Meanwhile...Our Online Magazine
In this jam-packed issue we look back at 21 years of Mirvish Theatre Tours, we continue to celebrate Black Theatre Artists, SnL’s latest episode is a “slumber party pandemic-style” theme and Matilda returns, if only in a video of highlights from the production of 2017. The Marsh Family in Kent UK delivers their latest parody song and we reveal the winner of the Best Love Song poll. And did we mention International Women's Day is just around the corner?
Celebrating Black Theatre Artists
All February long we’ve been celebrating the work of Black theatre artists that has been seen on the stages of the Mirvish theatres over the years. Each day we highlight an artist or a production. We share their stories on our social media platforms and on our website. In case you’ve missed some, we are sharing three stories here.
Porgy and Bess is considered one of the seminal works of musical theatre. When it premiered on Broadway in 1935, it bridged classical opera and popular music. An attempt by George Gershwin (music), DuBose Heyward (libretto and lyrics) and Ira Gershwin (lyrics), to create a genuine American opera, it was originally looked down upon by the operatic community and audience, instead becoming a staple of musical theatre. In 1976, a celebrated Houston Grand Opera production finally established it as a bonafide opera and it has since been produced by classical opera companies around the world. Nevertheless it still remains popular with musical theatre audiences as it introduced many songs that have become standards, including “Summertime,” “I Loves You, Porgy,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”
Although the work was created by an all-white creative team, it tells of a poor Black community in Charleston. The main story concerns Porgy, a disabled street beggar, whose attempt to save Bess from her violent and jealous lover ends tragically. The original production was cast with classically trained Black singers, many of whom influenced the show’s creation and direction by contributing authenticity to the final work. Porgy and Bess played the Royal Alex many times. It had its Canadian premiere in 1943, when the original Broadway tour visited Toronto. It returned twice in 1954, and in 1965 it was produced locally.Read More
The 1943 engagement starred Todd Duncan, who originated the role of Porgy on Broadway and whose career is interwoven with the show. A classically trained singer, he became an opera star who toured internationally. He was the first Black singer to perform with New York City Opera, often playing “white” roles. He was also a renowned teacher of vocal performance at Howard University. When Porgy and Bess began touring, Duncan used the opportunity to challenge racism. He refused to play in theatres where the audience was segregated and always managed to convince the management to change their policies. In Toronto, the problem wasn’t segregation in theatres but in hotels. Fearing they would lose their American customers, all Toronto hotels refused to house the cast of Porgy and Bess. Ernest Rawley, the Royal Alex’s manager, was furious but could do nothing about it. Through Toronto churches, he arranged for the cast members to stay in private homes. But when the cast arrived at Union Station during a downpour and Rawley saw them standing at the platform, soaked and shivering, he dismissed the dozen cabs he had organized to take them to their billets. Instead he led them across the street to the Royal York hotel where he publicly shamed the manager into giving this distinguished group of artists rooms. He succeeded and the company had a glorious engagement in Toronto.
Josephine Baker was a Black American dancer, singer and entertainer who became the first global showbiz superstar of the 20th century. She and her dance company performed at the Royal Alex in 1964, towards the end of her illustrious career. From her first appearance in 1925 on stage at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, she was a sensation. The Parisian audiences saw her as the embodiment of the Jazz Age, youth, hedonism and freedom. In fact, Baker herself had come to Paris to find freedom and to escape the racism that she had suffered at the hands of white society in St. Louis, her birthplace, and New York, where she was a chorus dancer in the musical review Shuffle Along.
She would eventually renounce her US citizenship and become a French nationalist, even serving her adopted country during WWII as a spy, ambulance driver and entertainer of the Free France Air Force in North Africa. At the height of her career she was the richest entertainer in the world, commanding astronomical sums for her spectacular musical reviews.
