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Pollyanna The Musical demonstrates continuing ambition of Theatre Aquarius

Hamilton’s professional theatre aims to grow its revenue base to allow more artistic risk-taking, community outreach and support for young artists.

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The ambitious spectacle that is Pollyanna The Musical is a fitting way to conclude 2023 at Theatre Aquarius.

It’s a return to a full-scale holiday production after three years that saw the Hamilton tradition either cancelled or heavily scaled back due to pandemic restrictions. But this world premiere, that features a large cast, an eight-member orchestra and some of the biggest sets the theatre has ever produced, also demonstrates Theatre Aquarius’s commitment to be an enterprising force in Canadian musical theatre under its leadership team that coalesced about a year and a half ago.

When artistic director Mary Francis Moore, who joined Theatre Aquarius in July 2021, and executive Kelly Straughan, who joined her a year later, discussed their vision for creating the National Centre for New Musicals that launched in May, Pollyanna The Musical was one of the first Moore had in mind.

There is no doubt that times have been tough since the pandemic meant theatres were dark for most of 2020, 2021 and well into 2022. Audiences have been slow to return to pre-COVID levels.

But Theatre Aquarius is determined to give people plenty of reasons to buy tickets. This 50th anniversary season includes two world premieres, concluding with Beautiful Scars, a musical based on Tom Wilson’s memoir. And, of course, last season included the world premieres of The Extinction Therapist and The Gig and ended with the world premiere of Maggie.

Maggie earned rave reviews and sold-out shows before heading out for a run on the east coast.

Maggie will be staged next year at Goodspeed Musicals in Connecticut from Aug. 23 to Oct. 20 under the direction of Moore. It will be the first Canadian production to make a full run on the main stage at Goodspeed, which has earned a reputation as a stepping stone to Broadway and West End London. Its hometown in East Haddam often called the town that Annie built after that musical debuted there in 1976.

Over its 50-plus year history, Goodspeed Musicals has launched 85 new musicals, 21 of which have gone on to Broadway. It is the first theatre in the United States to receive two Tony Awards for outstanding achievement in musical theatre.

“This is absolutely the path we were hoping we’d see for Pollyanna,” says Straughan.It’s faster even than we thought it would happen.”

Theartre Aquarius
Artistic director Mary Francis Moore, left, and executive director Kelly Straughan are focused on growing both the artistic presence and revenue streams of Theatre Aquarius.

Theatre Aquarius will have a small slice of any future success for Maggie. That is the compensation for taking a risk on the untested show and for the theatre’s role in its development.

“We have a small percentage stake but a production that goes on to great success can pay back in spades.”

Accomplished producer Michael Rubinoff, who was instrumental to the runaway hit Come From Away, is known as the country’s leading “enhancement producer” for early-work musicals. He is co-chair of the advisory committee for the NCFNM.

Broadway has a tradition of private investment that isn’t established in Canada, says Straughan. The NCFNM hopes to change that.

“Grants and donors are important to us but there isn’t a lot of understanding of investment. When Canadians realize theatre is a great way to make money, that will build a path forward.”

Investing in musicals is not a fast way to earn money though.

“There is such a long development cycle to new works. It’s an incredible amount of work that involves so many people.”

Pollyanna The Musical has been under development since 2014. Hamilton took seven years to reach the stage and Maggie took eight years.

Moore’s association with Pollyanna The Musical goes back to 2015 and her role as associate artistic director at the Charlottetown Festival. The festival hosted a summit for musical theatre shows in development from across the country.

Together, with the cast of Anne of Green Gables, some actors and the creative team of Pollyanna held a stage reading with an audience.

“I saw it there and loved it and followed its trajectory,” Moore says. “When I was made artistic director here, I told (writer and lyricist) Steven (Gallagher) he should pitch it as a holiday musical.”

Yonge Street Theatricals, a Tony and Olivier Award-winning production company that has been working on developing new musicals for 15 years, is licensing Pollyanna The Musical.

According to its website: “They develop original musicals and support and nurture exceptional works from the earliest stages. At the heart of their mission they strive to collaborate with the most exciting and engaging theatre professionals with an eye for shows that appeal to a wide audience.”

Yonge Street Theatricals has been involved in Broadway shows Come From Away, Good Night, Oscar, A Strange Loop, and Diana The Musical. Upcoming shows on Broadway this spring include Water for Elephants and Cabaret. Also in development is the award-winning Canadian musical Life After by Britta Johnson.

OUR HOLIDAY COVER STORY IS ALL POLLYANNA THE MUSICAL! READ IT HERE OR FIND OUR PRINT RETAILERS HERE!

As a registered charity, Theatre Aquarius receives funding from all levels of government. Donors are also integral to the theatre’s ability to present quality programming and develop young artists. That includes one-time donations, tribute and planned gifts, corporate funders, show sponsors and season sponsors.

Donors get a range of benefits, including behind-the-scenes events with designers and wardrobe and prop and set shops.

Straughan says some Canadian theatres are focused on subscribers and make all their revenues from ticket sales. Theatre Aquarius works on all fronts – grants, fundraising and ticket sales. There are also ancillary revenue streams such as its acclaimed theatre school and other workshops and classes, along with bar sales, facility rentals and 50/50 sales.

Straughan’s focus has been to diversify the theatre’s revenue mix even further.

Not being entirely reliant on ticket sales allows for risk-taking when it comes to artistic programming. Some shows will always sell out but they don’t advance new voices or ideas or give representation to those who don’t see themselves on the stage, says Moore.

“Every artistic director is always doing a balancing act.”

Moore is confident that Hamilton and area audiences will embrace all forms of theatre.

“There is so much energy and passion here. Our audiences understand art and it’s our mission to bring them important theatre.”   

That act also includes logistical considerations – big shows followed by small shows to give time to build sets and wardrobes, touring shows followed by new works developed in-house.

The slow rebound in ticket sales for all theatres have led to creative collaborations on touring shows and co-productions, says Straughan.

“Theatres are working together like never before.”

Both Straughan and Moore are experienced arts leaders focused on growing and embedding the theatre even deeper into the cultural heart of the city.

Moore is a multi-award winning actor, director, dramaturge and educator and came to Theatre Aquarius from her roles as associate artistic director of The Charlottetown Festival and artistic curator of the Junior International Children’s Festival at the Harbourfront Centre in Toronto.

She is playwright of Bittergirl and Bittergirl: The Musical, co-written with Annabel Fitzsimmons and Alison Lawrence, which was the most-produced Canadian musical in 2017. Moore has directed shows at Theatre Aquarius in the past and also taught in its theatre school. But her Hamilton roots are even deeper. Her parents and two brothers and their families all live in the city.  

THEATRE AQUARIUS: DID YOU KNOW?

  • Theatre Aquarius is a member of the Professional Association of Canadian Theatres (PACT) and engages artists who are members of the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association (CAEA) and stage technicians who are members of IATSE Locals 129 and 828
  • It puts on 270 performances yearly
  • It attracts 120,000 people annually
  • Theatre-goers spend more than $4 million annually dining, parking and shopping during their visits to Theatre Aquarius
  • The theatre provides more than 100 person-years of employment per season, and with a commitment to purchasing materials from local vendors wherever possible, Theatre Aquarius contributes direct economic benefits to Hamilton of more than $12.7 million.
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