Encore! Wicked and 10 other musicals Toronto can’t get enough of

Encore! Wicked and 10 other musicals Toronto can’t get enough of

Jackie Burns and Chandra Lee Schwartz star as Elphaba and Glinda (Image: Joan Marcus/Mirvish)

This week, Wicked, one of the world’s most successful musical productions, re-returns to Toronto for a month-long run at the Canon Theatre. The beloved prequel to the Wizard of Oz gave teenaged girls something to beg their parents to take them to in 2005 and then again in 2006. But parents didn’t mind. We got to thinking about other musicals that have won the praise and pocketbooks of Hogtown audiences. Here, a roundup of shows that have been back for more. Begin the slide show >>

(Image: Joan Marcus/Mirvish)

The Lion King
Debuting in Toronto 10 years ago at the Princess of Wales Theatre, this Broadway take on the Disney flick was attended by 2.9 million people and ran for four straight years before heading to New York, London and beyond for more extremely successful runs. It was only a matter of time before this roaring success returned to its Mirvish home—it’s scheduled for a five-week run starting in April 2011.
Why Toronto loves it: Who could forget that opening number of “Circle of Life,” where actors paraded elephants, birds and other safari animals down the aisles? It was the first theatre memory for many kids in the city.

(Image: Kim Ritzenthaler)

South Pacific
After a season at Stratford in 2006, Dancap launched its own production at the Four Seasons Centre this past summer; it earned almost exclusively rave reviews. The cast is returning for a scheduled eight-week run at the Toronto Centre for the Arts in February.
Why Toronto loves it: When it comes to musicals that explore racial prejudice, we seem to prefer this love story to a controversy-laden work like Show Boat. South Pacific keeps it light enough to make arabesques and jazz hands appropriate.

The original cast of Wicked (Image: Joan Marcus/Mirvish Productions)

The story of how the good witch became good and the bad witch became bad has clearly captivated Toronto: the show debuted in 2005 and was back a year later, setting a sales record in its final week. It re-returns today.
Why Toronto loves it: The key to its addictive appeal is that the show runs have ended before everyone’s got their fix. Each time it leaves disappointed customers behind, upping the ticket frenzy for its next curtain call.

Harvey Fierstein (Image: Joan Marcus/Mirvish Productions)

Fiddler on the Roof
Despite having a devoted following in New York, Fiddler on the Roof has had only a few short stints in Toronto, but its excellent source material makes it somewhat of a theatre fixture. The show was scheduled to run for a month in 2009 with Chaim Topol (who starred in Norman Jewison’s film adaptation) in the starring role. After an injury, Topol was replaced by Harvey Fierstein, whose performance was blasted by critics, which could explain the weekend-long engagement it received when the show returned to Toronto last summer.
Why Toronto loves it: As a city filled with new Canadians adapting to our cobbled-together culture, Fiddler on the Roof’s story of a stubborn patriarch struggling to uphold his traditions amid a changing landscape rings true to many Torontonian ears.

Considering the two clichés surrounding felines—multiple lives and old ladies—it’s befitting that longevity and Cats go hand in hand. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic played sold-out shows at the Elgin and Royal Alexandra Theatres from 1985 to 1988 and was brought back for several other engagements afterward. It also returned for eight performances last May.
Why Toronto loves it: As one of the first big-budget productions to hit the stage, Cats’ overwhelming success laid the groundwork for successful touring shows and gave Toronto audiences an appetite for big-budget musicals like The Phantom of the Opera.