In 1936 she was lured back to the US to star in a Ziegfeld Follies review on Broadway, but she found that the US had not changed. One night, after a performance, she was refused service at the Stork Club. Her public calls of discrimination were met with a backlash from many powerful people in the media, notably the notorious Walter Winchell, who launched a vicious campaign against her. She left the show and went back to France where she opened her own nightclub.Read More
Her income also allowed her to build a better life for others. Unable to have her own children, after WWII she adopted a dozen orphans of various nationalities, races and religions. She called them her "rainbow tribe." She wanted to prove that humans can be raised to love each other and that racism was a human-made construct. To house her large family, she bought a chateau on a 1.2M square meter estate in the Dordogne Valley. She continued to perform and tour the world, always returning home to France. But the cost of the estate’s upkeep and some bad investments drove her to bankruptcy.
Princess Grace of Monaco, who was at the Stork Club on that fateful night when Baker was refused service and had witnessed how badly Baker had been treated, invited her to Monaco. There she arranged to have some leading booking agents come to Monaco and see Baker perform. This led to a renewed interest in her and she started touring again. She eventually bought a home near Monaco. In 1975, to mark her 50th year in showbiz, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis financed a new show at the Bobino Theatre in Paris. The opening night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli. It was a brilliant opening, capped with a thunderous and long standing ovation.
Sadly, there wasn’t a second night as Baker did not arrive at the theatre for the next scheduled performance. She was found days later in her bed, surrounded by newspapers with the reviews of her show. She had had a cerebral hemorrhage and was in a coma. She was rushed to the hospital where she died on April 12, 1975 at the age of 68. She received a full French military state funeral with a huge procession at L'Église de la Madeleine, the only American-born woman ever to be so honoured.
The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God by Djanet Sears premiered in 2002 in a co-production between Obsidian Theatre and Nightwood Theatre. The play was Obsidian’s inaugural production; the company is now celebrating its 21st year with 21 short plays that are streaming free on CBC’s Gem service.
Adventures played at Harbourfront Theatre and it received stellar reviews. David Mirvish saw the production and immediately sought to include it in one of his future seasons. He decided the play was better served by remaining at Harbourfront, which is a black box theatre with 300 seats, but in order to accommodate his entire subscription base it would need to play for 26 weeks.
Under the auspices of Mirvish, Adventures returned to Harbourfront on October 28, 2003 and played until March 21, 2004. Set in contemporary times in the historical community of Negro Creek, located just south of Owen Sound in Grey County and established early in the 19th century by African Americans who had fought as loyalists in the War of 1812, the play tells the story of Rainey, a medical doctor who is mourning the tragic death of her young daughter. Her husband, Michael, a minister, cannot offer solace because Rainey seems to have lost her faith. Not helping matters is her elderly father, Abendigo, who is suffering from congestive heart disease yet is determined, with the help of his friends, to “liberate” some of the remaining relics of Canada’s racist past, such as the lawn statues of jockeys, in dangerous midnight raids. Told in story, song and movement, Adventures weaves a rich tapestry of past and present to explore history, family and faith. The production featured a cast of 21 that included many prominent Black performers. Alison Sealy-Smith, one of Canada’s best actors, starred as Rainey in the original production. For the Mirvish engagement the role was played by Karen Robinson, who also has an illustrious resume with performances across the country, including at the Stratford Festival and in the Studio 180 production of Stuff Happens at the Royal Alex, and a TV career with credits such as Schitt’s Creek. Walter Borden, an esteemed actor originally from Nova Scotia, starred as Abendingo. David Collins, another renowned and busy actor, starred as Michael. The beloved Jackie Richardson, acclaimed as both an actor and singer, provided her considerable talents in both disciplines. Adventures was a one of a kind theatrical experience that richly rewarded its audience.
21 Years of Mirvish Theatre Tours
Throughout history, 21 has often been the age when one could legally drink alcohol or even vote. Certainly, 21 still marks the beginning of adulthood in many cultures. In which case, Mirvish Theatre Tours has fully grown up.
