In this episode, Shifting Ground Collective founding members, Joshua Kilimnick, Shannon Murtagh, and Colette Richardson join me to unpack the story behind their latest production, “Merrily We Roll Along.” Their journey reflects not just the highs and lows of the creative process, but also the resilience and enthusiasm needed to bring a classic Stephen Sondheim musical to Canadian audiences, all while nurturing new talents and weathering the storms of the pandemic.
They also discuss the reality of running an indie theater company, balancing day jobs with their artistic aspirations. From the excitement of pub nights where show tunes reign supreme to the challenges of staging ambitious productions, they reveal the collective spirit that powers their endeavours. They also discuss a new musical in development, “Statistics,” a production intertwining the personal and the historical, where academic pressure meets the remarkable story of Rosalind Franklin.
Founded in the spring of 2022, Shifting Ground Collective is Toronto’s newest home for emerging musical theatre voices. Their work spans developmental processes for new Canadian musicals, concert and cabaret programming, and full-scale productions of beloved musical theatre favourites – all with a focus on spotlighting the next-generation of great Canadian musical theatre talent. Shifting Ground has quickly developed a following and network that has positioned them to shape the future of the Canadian musical theatre sector, and was named one of the top 10 Breakthrough Artists of 2023 by the Toronto Star.
Transcript auto generated.
0:00:03 – Phil Rickaby
I’m Phil Rickaby and I’ve been a writer and performer for almost 30 years, but I’ve realized that I don’t really know as much as I should about the theatre scene outside of my particular Toronto bubble. Now I’m on a quest to learn as much as I can about the theatre scene across Canada, so join me as I talk with mainstream theatre creators you may have heard of and indie artists you really should know, as we find out just what it takes to be stage worthy. This week, on Stage Worthy, I’m joined by Joshua Kilimnick, Shannon Murtagh and Colette Richardson of the Shifting Ground Collective. They joined me to talk about their production of Merrily we Roll Along, the importance of making space for emerging talent, developing new musicals and much more.
Here’s our conversation. So, joshua, colette and Shannon, thank you for joining me. You are the Shifting Ground Collective and there’s so many things that we could talk about, but I suppose the most imminent and pressing thing that we should be talking about is Merrily we Roll Along, and, of course, there is a very high profile production, or there was. Is it a closer or is it still going?
on Broadway but this is a show that legendarily opened on Broadway in the 70s or 80s and disastrously closed very quickly after it opened. George Costanza in one of the lead roles the actor for George Costanza in one of the lead roles. But the show, I think, has found a new audience in the years since then. Tell me for anybody who doesn’t know what is Merrily we Roll Along and what attracted you to this show.
0:02:25 – Shannon Murtagh
I’m going to throw that one.
0:02:26 – Colette Richardson
Yeah, I’m going to say that’s a Josh question.
0:02:32 – Joshua Kilimnik
God, you wear one company t-shirt and all of a sudden you’re the lead Sondheim guy. No, merrily we Roll Along is a really fascinating show. It was on Broadway in 1981 and closed after a whopping 16 performances. It was this, you know, the sort of end of this huge arc between Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince. On Broadway throughout the 70s they had these back-to-back sort of critically acclaimed hits with company and follies and a little night music and Pacific overtures and Sweetie Todd. And coming off of that they came out with Merrily we Roll Along, which kind of eluded audiences with its framing narrative.
It’s this musical about these three characters and their friendship and over the span of 20 years, how their friendship and their ideals sort of ebb and flow and kind of disintegrate throughout their lives. And it tells this in reverse chronological order. So you start with them as 40-year-olds and then with each scene sort of take a few years back to see the event that led up to what you just saw. By the end of the show they’re all these 20-year-olds and they’re talking about how beautiful their life is going to be and you’re sitting there and the audience going oh hell, but this framing narrative was. It lost a lot of audiences and because they had been, these huge sort of glowing beacons of Broadway innovation, they sort of eviscerated it. They took that little stumble and they sort of tore them down and Stephen Sondheim almost quit musical theatre over it. It took them 13 years of rewriting to finally land on the version of the show as it is seen today and it feels like in the past couple of years this show has kind of been entering its redemption arc.
This really fantastic production on Broadway, as you mentioned, directed by Maria Friedman, that is really putting the show in this great new light, and I know that I personally think this is one of Stephen Sondheim’s greatest scores of all time. There’s so much energy and zip and passion and there’s these really beautiful words of wisdom and of passion and of excitement and of love throughout it that I think have become so prescient, and I’m just very excited about the opportunity to be able to bring it to Toronto audiences. Toronto hasn’t seen the show in a really long time and I think it’s really exciting to be putting it forward. Shan Colette, I don’t know if one of y’all want to start or jump on the question of how it sort of came across art plate, because that’s its own fun.
