Canadians are behind some of Tony Awards' most celebrated productions

Hadestown, one of the leading contenders at the Tony Awards Sunday, is among several successful Broadway productions with Canadians behind them.

Hadestown, Ain’t Too Proud, The Prom among nominated musicals involving homegrown talent

Edmonton set builders, lighting experts and other theatre artists who helped shape the smash hit musical Hadestown are revelling in the musical's leading 14 nominations at Sunday's Tony Awards. (David Cooper Photography/The Canadian Press)

Hadestown, one of the leading contenders at the Tony Awards Sunday, is among several celebrated Broadway productions that were created with the help of Canadians.

The smash hit musical is a re-telling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, an ancient Greek tragedy in which Orpheus travels to the underworld to retrieve his beloved Eurydice.

Before beginning its Broadway run, the American team behind Hadestown made the unlikely choice of developing the production at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre. So, not only did the city get a first glance at the show when it was briefly staged there in the fall of 2017, but local crew members had a hand in shaping complex set design, wardrobe and lighting elements.

If you're wondering how Edmonton managed to win over producers, Citadel Theatre's artistic director, Daryl Cloran, admits it took some — OK, a lot of — persuasion.

"I think ultimately, one of the things that really convinced them was to have a little bit of anonymity," he said. "They wanted to do a lot of development on the show and make some changes to the script and a lot of additions to it. So they wanted to be sort of away from the critical eyes of New York."

It was a gamble that paid off.

Hadestown was workshopped at Edmonton's Citadel Theatre before landing on Broadway. (Citadel Theatre)

"To go off the beaten path … I don't think the light was shining as brightly on Edmonton," said Ruthie Fierberg, New York-based senior features editor for the theatre magazine Playbill. "That allows them to go through the creative process that they really need to, but still in front of smart audiences."

The musical has since become the apple of the Big Apple's eye.

With a leading 14 nominations at this year's Tony Awards, Hadestown, which includes Canadian cast member Jewelle Blackman, has been performing to sold-out crowds since it opened in April. It examines themes around faith, love and death infused with jazz and folk music by American singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell.

Canadians to watch

"We were totally, totally blown away," said Cloran about the nominations. "Our team is really proud that we were a part of the development of this production.

It's not the only Canadian connection at this year's Tony Awards. Canadian-American Des McAnuff, formerly the Stratford Festival's esteemed artistic director, directed Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations. It's up against Hadestown for best musical.

Ephraim Sykes, Jeremy Pope, Jawan M. Jackson, James Harkness and Derrick Baskin star in the Tony-nominated Ain't Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations, directed by Canadian-American Des McAnuff. (Matthew Murphy)

McAnuff is nominated for best director and Canadian-raised Sergio Trujillo is nominated for best choreography. The jukebox musical, based on the life and soulful music of the pioneering vocal group The Temptations, had a pre-Broadway run in Toronto. 

Colombian-born, Toronto-raised Sergio Trujillo is nominated for his choreography on Ain't Too Proud, based on the life of the ground-breaking musical group The Temptations. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Toronto-born Peter Nigrini, known for his projection design on the Tony-Award winning Dear Evan Hansen, is nominated in two categories this year: scenic design of a musical for Ain't Too Proud and lighting design of a musical for Beetlejuice, which is also nominated for best musical.

Rounding out the best musical category is The Prom, about veteran theatre stars who try to help a Midwestern high schooler attend prom. It has also earned Toronto actor-writer Bob Martin a nod for best book of a musical.

Toronto writer Bob Martin's musical The Prom earned a Tony nomination for best musical as well as best book. (Deen van Meer)

Broadway sees record high attendance

Broadway attendance hit record highs for the 2018-2019 season, topping game attendance for the 10 professional New York and New Jersey sports teams combined, according to the Broadway League. The industry association, made up of producers, theatre owners and general managers, said productions during the season grossed more than $1.8 billion US. Attendance was up nearly 10 per cent compared to the year before.

There's a renewed energy around theatre and there's a renewed diversity of offerings.- Ruthie Fierberg, Playbill magazine

Fierberg says smash hits like Hamilton and Come From Away might have drawn mass audiences to Broadway in recent years, but musical TV series like Glee, Empire, and Nashville as well as live TV musicals such as Grease and Jesus Christ Superstar have helped keep them there.

Aaron Tveit, left, and Julianne Hough rehearse for Grease: Live, which had strong ratings when it aired on TV in 2016. (Kevin Estrada/Fox/Associated Press)

"I think it's just all of it coming together and hitting at the same time that everyone is feeling that it's more accessible," said Fierberg. "There's a renewed energy around theatre and there's a renewed diversity of offerings."

While Hadestown is considered a frontrunner for best musical at the Tonys, Cloran believes Edmonton has already won a coveted prize — international recognition. He says the Citadel will in November host the Canadian premiere of the successful British musical Six, a modern take about the wives of Henry VIII, before it makes its way to more North American audiences and possibly Broadway.

"We've become part of a real, viable place for experimentation for new work and for trying out work with its sights set on bigger things," said Cloran. "It gives us some really great notice and some really great credibility."

The 73rd annual Tony Awards will be broadcast live at 8 p.m. ET on CBS from New York's Radio City Music Hall with host James Corden. A full list of nominees can be found here.

With files from Jessica Wong


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