Gay Willis as Christine and Colm Wilkinson as Phantom (Image: Robert C. Ragsdale)

The Phantom of the Opera
London and Broadway theatre icon Colm Wilkinson was originally scheduled to play the title role in the Toronto production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s masterpiece for the first six months of its run. Fortunately for us, he fell in love with the Big Smoke, moved here and held the spotlight for four more years, cementing the show’s insatiable popularity in the city. No show in Toronto has come close to cracking Phantom’s record of 4,226 performances between 1989 and 1999 at the Pantages Theatre, grossing $465 million before touring and gathering an audience of 7.1 million people. It returned for a short stint in 2007, but the big comeback is slated for next year, when the Phantom sequel Love Never Dies starring Canadian Ramin Karimloo hits Toronto.
Why Toronto loves it: Wilkinson’s time in Phantom is often considered to be the golden age of Toronto theatre, when sales were dependable and stars were household names. And unlike many (OK, most) musicals, Phantom isn’t labelled a guilty pleasure. Plus, there’s that crashing chandelier.

From Rent's latest Toronto tour (Image: Joan Marcus/Mirvish Productions)

Less than a year after debuting on Broadway, a Hogtown instalment of this ode to starving New York artists was in the works. It opened at the Royal Alex in 1997 and played for eight months with a critically lauded, mostly Canadian cast. Keeping in step with the credo of the original Broadway show, producers held open auditions in hopes of finding stellar unknowns to cast and also allotted $20 ticket prices for the first two rows of the theatre. The show returned to Toronto for a short run at the Toronto Centre for the Arts in 2007 and again at the Canon Theatre last January.
Why Toronto loves it: New Yorkers love Rent because it’s about cool, albeit unfortunate, New Yorkers. Torontonians love Rent because it’s about New Yorkers, which means they can enjoy the sweet songs and sad stories and not have to worry about poverty in their own backyard.

(Image: Bruce Bennett Photography/Theatre Under The Stars)

Miss Saigon
This love story of an American GI and a Vietnamese girl ran at the Princess of Wales Theatre in 1993, showing 824 performances before its star, Winnipegger Ma-Anne Dionisio, hit the road to take her role as Kim around the world. This summer, Dancap brought Dionisio back, after 15 years of starring in Miss Saigon, along with Kevin Gray as the memorably sleazy Engineer, for a semi-encore of the original show. Critics agreed the show had aged well despite its smaller scale.
Why Toronto loves it: Miss Saigon doesn’t have quite the sing-along factor of some other blockbuster musicals, but it nails the tumultuous romance archetype with aplomb. It also touches upon a plight we rarely see in war movies—that of the bystanders whose lands are torn apart.

Louise Pitre as Fantine in the original Canadian run (Image: theatre-musical.com)

Les Misérables
When Mirvish opened Les Mis at the Royal Alex in 1989, just as the curtain fell on Cats, they scheduled a 15-month run with hoping for the best and anticipating that music theatre was a passing fad in Toronto. But the applause didn’t dry up, and the show was brought back in 1991 for another full-house, 59-week run. Then in 1998, Colm Wilkinson—who was catapulted to international stardom playing Jean Valjean in the original London and Broadway productions of Les Mis—returned to the role that made him famous in a Toronto production. It played for six months at the Princess of Wales Theatre and enshrined Wilkinson as the patron saint of Hogtown music theatre.
Why Toronto loves it: It has cred. With its complex and unforgettable songs, Les Mis is more like an opera than a musical.

The familiar Mamma Mia! poster

Mamma Mia!
What’s cheesier than a musical? An ABBA musical. This genius combination was brought from London in 2000 and played for five straight years at the Royal Alex. There’s just something about ABBA that seems to inspire remarkably good stories (Muriel’s Wedding, for instance). It returned after the surprising success of the Meryl Streep movie adaptation for a three-month stint to satisfy a new generation of fans.
Why Toronto loves it: Many husbands were dragged to this show when it first ran, only to find themselves singing along and busting moves not seen since 1979.

Grease recently played at the Canon (Image: Joan Marcus/Mirvish)

With a different version showing every few years in Toronto, it’s obvious Hogtown is hopelessly devoted to the proverbial high school musical. The most recent show ran for 11 nights last April at the Canon Theatre and starred the 2006 American Idol winner Taylor Hicks as Teen Angel.
Why Toronto loves it: Who doesn’t?