0:05:12 – Shannon Murtagh
0:05:16 – Colette Richardson
Yeah, I mean. So Colette first. I guess she was the first one that kind of brought us all together. She had initially programmed it as a part of a university student theatre group program. Well, I’ll let Colette maybe talk more about that part of it. But Josh had applied to direct this production. Josh and I had gone to school together a number of years prior and he had asked me to come on to assistant direct and that was all fine and dandy and that was in. What was that? 2021? Is that right? Yeah, 2021.
So we had started working on this production together and then a little thing called the pandemic got in the way of that. The Omicron variant caused us to shut down the production and when we had the opportunity to reopen, the student group that we were working with had decided that it maybe wasn’t the best fit for them any longer, but we cared too much about the work that we were doing. We always showed that we were the group that refused to quit. We were like we’re going to do this, we have to do this. So we decided to take the project independently. And then, colette, do you want to pick up from there? What happened when we went independent?
0:06:52 – Shannon Murtagh
So we were doing it on our own and just as we set up to apply for the rights ourselves, we discovered they were no longer available, which was crushing, after we had seemingly beaten all the odds and finally gotten all of our ducks in a row to get this dream project together.
And there was a period of time where we were talking about what it looked like to postpone it and all of these things. And as we were having those conversations the three of us looked at each other and went what if we just started a company? We clearly see that there is such a gap in the industry for emerging artists to have a space to cut their teeth and showcase their work at the beginning of their professional careers. And so we started talking about that and the company kind of grew out of that initial production of Merrily, and so in a lot of ways this production feels like a little bit of a homecoming for us, because so much of what this company is and what our friendship is has sort of mirrored the trajectory of the musical, at least the good parts. So it definitely feels very personal to us at this point.
0:08:27 – Phil Rickaby
So how did I mean? You guys talked about a little bit about how you came together as a group, but how did this group that has become so determined to do this particular show come together and what do you think it is about, either yourselves or the show that has made you so determined to do it?
0:08:53 – Joshua Kilimnik
Well, the truth be told, it was really that we had all of these sort of disparate friendships, that kind of congealed.
When the opportunity to start working on the show arose, I wanted to bring Shannon on as my AD, and so I told Collette that I wanted to set up a Zoom meeting between the two of them, and as we were all three of us talking, I sort of stepped away for five minutes to go do something, and when I came back I was informed by the two of them that they were now best friends. And that was kind of how it all clicked into place. And, very truly, the reason that we formed Shifting Ground Collective, as much as it is about this belief that we have about inflating the Canadian musical theatre scene and sort of trying to stoke the fire that is the musical theatre community in the city, it very much is predicated upon the fact that we are just a group of best friends and that we all have these really similar powerful ideals about the art we want to make and the community we want to exist in, and that’s really been the thing that’s sort of kept this initiative alive.
0:10:03 – Shannon Murtagh
Yeah, I mean, I think, yeah, I think that we discovered that we all feel the same way about the way we want this industry to look, and all three of us are the kinds of people that refuse to be told that they have no stake.
We’re all just a little bit too stubborn and determined for our own good, and I think that in a lot of ways, that’s not only where the company started, but where the friendship started is.
We all kind of looked at each other and went there’s a world out there where not only are there musicals happening in Canada all the time and that we really have as big of a musical theatre scene as exists in New York or in London, but that there is a spot for artists at the beginning of their careers to have a voice, and that there’s not this sort of expectation that you can enter the career at your career at the midpoint, that there’s somewhere for you to start out and to learn and to try things.
And I think that connection really drove us and it kind of spiraled in a really exciting way. I don’t think any of us were expecting to get to where we are now when we first started this, but we’ve just been very lucky that we’ve found a community of young artists in this city who are also really excited about the idea of building that kind of a community and space for the emerging voice, and so it’s been a really wild journey, and I know I speak for the three of us when I say that we’re all very grateful to be doing it together.
0:12:02 – Colette Richardson
Yeah, I think we sat around for a long time just talking about how we kind of came together again.
We sat around for a long time talking about, you know, wow, I wish the industry did this or I wish we could do this, and we were like, well, let’s just make that. Then I feel like there’s this conception that you have to wait for your opportunity to start making art or being professional in art, and instead of waiting, we just created one for ourselves and for ideally and hopefully, a lot more artists like us that are trying to get their foot in the door and want to create art that not only pays the bills but also fills the soul, and I think that’s also a hard thing to find when you’re 20 and you need to pay rent and you need to take the job, because that’s just what you have to do. I think that part of what we want to create is a place to not only be able to start those careers but create art that is meaningful to all of us, and that’s where my early kind of really fits into that puzzle.
