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Citadel Theatre, Canada: A new home for pre-Broadway musical tryouts?

Scene from the Citadel production of Hadestown. Photo: David Cooper Scene from the Citadel production of Hadestown. Photo: David Cooper
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Got a big new musical that could be Broadway’s next hit? How about taking it to Edmonton? The team behind Hadestown, a musical retelling of Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice by Anais Mitchell, tell Stephen Hunt about transferring it to the out-of-the-way Canadian venue

Director Rachel Chavkin knew Hadestown was a beautiful stage painting of a play. But, following a critically lauded 2016 premiere at the New York Theatre Workshop – which inspired talk of a Broadway transfer – the question she was asked was how to transform a musical that’s more of a Pollock into a Monet without sacrificing its uniquely theatrical essence for an out-of-town tryout in Edmonton?

Inspired by the Greek myth of the poet Orpheus and Eurydice and featuring Reeve Carney, TV Carpio and Patrick Page (who all featured in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark), Hadestown is a folk opera – a jazz-inflected, musical Greek myth told through American singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell’s lyrics.

Originally created in Vermont in 2006 by Mitchell, arranger Michael Chorney and director Ben T Matchstick, the show evolved from a DIY-style, micro-budget musical, when Chavkin got involved with the project in 2012. The founder of the Off-Broadway theatre collective the Team, Chavkin is also a Tony-nominated director for Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 review on Broadway – ‘atmospheric and open-hearted’

“The very first thing Anais said when she started working with me was ‘this is a poetry piece, not a prose piece’,” says Chavkin. And so, for its November tryout this year, Chavkin needed to find a way to move Hadestown from 4th Street in the East Village to Shubert Alley, to rethink the show without sacrificing its unique style and voice.

“What we’re trying to discover is how to turn what was a very intimate, immersive, in-the-round show into a show for a bigger proscenium stage,” says Mitchell. “And there’s a question of how literal the storytelling should be. Hadestown has always lived in a metaphorical space, so the trick is to tell a satisfying story and still live in that poetic, dreamlike space.”

“Its metabolism is different to a more traditional music-book musical,” adds Chavkin.

Hadestown director Rachel Chavkin
Hadestown director Rachel Chavkin

The Edmonton production came about when the Citadel’s new artistic director Daryl Cloran caught the New York Theatre Workshop production, then pitched the idea of coming to Canada to the show’s commercial producers.

“I’m a big fan of Chavkin, a director whose work is exciting and innovative,” says Cloran. “So there was that – and it was my first season of programming, and I talked to the team (at the Citadel) about how the pillars for us going forward as a company were going to be inclusive, innovative and international.

“So throw in those three ‘I’ words, and this play was a perfect example. It was innovative in its staging and approach, it was inclusive in its casting and the voices involved – and to have an international partnership like this was really exciting.”

When he cold-called the show’s commercial producers, Octopus Productions’ Mara Isaacs and Dale Franzen, to pitch the notion, they didn’t exactly leap at the opportunity.

“They were very polite and said: ‘Well, it’s great you’re interested. We have a lot of different irons in the fire for this show, so it’s unlikely it will be headed for Edmonton, but thank you for your interest.’” But it turned out Franzen had acted at Ontario’s Stratford Festival and was somewhat familiar with the Canadian regional theatre ecology.


Five things you need to know about Edmonton

1. The Citadel Theatre was founded in 1965 by Edmonton lawyer Joe Shoctor and three others, who bought a Salvation Army Citadel chapel in downtown Edmonton and turned it into a 277-seat theatre. The first production was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Hundreds of ticket buyers walked out at intermission. In 1975, the old Citadel was replaced with a new, C$6.5 million (£3.8 million) space that included the 681-seat Shoctor Theatre as well as two smaller theatres.

2. In the 1980s, the Citadel was a regular destination for productions headed for Broadway, including Hey Marilyn, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz: The Musical, Flowers for Algernon, The Life, Mr Lincoln, and some that were headed that way, such as Pieces of Eight, a musical adaptation of Treasure Island starring Tony winner and star of the Broadway hit La Cage Aux Folles, George Hearn, that sank in Alberta.

3. After flopping on Broadway in 1990/91, Andrew Lloyd Webber brought his musical Aspects of Love to the Citadel, where it was reconfigured as a chamber musical, before becoming a successful touring production across Canada, in Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Hungary, Finland and Denmark.

