Let’s Put on a Show!

The creators of the hit Fringe musical Just East of Broadway are babes in arms no longer, thanks to Next Stage

by Chandler Levack

EYE WEEKLY, January 06, 2010

Part of the cast of "Just East of Broadway"

The musical about how-the-hell-are-we-going-to-put-on-a-musical is a time-honoured tradition. 42nd Street. The Producers. Summer Stock. In each, a team of ragtag artists comes together against all odds to knock ‘em dead. Sometimes it’s Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, mucking out the barn. Sometimes it’s a surefire dud that unexpectedly takes over Broadway.

And at this year’s Next Stage festival, the most anticipated show of the season is set in globalized China — as a has-been movie star falls for a small-town villager who just happens to be a kick-ass soprano. He’s stuck acting in a flop to promote his career; she wants to save her townspeople from the threat of the party. But in the end, the two leads kiss as the lights come down — a community united by song. Sound typical? The makers of Just East of Broadway wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s kind of like one of those classic fish-out-of-water musicals,” admits co-writer Nicholas Hune-Brown, who also performs in the play. “But we wanted to situate it in the 21st century.”
Known for their 2007 Fringe hit Lord of The Rings: The Musical: The Musical! in which a dancing David Miller faces off against an evil British producer in a fight for Toronto culture, writing team Hune-Brown and Ben King wanted to renew their creative partnership — officially chronicled in a CBC Outfront documentary about the recording of the Just East of Broadway song “The Cookie Never Lies” — for one more go at the Fringe.

Their inspiration? A New York Times article about intrepid theatre producers entering a new domestic market for musicals: the burgeoning free world of China, where works like Mamma Mia! are culturally altered for consumption by a new middle class. Remarks Hune-Brown, “In sort of a state-centric way, they’re building their own entertainment district.”

But King and Hune-Brown aren’t professionals. Until their first outing at the Fringe, they had never written a play, period. Yet with the help of Hune-Brown’s girlfriend Lorna Wright (who also sings with Hune-Brown in indie-pop collective Hooded Fang), they managed to turn their satirical take on SARS tourism into a bona fide Fringe success story. This summer, Just East of Broadway, directed by Wright, conquered again, winning Patron’s Pick and garnering four-star accolades. Still, the team wanted the opportunity to let someone other than the workers control the means of production. Enter Next Stage.

Part of the Fringe’s initiative to develop new artists after the summer gorge-fest, Next Stage puts its money where its mouth is. While the annual festival hosted around 150 companies this past season, it’s hard for its artists to expand on their vision after their run concludes. Next Stage selects eight productions by application and offers a professional venue for free, with funding going towards the cast and crew. For the three creators of Just East of Broadway, who did everything from painting sets to choreographing numbers, this offers a welcome respite from the gruelling responsibility of DIY. They hired former Red Barn artistic director Jordan Merkur to expand their vision, and he, in turn, hired a musical director and costume designer and welcomed into the fold accomplished actors like Ma-Anne Dionisio, the original Miss Saigon.

“There was definitely a time this summer when I was constantly holding something heavy in my arms,” recalls Wright. “[I was] walking from our rehearsal space back to my apartment to paint these giant set pieces. I definitely think [Next Stage] has allowed us to focus better on our particular tasks because we’re not wearing as many hats. We have a prop person, a set designer, 17 people involved and before that we didn’t have anyone to help us. Because it’s Next Stage we’re allowed to decide how we’re going to bring this show up a notch.”

“Last time, Nick and I had to figure out which friends to beg,” says co-writer King. “We were like, who can sew lobster claws and construct a newspaper stand? When it’s always you painting props and hammering things, it’s hard to focus on the show itself. So having professionals involved makes it easier for Lorna to just act, and for Nick to do whatever Nick does.”

With a cast comprised of both new actors and original stars from the Fringe production, Just East of Broadway is poised to benefit from the Fringe’s legacy as a musical-theatre hit-maker, as seen in the successes of The Drowsy Chaperone, Bash’d! and My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding. But with days to go in a discipline defined by things always going wrong, how are the show’s makers feeling?

“Right now, it’s as if my life has become a musical within a musical within a musical,” says Wright. “Nick and I are constantly at home singing while doing the dishes, rehearsing our parts together, asking ourselves, ‘How will it ever work out? We only have a week left!’”

“It’s hard to write with your best friend and your girlfriend,” says King. “But given all situations — the band, the relationship, the musical — everything always comes together. I remember the last time we finished Lord of The Rings. A month later Nick was like, ‘Man that was the most fun ever!’ And I told him, ‘No you’re just forgetting everything….’

“It’s a very natural premise for a musical.”