0:13:04 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, there’s definitely. When people are starting out in this industry, it is hard to find the things to do, right. I mean, you can do like, you can go to community theatre and again start doing things there and people. Some people will say that’s paying your dues, but it also isn’t, because community theatre is different than professional theatre. There’s a stigma to it in Canada that you don’t find in some other places and it’s hard to get things going if that’s the only thing you can do. And especially where musicals are concerned Indy on the indie scene it is very difficult to get a musical produced. They often have very large casts, which means that costs a lot of money. It’s hard to get people to do it. It’s hard to find a stage, an orchestra, all of this stuff. It’s expensive to do a musical. So when you guys are looking at all of the things that go into putting this musical together, which one seems the easiest to you and what seems the hardest about producing a show like Merrily, we Roll Along?
0:14:26 – Joshua Kilimnik
I like that we all collectively started laughing at what’s the easiest.
0:14:31 – Colette Richardson
Because it’s such a trick question. None of it, none of it’s easy, especially because we are just starting out and this company is only a little under two years into operation. So shifting ground is very much our five to nine, and we still need to have our nine to five. So I think the hardest thing is we need to be able to do everything else so we can do shifting ground, which is the thing that we all love and care about so so deeply.
What makes it easy and this is so cheesy, but I’m going to say it anyways what makes it easy is that it’s the three of us doing it together. I think if this was anybody else, I don’t think I could do it, because it’s just like there’s something so special and electric between the three of us. We’re all so on the same page. Even when we’re not, we’re all fighting for the same goal and we’re all willing to hear each other out. But none of it’s easy. Nothing about actually producing an indie theatre is easy. I think what makes it easy the size of three of us is that, especially for Merrily, we have such an incredible team of artists that are so dedicated to putting this thing up the way that we’ve always envisioned it being. We have a cast of 15 performers, we have an orchestra of 12, we have a huge production team. There’s about 40 of us all together working on this production, and it’s for the love of art, and I think that’s just so amazing and so special.
0:16:05 – Joshua Kilimnik
Yeah, I would 1000% agree with that.
I think really the easiest thing about it is that passion, is the sparking, that commitment and that energy and that dedication to the thing, all of the work we’ve been able to do.
We’ve been so fortunate because everyone who’s been on board has been there purely with the love of the art with them.
It’s just been this. There’s been this huge we at Shift and Ground Collective we’ve seen this huge desire to participate in musical theatre and just to be around musical theatre. We’ve started doing these semi-annual musical theatre pub nights, which is just a community initiative in which we bring people over to the transact, give some performances of some local shows and have an open musical theatre themed piano bar at the end. We’ve seen so many people come out to those things and just say there’s nothing like this, there’s no place for me to be able to just hang out with musical theatre people and enjoy musical theatre together without sitting at a musical and paying 50 bucks for a ticket. I think truly the easiest thing about this is just that huge rallying cry that comes from every direction of people who want to see it happen, from behind the scenes and from the audience and from those on stage everyone who’s just yearning to see these things happen in the city, and that’s what really lights the fire under your ass.
0:17:38 – Phil Rickaby
Absolutely, absolutely. Let’s turn our attention to something more developmental. Let’s talk about statistics. Tell me about this musical that you’re developing or helping to develop.
0:18:01 – Shannon Murtagh
I think I’ll take this one because I’ve been attached to this project for the longest. So statistics is a musical by composer playwright Shreya Jha, who is phenomenal, brilliant and honestly, we talk about doing two things at once. Shreya is simultaneously composing new musicals and in medical school. I frankly don’t understand how she does it, but it follows pre-medical student Rose as she is trying to write her essays to get into med school and also realized scientists Rosalind Franklin and her quest and work on the discovery of DNA and how these stories sort of parallel each other and how Rose takes inspiration from Rosalind’s work and ultimately, through Rosalind’s story, learn how to find her own passion for her work. It’s got some really cool themes of female friendship and hustle culture and passion for what you’re doing and all of these really academic stressors.
And we came on the project actually because I was in statistics when it was done at the Toronto French Festival a couple of years ago and that’s how I met Shreya and we just really clicked and I said this is a great project for shifting ground, if you’d be interested, and it’s the first sort of big developmental process that we’ve got ongoing. So we’re definitely learning a lot about how to develop a musical by working on it. But I think that we are so excited about the prospect of getting work by Canadian composers out there, especially these like emerging folks that people haven’t heard from and statistics are really, really cool show. So it’s been. It’s been quite a journey. We’re still in quite early stages with it. We had a meeting with Shreya a couple of weeks ago couple of days ago, time is bizarre and she sort of got a new outline for the next draft. But we’re super stoked about where it’s going and hopefully we can get a full two act version of the show on Toronto stages in the next four years the goal at least.
0:20:24 – Phil Rickaby
Now, what does? What does the development of a musical look like as you approach it? What does it look like to you? What do you do? How do you participate in that? As far as the shifting ground dynamic goes, yeah, I can hop on this one.
