for plenty of Canadians (this very blog is just one example). 
Similarly, by importing the latest shows from Broadway and the West End, Mirvish and Dancap were exposing Canadian audiences to the sorts of shows they rarely get to see. Theoretically, this is good for the economy (tourism etc.) and artists get to see the sort of work those in the top echelons of the field are turning out. 
The competition between Dancap and Mirvish threatened to enrich Toronto, drive theatrical creativity and even create a few jobs – and yes, some of these were non-union jobs, but that never bothered me as much as it did the folks at Canadian Equity (you can read my comments on that debacle here). Now Dancap is gone and, in terms of blockbuster entertainment, Toronto is more or less a one horse town. And who amongst us is comfortable putting all our eggs in one horse? Let’s hope someone else has the audacity to do what Aubrey Dan – and George White – did once upon a time.

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