Our first tour was in the first year of the 21st century. The idea was to organize a visit to London for Mirvish theatregoers to promote and nurture their love of theatre by providing access to plays we wouldn’t be able to see in Toronto.
The first week-long theatre-lovers trip happened in February 2000. We saw four shows as a group (although many people saw many other shows on their own), had a walking tour of the West End “Theatreland”, and even took a backstage tour of the the legendary Lyceum Theatre, which had been renovated to accommodate the recently opened The Lion King.
Theatre-lover met theatre-lover, lists of favourite shows were compared, opinions were shared, friendships were forged — it was a glorious week of theatre.
So began Mirvish Theatre Tours. Soon there were annual group trips to London and New York, with occasional forays to other cultural capitals — Dublin, for its famous autumn theatre festival; and even Greece, for the Athens Epidaurus Festival, performed in the best-preserved ancient amphitheatre in the world.
Over the past 21 years, we’ve attended world premieres of plays that would go on to be celebrated worldwide. We’ve seen legendary performances from legendary actors. We’ve talked and debated and talked some more.
The last Mirvish trip — the first in its 21st year — was January 26 to February 2, 2020. It had an exceptional playbill — the world premiere of a major new work by Tom Stoppard, a new adaptation of Uncle Vanya featuring an all-star cast, and a radical retelling of Cyrano de Bergerac that made its poetry as current as it would have been in 1897 when it was first performed.
Six weeks after we returned home, a pandemic was declared and the world shut down. It’s as if Mirvish Theatre Tours had suffered an early adulthood crisis, not uncommon when a person realizes a new stage in life is beginning. In time people get over it.
And so it will be with the pandemic. In time the world will return to health and safety. Social life will return. Travel will become available again. And, of course, theatre will resume. It’s been going strong for over 2,500 years; it’s survived bans and wars and plagues and natural disasters of all kinds — and, to paraphrase Sondheim, “It’s still here."
They’ll be more to come.
Check In From Away Pandemic Slumber Party
This week’s episode is a "slumber party pandemic-style,” as Steffi calls it. And what would a slumber party be without snacks? Steffi and Lisa each prepare a snack based on a random list of ingredients the other supplies. Their special guests are makeup artist to the stars, Misty Fox, and fashion stylist Caprice Connors. They share tips for self-care, best practices for applying face masks, how to make sweatpants look good and how to put together a fashionable look for Zoom calls. If that’s not enough to entice you to watch this episode, you have to see Steffi’s “Sandra Dee, Virgin Mary, 1940s, ready for bed on your wedding night” outfit. At least that’s how Lisa describes it.
Tim Minchin’s Excellent New Series
A recent announcement from CBC’s free streaming service, Gem, reminded us how much we have missed the multitalented, brilliant, funny and astute composer, singer, comedian, writer, actor Tim Minchin, who spent quite a bit of time in Toronto preparing for the Canadian premiere of his multi-award-winning musical, Matilda.
Minchin, who, after opening productions of Matilda all over the world, returned to his homeland down under a few years ago, hasn’t rested on his laurels. Among many different projects, he has co-created, co-written and is starring in the hit TV series Upright, which CBC Gem just picked up to stream in Canada. In this scenic and clever road trip series, a down-at-heel musician drives across Australia with nothing but his cherished piano, but his baggage soon increases when a runaway girl comes into his life.
“Reelin’ In The Years”
We need some cheering up. But it can’t be empty cheering. It has to have a little edge, lots of humour and a distinct point of you. Matilda is the perfect antidote to the drabness that is a world without theatre. Here’s a video of scenes from the Toronto production, which played at the Ed Mirvish Theatre from July 5, 2016 to January 7, 2017. It starred Hannah Levinson, Jaime MacLean and Jenna Weir, who shared the title role; Paula Brancati as Miss Honey, Dan Chameroy as Miss Trunchbull, Keisha T. Fraser as Mrs. Phelps, Brandon McGibbon as Mr. Wormwood, and Darcy Stewart as Mrs. Wormwood. Enjoy!