0:20:41 – Joshua Kilimnik
Developmental musical theatre is a really fascinating sort of stage for the art form, particularly in Canada. It feels like a lot of Canadian musicals will sort of have their workshop process. They’ll sort of they’ll go into their rehearsals and they’ll do their little, their music stand readings, and then they’ll go into production and once it’s in production, boom, that’s it, you’re done. And it stunts the growth of musical theatre a lot, because you look at the American musical theatre pipeline and they have these years and years and years of workshops and all these various cast and out of town tryouts and different versions of the show, and sometimes, once the show has made its you know Broadway debut, it’ll keep getting rewrites. And so for us, a lot of the developmental process is taking this writer on seeing the material that they brought us and then taking as long as it requires to pair them with all of these, all of the collaborators that’ll help bring something out of them. At its heart, musical theatre is a very collaborative art form. You need all of these disparate opinions and all these people in different fields to sort of check off on it and to go like, yeah, from this department, this is what I’m lacking, or this is what’s really coming forward. And you know you need all those eyes, eyes, eyes just to bring a piece of art to its most optimal form. So for us, a developmental process really is we take a writer sort of under our wing with their project and we offer them the ability to find the resources that they would need to bring their project to completion. We will.
We have staged developmental readings in the past. We’ve paired our writers with dramaturgs and with directors who have helped sort of point that show into future directions. All three of us are also artists ourselves and so we offer insights whenever they might apply from our end, particularly with statistics. Having been in a previous production, has that, you know, inside window from this musical, has this idea of these particular characters’ arcs and sort of where they could go and where sort of different versions of that show feels like they could have gone further, and so, yeah, it’s really just giving that writer as many insights as possible and try to get them to that position where they feel, okay, I am confident with leaving this where it is. This is the final version, this is the finished product, as it were. That’s kind of the shape of it, I guess.
0:23:19 – Shannon Murtagh
And it changes a lot from collaboration.
0:23:22 – Phil Rickaby
Josh, that process that you described. Sorry, I’m sorry, yeah, sorry to call that, Josh. That process you described of you know, a show getting a workshop and then a production is pretty much how Canadian theatre tends to work, and in fact it’s so bad that once the show gets a production, it’s almost immediately forgotten because it’s not performed ever again. We don’t tend to give our productions life and there’s no path for a life after initial production, because so many of the theatres in our country, in our nation, are looking for just a premiere of a show and it’s hard to find a way to give shows a future after they’ve been performed.
0:24:04 – Joshua Kilimnik
Yeah, gosh, I couldn’t agree with you more. I was talking with a friend of mine over at Bad Hats about Alice, which had its fourth successful production at Soul Pepper this winter, and I was talking to him about, you know, the state of remount and how he felt about, like you know, this musical getting so many remounts. And he said something to the effect of, yeah, the last run was the first time it felt like we got it, and he kept going into this idea like it’s so invaluable to be able to be given another shot, to be able to keep working, to keep trying again. And, yeah, that’s something that we all really feel strongly about this ability, this chance for a musical to not just be put in a box when it’s on. I know, collette, in particular, you’ve been very big and outspoken about the idea of like licensing Canadian musical theatre.
0:24:56 – Shannon Murtagh
Yeah, I think there is so much really phenomenal work being done by Canadian artists but we don’t have a framework for how to get the word about our Canadian shows out beyond the cities in which they premiere, whether that be to the rest of the country or to the rest of North America or internationally. And it’s definitely a sort of tough thing to crack since for a lot of productions like a Broadway run is such a huge part of that like marketing for licensing to colleges, high schools, amateur theatre groups, whatever you want to look at it. But what I’ve been really excited about is how cast albums have started to play into that, particularly with this sort of rise of musical theatre fandom culture on social media. I am a huge advocate for Canadian musical theatre cast album because I think that is the easiest way to get new work out there so that it’s discoverable, so that high school students can beg their drama teachers to produce it, so that it is licensable and we can really start getting the Canadian musical theatre voice to be a bigger part of the canon.
I know that the three of us have definitely talked about that being a part of something we want to do. I know that’s quite a wave down the line for us at this point, but it’s definitely a problem and unless we start thinking about how we can make, because when you do a production, only you know however many seats in the theatre, there’s only so many people who can see it right. So you have to start thinking about ways to make that work known to other markets, otherwise there won’t be another life, because you know the audience in the city that is aware of what it is has already seen it.
0:26:53 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, we have a really bad habit in Canada now of shows ending right. I mean, most of our theatres are not for profit. They program a season and a show can only run for so long and in fact it’s unusual, you know, if you compare with, like the New York System, the Tony Awards. You see, a show wins a Tony Award, you can go see that show. Still, in Canada a show wins a Dora Award or whatever the city equivalent of that is, it’s already closed and it may have closed months ago, it’s so we haven’t had.
I mean, there are a few shows that have run for a long time before years ago. Phantom of the Opera ran for a long time, the Mizorab run for a long time and even before that, godspell, the original Toronto production of Godspell, where so many amazing Toronto people started. It ran for years, starting at like the Royal Alex, then transferring to another theatre. It ran for years and we don’t really have that opportunity anymore. The only people who could do it are maybe the Mervishes, and they haven’t run a show for years in quite some time.