4. Edmonton is home to the oldest fringe festival in North America, the Edmonton Fringe, an 11-day festival that takes place every August at more than 40 venues, featuring more than 100 different productions that draw more than 700,000 people annually. It is the largest fringe outside of Edinburgh and was the catalyst that kicked off the fringe theatre movement across North America.

5. A number of other Edmonton productions have had successful New York runs Off-Broadway, including Nevermore, a sung-through musical about young Edgar Allan Poe from Catalyst Theatre that also played the West End – and Bash’d, a gay rap opera from Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow.

“To their credit, they kept the conversation going,” says Cloran, “and they saw the potential for what we could provide.”

This included Octopus topping up the show’s C$600,000 (£350,000) Citadel budget with an additional contribution, that Cloran says allowed the Citadel to import the show’s entire creative team from New York.

“Ultimately,” Cloran says, “the thing that excited them about coming here was the resources we could provide, and a large supportive audience, but also that we were a little off the beaten path – which gave them a chance to do some development and take some risks with the show that they couldn’t if they were in Chicago or Boston or closer to New York.”

A worker’s chorus of four was added for the Edmonton production, adding to the show’s original multicultural, eight-person cast – along with a seven-person folk orchestra featuring, among other things, an exquisite trombone player, Audrey Ochoa, who sounds as if she has descended from the streets of New Orleans to perform Chorney’s arrangements.

Hadestown writer Anais Mitchell

The metaphoric railroad to the underworld mentioned in one of the songs became a literal railroad on stage – at which point Chavkin started to wonder if maybe there was a line between poetry and prose that the show had crossed.

At the Citadel, the tweaks went down to the wire, with major revisions coming on the eve of previews, as Chavkin explains: “As we teched in, we thought, ‘Okay, we can sort of create the world of the show more – the world being described in the script’.”

On stage, however, it felt as if they may have become over-literal with their stage underworld. “I had a very strong reaction,” says Chavkin, “I felt we had become way too representational. We had gone over the edge towards depicting a mythic world – and lost the vibe and atmosphere of the original production.”

Calling the creative team together late one Edmonton night, she went to work on the first act. “I ended up killing and cutting massive parts of the Act I set – and suddenly it was like we had room to breathe again.”

“The biggest experiment in making the transition from New York Theatre Workshop – where we couldn’t be representational, because the space didn’t allow for representation and because we didn’t have this worker’s chorus – was defining the line between creating dynamic onstage visuals and images that capture the feelings and event of a song without being really literal.”

Hadestown doesn’t have a Broadway theatre announced yet, and Chavkin won’t say what the next step is. It’s not a jukebox musical, a la Jim Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell, or a new musical featuring the songs of Jimmy Buffett, both of which are headed for Broadway in the near future with huge, passionate built-in audiences. These could conceivably compete with Hadestown in a marketplace where 63% of the ticket buyers are tourists.

And while Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 received rapturous reviews from critics and 12 Tony nominations, it also closed after 336 performances, having lost a large portion of its producers’ $14 million (£10.5 million) investment. It sold well until Josh Groban left the cast early in the summer of 2017.

Chavkin has learned some lessons about adapting indie darlings into Broadway productions from that experience but she doesn’t necessarily feel they apply to Hadestown.

“Even though there are a million lessons I learned doing Comet, the projects are radically different. With Hadestown there are elements of what we created at New York Theatre Workshop that we really need to hold on to – most importantly the words – but it didn’t feel like we needed to maintain the same level of immersion on a proscenium stage, in a way that for Comet was always part of the deal.

“There are similarities you can draw between them, but they’re also their own unique entities.”

Profile: Citadel Theatre, Edmonton

Artistic director (2016-present): Daryl Cloran
Company manager: Peni Christopher
Founded: 1965
Location: Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Theatre space: Five theatres, including Shoctor Theatre (proscenium) and Maclab Theatre (thrust)
Number of productions (2017-18 season): Six mainstage productions, Three add-on productions, One seasonal production
Staff: 40 full-time
Annual Budget: C$13 million (£17.7 million)
Key contacts: Ken Davis, marketing and communications director, +1 780 428 2128
Website: citadeltheatre.com

Hadestown had its pre-Broadway Canadian premiere on November 11-December 3 at the Shoctor Theatre

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