Kit Kat Confidential
The beloved Kit Kat, the unofficial theatre hangout on King Street, closed its doors in the middle of March due to the pandemic. After many months of sitting idle, the Carbone family decided to make the closure permanent. They had over 30 years of serving the neighbourhood and all the theatregoers who would drop in for a meal before or after a show. There will never be a place like the Kit Kat again, and when the theatres reopen and social life is once again safe, King Street just won’t be the same without it.
But Max Carbone, the youngest member of the family, has found a way to continue the Kit Kat legacy. He emailed us news about the project and he also made a video.
“The dust has settled, and as all of us do, we must carry on. We can choose to fall victim to cynicism and scowl when we walk by the now vacant building where our beloved eatery once stood, or we can choose to start anew. What that means for us is to continue the Kit Kat legacy through our most devoted customers with the help of Kit Kat Confidential.
"Kit Kat Confidential will be a collection of pages featuring all of Kit Kat’s recipes, memorable stories, and favourite pictures, and we need your help! We would be nothing without our customers, and there would be no stories to tell or meals to serve without the gracious support from all of you reading this message. We are choosing to shine a little light on this bleak time, and we would like you to be involved in the process.
"If you have a certain story, a picture or even some words of your own to express what Kit Kat meant to you, or what you would like to see featured in the book itself, we would love to hear (or see) it! Don’t be shy; we would love to hear all of your stories no matter how outlandish or minuscule they may seem. While we cannot guarantee they will all be featured in the final product, hearing from all of our customers again will be extremely rewarding for all of us and maybe a way to brighten all of our days during the pandemic.
“Thank you very much for taking the time to read this message and for your unwavering support of our little tuck shop over the years. We cannot wait to hear from you. We love you all. Write to us at KitKatConfidential@gmail.com."
Best Love Song Results
There were over 2,000 entries in our poll to determine your favourite love song from a musical. The most popular song, by far, was “All I Ask of You” from The Phantom of the Opera. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?” from The Lion King was second, followed close behind by “Falling Slowly” from Once.
The winner of the $100 Mirvish Gift Card is Vivienne Klein. Congrats, Vivienne. All we ask is that you wait until our theatres have reopened to use your gift card to purchase tickets to the show of your choice. (But we’ll mail it to you ASAP anyway.)
And speaking of Once, when the Toronto production of this Tony Award-winning musical was playing in Toronto we invited amateur guitarists to join the cast of the show at the Ed Mirvish Theatre and perform the song as one. We thought we’d maybe get 100 people to show up, so we called the event 100 Guitars. As usual, we were wrong. On April 23, 2015 over 1,000 people joined in, from all walks of life. There were families who took the day off school and work to join this special event. There were doctors and lawyers and students and writers and truck drivers and retirees. When all 1,000 people raised their hopeful voices and strummed their guitars in unison it was truly magical, reminding us how powerful music and art can be in bringing us together. We’ve dug up the video of the event to share with you.
International Women’s Day
March 8th is International Women’s Day (IWD). It has been held on the same day for more than a century — although the idea of celebrating women on a certain day had been in practice from the very beginning of the 20th century, it wasn’t until 1914 that March 8th was officially chosen as the day.
This year's IWD theme is:
"A challenged world is an alert world. Individually, we're all responsible for our own thoughts and actions — all day, every day. We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality. We can all choose to seek out and celebrate women's achievements. Collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. From challenge comes change, so let's all choose to challenge. Show your support and solidarity. Raise your hand high to show you're in and that you commit to choose to challenge and call out inequality.”
Given the pandemic, this year social media may be the best place to express solidarity. The IWD committee suggests you strike the "Choose To Challenge" pose, take a selfie and share it using #ChooseToChallenge #IWD2021.
What is the "Choose To Challenge" pose? It’s simple and easy: lift your right or left hand, palm out, and strike the pose.