Six months, I think, was the longest they’ve run a show for six, eight months in recent memory. So that whole like a show having a life that runs and more and more people get to see. It is kind of gone in the Canadian theatre scene, which is really too bad and call that. I think the idea of like having cast albums, to have people like record cast albums to make them available, is a great way to keep a show going and I think that that’s the reason why, like all of those shows existed. I mean, if you look at Les Mizorab, it was an album.
Jesus Christ Superstar was an album before it was ever a show. Miss Saigon was an album before it was ever a show. All of these shows. It is a great way to get the show out there, but I don’t think that. I think that you’re right. We don’t have that infrastructure here.
0:28:52 – Joshua Kilimnik
There is, and both of their eyes are about to roll. It’d be so hard. There is a very wonderful Canadian musical that I adore called Unyagin, that I saw at the musical stage company in 2017. I keep talking about this show because just one day in the future, shifting Grounds is going to do it. I swear, but it was this show I saw in 2017 on a trip with my school and I have almost no memory of beyond the fact that I enjoyed it, and at some point in the pandemic I came across a cast album of some of the songs from Unyagin in its original run, and over the summer of lockdown I kept listening to the album on repeat.
I just absolutely fell in love with it, and if that’s not a testament to the idea of just how powerful a cast album can be in reinforcing someone’s love for a show, I don’t know what else there is.
I think it’s not only important to act as sort of a publicity measure or to get a musical sort of marketable or to get a more productions, but more than anything, it’s just to reinforce and be able to spread the good work that happens in this country, the fact that beautiful art happens here and then dissipates and then just kind of vanishes and you can’t really touch on that again unless that theatre happened to catch in archival or if you stop the composer on the street and ask him to play through the score.
It’s very limiting, especially with musical theatre, which is so different from the Canadian play system, in the sense that you can’t just rent out a copy of a libretto from a library and get the whole experience. You need the score to come with it, you’ll need choreography to come with it, you’ll need staging and you’ll need a full ensemble to be able to effectively deliver it. That’s where cast albums come in and help sort of bridge that experience. That way you can read through the libretto, play the song when it comes up and you’ll get something closer to the full experience. That is really. That’s key to the survival of the musical, fundamentally, absolutely.
0:31:01 – Colette Richardson
I mean people want to hear cast out, or people want to hear musicals, not read them. You know what I mean. Obviously, you want to see it, but if you can’t, it’s just not the same experience. You want to have the experience to read a libretto with no music accompanying it. So much of what musical theatre.
Why musical theatre is so powerful is the music. It’s what music can do. It’s something that, no matter what language you speak, no matter where you come from, music has a way of moving you in a way that other things just can’t. I think that’s what’s so magical about musical theatre especially. I would love to see more cast albums and I would love to see Shifting Ground get to a place where we can be actively turning out cast albums. There’s nothing else, because I think our composers are so brilliant and I just want to listen to them all the time. I often hum songs that Shreya has played for me on loop. I don’t mean to. I’ll just find myself all of a sudden singing the one line that I can’t get out of my head and people are like what’s that? And I’m like, ah, statistics, and I want you to know more about it. So badly, and I hope that you will see it and also hear it soon.
0:32:09 – Phil Rickaby
You know, one thing that cast albums do is they don’t only keep a show going, they don’t only keep the memory of a production going, they are also often a gateway to the theatre. My earliest memories I think it was the gateway for me to theatre was listening to the cast albums that my parents had at home. So I listened to these shows and eventually as a kid and then I realized, oh, these string together, it’s a show and that’s how. That’s really how it was. My gateway drug was cast albums, right, and that’s how I discovered the theatre. It’s a. It is a great way to keep a show going and I think for a lot of us I mean I think everybody, a lot of people in this room probably listen to the Hamilton soundtrack for ages before they ever got the opportunity to see the show. Joshua was shaking his head like he doesn’t know what the show is.
0:33:02 – Joshua Kilimnik
I don’t think I’ve sorry Hamel Like Ontario.
0:33:05 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, yeah, yeah, Absolutely Hamilton Ontario.
0:33:07 – Joshua Kilimnik
Oh, okay, good, hey, canadian musical theatre. Love to hear it.
0:33:11 – Phil Rickaby
Canadian musical theatre. Yeah, absolutely. Also. I mean you you mentioned bad hats, and bad hats in some ways has managed to grasp onto one of the only ways to get a show remounted in Canada, and that is to do it at Christmas time, in the holiday season, when everybody’s putting on shows for kids and people want to do the same thing they did last year because it’s part of the tradition, and so it’s a great way to that’s. That’s, that’s. That’s probably one of the only ways in this country that you can do that. I want to turn now to each of you and ask a little bit about how you discovered the theatre, how you came to the theatre. It’s one of my favorite topics to talk about on this show is to be able to talk with with the artists about how they discovered theatre and how they decided that that’s what they wanted to do. So, shannon, I’m going to start with you. Could you tell me what your theatre origin story is?
0:34:10 – Colette Richardson
Absolutely so. I started while performing was kind of my, my gateway to what I’m doing now. I started dancing when I was like two. I looked at my parents and I was like I want to be a ballerina. They went OK, I guess they put me in dance classes and I really I fell in love with dancing and being on stage pretty quickly.
And then, when I was eight, from my mom’s birthday we went to see Mama Mia at theatre Aquarius and and we were in the front row, like front row center, and I don’t think I’ve ever smiled so much in my life. I was just so enthralled with what I saw on stage and I just I fell in love so immediately. And I looked at my parents after the show and I was like I want to do that. They’re like what? And I was like I don’t know, I don’t know how, but I’m going to, like that’s, that’s what I want to do, I want to make, I want to be a part of something that makes people feel the way that I feel right now. And I I decided that when I was very, very young and I never looked back and I’m very fortunate to have parents that always supported me through everything I did. You know they looked at this kind of bright eyed, big, dreaming kid and went OK, you can do it, a thousand percent, we believe that you can do it because you’re sending your mind to it. And then from there I just I took every opportunity I could to be on stage and it wasn’t really until I got to university that I started to explore the possibility of what a backstage or offstage career could look like.
No-transcript. I started producing when I was oh, I wanna say 19 or 20, because one of the people that I was working for at the time was like I really think that you’d be quite good at this and I think you’d really enjoy this, and kind of pushed me to produce something on my own. And he was right, and I owe so much to him. Brian Goldberg, if you’re listening, that one’s for you. But yeah, I fell in love with just being a part of something that made me feel bigger than I was, and nothing has ever made me feel the way that theatre has, and when things get hard, I often think about sitting in that theatre watching Mama Mia going. But it was so special and important then and it’s like that’s the thing that keeps pulling me back, even when you know, when we’re up till two in the morning writing a grant, or we’re coming home from rehearsals at midnight or what may have you, it’s that feeling that’s always brought me back to write. I wanna do this because it’s so, so magical and there’s nothing like it.
0:36:59 – Phil Rickaby
Shannon, when you were I mean you had very supportive parents about your arts habit Did you ever get pushed back from other people, people outside the home like guidance counselors, things like that? Did that ever happen to you?
0:37:13 – Colette Richardson
100% and I kept saying, too bad, I’m going to do it. I remember when I was in high school I was picking my grade 12 courses and I was like great, so I’m gonna take music and I’m gonna take voice and I’m gonna take this, that and the other. And they’re like, but like maybe you should take a science. And I went why, why would I do that? I’m not going to go into science. They’re like, but like as a backup, I’m like I don’t need a backup, I’m gonna go into theatre, at point blank.
I was so, so adamant and, like, my parents always supported that Like. I remember there was once I was like, maybe, like, if I don’t go into theatre, I’ll be a lawyer. My mom was like, but you’re gonna go into theatre. Like, even my parents were like, what’s the point of having the backup? Like you’re gonna make it work in some capacity or another. And hey, I’m doing it now and, thank God, my mom pushed me to do it and my dad pushed me to do it and, you know, supported me and came to every show and woke up at five o’clock in the morning to take me to dance competitions and drove, like, took time off work to drive me to auditions and you know I’m so, so grateful yeah.
0:38:20 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, awesome, awesome. Collette, I’m gonna turn the question to you If you could tell me, tell us, your theatre origin story.
0:38:32 – Shannon Murtagh
Yeah, you know, I always, I always struggle with this question because my honest answer is I don’t remember. theatre was always a big part of my mom’s life, and so it was just kind of something that was always around when I was growing up. You know, when I was a kid, I was watching Annie and music and like every animated Disney musical that existed, and so it just it became such a huge part of my life before I even realized it and I kind of blinked and I was just here. I was, this is what I did, but I think the thing that really drew me to it was I’m neurodivergent and I have, like the biggest feelings out of anyone I have ever met, and I replied these two will corroborate me on this and I always found that theatre, and musical theatre specifically, was the only place where I ever felt understood in terms of my emotional experience of the world, because I was so used to being in other places in my life where people would tell me that I was too much or I was too loud or I was taking up too much space, and this idea of feeling and experiencing the world on this like deep, intense level at all the time was something that felt so foreign to so many people, especially when I was a kid, and so musical theatre kind of became this safe place for me, where it was not only normal but encouraged and celebrated to think about and experience the world in like all its bright, shining colors and I just really I really latched on to it like like, like Shannon, I didn’t really ever think about doing anything else.