Let’s all Choose To Challenge! Find out more and submit your photo at www.internationalwomensday.com/Theme.
From the Marsh Family Singers: Songs for the Lockdowns
In case you haven’t seen it yet, the latest parody song from an extraordinary family in England is more than worth your time. The song is so good and this family is so charming, funny and talented — it’s fair to say they put the von Trapps to shame — that we are sharing their new video here for you to enjoy.
The Marsh family — father Ben, wife Danielle, and children: Alfie, Thomas, Ella, and Tess — live in Faversham, a village of only 800 people located just outside Milton Keynes, halfway between London and Birmingham. Ben is actually Dr. Ben Marsh, a history lecturer at the University of Kent.
The family made their first parody video — a rendition of “One Day More” from Les Misérables — in April 2020, when we were in the first lockdown and were starved for entertainment that expressed how we were feeling about dealing with a global phenomenon none of us had ever faced before.
Here we are, in the third lockdown, and there are new emotions and thoughts to share about it. The Marsh Family Singers to the rescue with their version of Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart” which they’ve retitled "Totally Fixed Where We Are."Read More
“It’s been a tough spell for everyone lately, and it feels as if everyone is just pedalling backwards a bit," Dr Marsh told KentOnline, his local newspaper. "The kids and their teachers have been great and done the best they can to keep motivated and engaged. But there’s only so much you can expect of them when you can’t give them proper attention. So we wanted to do a song that relayed that idea but without getting everyone down or being too mournful."
Among the lyrics in the family’s new song:
"Feels as if we’re only at the start,
But we’ve grown a lot in height,
There’s no way for us to measure.
And if you look, our clothes are tight,
We’ve been eating more than ever.”
Dr Marsh said the song was a great fit because, when the original song was first launched, it had a "ridiculous music video" that was about weird schools and being uncomfortable. He also said the original lyrics had a "nice mix of lines that reflected on time passing."
"I think what resonates with people is us saying out loud the stuff that we are all bottling up, or just take for granted now," he added. "Like how irritating it is when ink cartridges run out, or how difficult it is to keep up the positive actions like exercise and healthy eating and new pastimes. Like everyone, we’re a bit ground down, and we’re a bit frightened of what’s going to be left on the other side of the pandemic.
In fact, this is the 21st song the Marsh family has made during the lockdown. Their repertoire is diverse, with straight (meaning, non-parody) covers of pop hits like “Under Pressure” to topical parodies of songs from musicals like West Side Story and Avenue Q.
"But working on these little projects – the words, and harmonies, and humour – gives us a laugh most of the time, and as long as it gives other people a smile then we’re happy to share them around."
NEW! Mirvish Merch Shop
We’ve added six new items to our online shop:
Check In From Away Mug
This unique mug features the Check In From Away logo on one side and full colour glamorous photos of the online chat show’s two effervescent co-hosts, Steffi D and Lisa H, on the other side. It is sure to cheer you up every time you use it. Designed by Steffi and Lisa themselves and as seen on Episode 25 of Check In From Away. Each mug is numbered out of 100 and is signed by both Steffi and Lisa. It’s perfect for your favourite hot beverage or cocktail. In fact, each mug comes with two cocktail recipes concocted by, you guessed it, Steffi and Lisa.
A Royal Alexandra Theatre tote bag. Made of 12oz natural cotton, it is printed with an illustration from the 1940s of the theatre’s coat of arms. This hand drawn illustration was used on the covers of the show programmes in the theatre’s fourth decade. This sturdy tote is strong enough for groceries, books and magazines.
The Mirvish Theatre Collection is comprised of four sturdy tote bags, each with a different illustration of the facades and logos of the four Mirvish theatres in downtown Toronto. The illustrations are by graphic designer Otto Pierre.
Each item is only $15. Choose shipping by Canada Post (extra fee) or free curbside pickup from the Princess of Wales Theatre.