I saw Wicked when I was 13 because my dad had a business trip to New York and we all went and like that was it. I was like 13 years old and I decided and like every waking minute of my life from that point on was like how are we going to make as much of this part of our lives as possible? I also fell into producing really young. I started producing when I was 15 because I couldn’t find any theatre in town that wanted to hire a 14 year old to work on a professional show. So I said, okay, I’ll just do my own then. But I think for me it all just really comes down to feeling like there is a space where I don’t have to do anything or I don’t have to put myself into a really small little box, and where people are going to appreciate and celebrate and that there is, there is something good that can come out of me and my intense, volatile, wild, emotional internal experience.
0:41:22 – Phil Rickaby
That’s awesome. That’s awesome. Thank you for that, Joshua. What is your theatre origin story? Tell me about how you came to this.
0:41:33 – Joshua Kilimnik
Yeah, I’ve been an actor for most of my life. I started acting professionally when I was about three or four years old. When I was two years old, my parents saw me watching the Wiggles on television and mimicking it back exactly as it was happening, and both of them, never having known anything about the world of the arts whatsoever, sort of looked at each other and went seems like you’ll have fun. And so I started working in television when I was like four years old and sort of made a career for myself as a teenager especially sort of working in that field and sort of as I was doing that, as I was getting into that world of performance, kind of always did theatre as an extracurricular thing, as a way to sort of pass time the summer camps, the school, musical, et cetera, that kind of thing. Always just, I just figured fun to act and perform and to keep that going. And there was a strain. I really thought my plan was that I was going to go into film school and become a director and that was what I was gonna do. And I was like, oh, I know the world of film so well, I’m so in that community, that’ll be my future. And then in my senior year of high school. My high school programed Les Mis and I got to play Valjean in that production and it was the first time in my life that I’d been a part of a piece of musical theatre and walked out of it going wow, that was so profoundly emotionally fulfilling. I don’t know that I’ve ever achieved an experience like this before. I didn’t know I was capable of something like this, but maybe I’ll pursue this thread and see where it goes. And I ended up going to York University for theatre and sort of completely repivoted my sights there and that was kind of the start of my, I guess, musical theatre nerddom and I was sort of getting into the world of the Toronto musical theatre scene and feeling it all out.
And the last show I saw live before the pandemic began was Sunday in the Park with George Evan Beuling, tess Benger, gods of the theatre. And the fact that that was the last show I saw live meant that I had so much time in lockdown to just sit alone with my thoughts. And my thoughts kept coming back to what the hell was that show and how did it work? How did what I see just work? There’s this song at the beginning of the show, the title number, sunday in the Park with George, and there’s this like strange musical accompaniment that pops up right in the very beginning. It’s all over the place. It’s bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum, bum. And I’m sitting there as I’m watching it going. It’s working. How does that work? How does that sound good?
And I just spent so many months delving into all of the music and all of the words of this show and trying to uncover all of these deeper layers to the show.
Every time I would give it a rewatch or a re-listen, I’d discover something new about this show, and that was what sort of springboarded me into my Stephen Sondheim lunacy, which I think is the thing that has cemented me as a musical theatre person forever. I think those works were the things that really really drew me into the idea of. These are works of art that can be so rich and so fulfilling and so meticulously thought out and can be so satisfying on so many different layers. They can be profound and they can be joyful, and they can be meaningless and silly, and they can be pretty bad even. And no matter what, you’ll always walk out of it feeling something significant has happened, feeling that you have experienced something significant, something that has been labored over, and that’s something that I’ve just always found very profound and very beautiful about the world of musical theatre altogether, and I don’t see those hooks unlatching anytime soon.
0:45:54 – Phil Rickaby
Yeah, yeah. So then your production of Merrily we Roll Along opens on February 22nd, so it’s coming up relatively quickly, as we are. As we record this, we are just ending the month of January as this show goes into production. We’ve been working on it for so many years. What are you most looking forward to, each of you, when this show finally opens?
0:46:23 – Joshua Kilimnik
I can’t start this one. Someone else has got to jump.
0:46:26 – Shannon Murtagh
I’ll go. I’ll go. You know there are so many things, but I think if I had to pick one, the amount of intelligence, well thought out, thorough, deeply skilled people that are working on the show that nobody in the city has heard of is astounding to me, and I think that we have built something that is so far beyond what anybody’s understanding of indie musical theatre is, and I’m really excited for the city of Toronto to experience these people and their brilliance and have their mind expanded as to what something can look like if it’s not associated with a 20-year-old organization.
0:47:38 – Colette Richardson
Awesome, I think, for me, because Josh and I had been working so closely on this as a creative team for three years and we’ve yeah, josh just went what?
Yeah, I mean him and I have had so, so many conversations about what we wanted this thing to look like in so many different capacities. When I first joined the project, I was assistant directing. This time around, I’m assistant directing and choreographing, which is very special to me because, as I kind of mentioned earlier, dance is what got me into all of this in the first place, and I hadn’t had the opportunity to choreograph a show since just before the pandemic. And it’s just, it’s so magical to see all those ideas come to fruition bit by bit by bit by bit. Like we had a rehearsal last night where Josh and I turned to each other and went oh my god, we have a show, We’ve done it. This like it’s there, it’s like everything we talked about for the last three years it’s finally happening. And, if I can be so bold, I think the thing that I’m really the most excited about is to sit next to Josh in the audience on opening night and watch it happen.
0:48:52 – Joshua Kilimnik
There’s this Josh, how about you? Yeah, just to bounce off Yashin. There’s a favorite lyric of ours in Mare Lee Rollong, in the song it’s a Hit in which the characters are standing outside of the premiere, outside of the premiere of their Broadway debut as writers, and they are hugging each other and spinning around and laughing and dancing and they sing. If it only even runs a minute, at least it’s a wedge, it’s the theatre and we’re really in it, not just on the edge, and I think that really embodies that, that, what that journey’s been for us and the fact that we’re finally getting it up, and that’s something that I find profoundly special. But for me, the thing that I’m really the most excited about is one of the things that I get most excited about with Shifting Ground altogether, it’s the notion that we are about to show off so many of the future stars of the Canadian musical theatre scene.
The central reason I think we all started this together was that idea of platforming emerging artists and supporting the artists who who need that first step, who have just gotten out of school and who are sort of grinding the acts running around to all the different dance calls and all the summer stock venues and trying to get their foot up and trying to work the way up the door, and the fact that there just aren’t that many opportunities like that in the city of Toronto. A lot of musicals in the city will sort of cycle around, a lot of the same performers. You will see all of your favorites in every musical all the time and they’ll keep getting ping pong back and forth. And it’s nice in building that connection and building that community and really familiarizing yourself with these wonderful artists. But you also think how do I get in? How do I bump into this circle? Is there a way to? Or are these people just getting passed back and forth?
And so with this production we really get an opportunity to get Toronto audiences in the door and to showcase the people that we think are going to be making up the future of this industry. So that they’re walking out of the show and they’re going gosh, that one person who was in the lead. Gosh, they were fantastic. I can’t wait to see the next thing they do. And then all the people who start that word of mouth start drumming up that awareness of this person, get some credits on the resume and hopefully sort of help propel them into a career and give them that hands-on experience that they need. The university degrees just kind of aren’t enough anymore. It really is about that hands-on experience with musical theatre, and I’m really excited to be offering that to folks.
0:51:37 – Shannon Murtagh
Yeah, and you know there’s this funny thing about Marely, where people think that it’s this really chemical, depressing musical and like I guess you could interpret it that way, but we’ve never seen it like that. And I know there’s also, like lots of people who make the argument that you know you can’t do Marely with a cast of young people who they just don’t get the show. And I’m also I’m really excited to for the people who do know this musical to reinvent it for them a little bit and show them the hope and the belief in the future and the reminder that like it’s never too late. It’s never too late to go back to the thing that made you so excited and so passionate about life in the first place and to sort of take this musical that everybody thinks is about how dreams are only out there to die and remind people that their dreams are just still there, waiting.
0:52:39 – Phil Rickaby
Absolutely, Absolutely. Thank you for that. Well, Shannon, Josh Colette, thank you so much for joining me this evening. I really appreciate you giving me your time and I can’t wait to see what you guys do in the future.
0:52:53 – Joshua Kilimnik
Thank you so much for having us and congratulations on, I believe, your penultimate episode of Stage Worthy.
0:53:00 – Phil Rickaby
Yes, indeed, this is going to be the penultimate episode of Stage. Worthy Congratulations.
0:53:04 – Joshua Kilimnik
Congratulations. The one after this will be the last one.
0:53:07 – Phil Rickaby
Thank you so much. Thank you.
0:53:10 – Joshua Kilimnik
This podcast has seemed like you know this really lovely staple of the Toronto indie community and this chance to spotlight all these artists. I’ve really admired seeing your episodes come in over the past like a few years and it’s just. Thank you very much for putting in all this work to such a great initiative.
0:53:31 – Phil Rickaby
Well, thank you. Thank you. This has been an episode of Stage Worthy. Stage Worthy is produced, hosted and edited by Phil Rickaby that’s me. If you enjoyed this podcast and you listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify, you can leave a five star rating, and if you listen on Apple Podcasts, you can also leave a review. Those reviews and ratings help new people find the show. If you want to keep up with what’s going on with Stage Worthy and my other projects, you can subscribe to my newsletter by going to philrickaby.com/subscribe and remember. If you want to leave a tip, you’ll find a link to the virtual tip jar in the show notes or on the website. You can find Stage Worthy on Twitter and Instagram at Stage WorthyPod, and you can find the website with the complete archive of all episodes at Stageworthy.ca. If you want to find me, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram at Phil Rickaby and, as I mentioned, my website is philrickaby.com. See you next week for another episode of Stage Worthy.