Canadians, Russians and the great comets of 2017: Musicals are coming to a theatre near you this coming year

Musicals are in the air at the moment, even more than usual.

The Elgin Theatre is the more familiar setting for the much-awaited Sousatzka, marking the return to producing of Garth Drabinsky. Confession of interest: I worked for Drabinsky’s Livent organization for 18 months, and had a great time. My biased opinion is that the best of Livent’s work (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Show Boat, Ragtime, Parade) constitute a track record unmatched by any commercial theatre organization since, or indeed for some time before.

The new show’s director is Adrian Noble, former head of the Royal Shakespeare Company and responsible here for a memorable Stratford Hamlet; the choreographer is Graciela Daniele of Ragtime; and the cast includes Victoria Clark, renowned on Broadway for her performances in The Light in the Piazza and other things, and Montego Glover, who did a great turn here a few years ago in an otherwise misbegotten musical that claimed to be about Alberta Hunter.

However, the names that interest me most are those of Richard Maltby Jr. and David Shire, lyricist and composer respectively. They have been writing together since they were students in the late 1950s, and were primed to be the great American team of the post-Sondheim generation. Shire’s music being both melodic and adventurous and Maltby’s words sharp and character-driven. They certainly haven’t lacked for success: Shire as a composer of film scores and Maltby as director of Ain’t Misbehavin’ and English lyricist of Miss Saigon. Together they wrote Baby, one of the few good musicals of the 1980s, and two whole heaps of wonderful songs collected in the anthology shows Starting Here, Starting Now and Closer Than Ever. But they’ve never had a Broadway hit together.

Sousatzka is set mainly in London but with tentacles spreading outwards in both place and time. It’s based on a novel by Bernice Rubens that also gave birth to the Shirley MacLaine movie Madame Sousatzka. Both book and film portray a Russian piano teacher instructing a gifted student from India. The show makes one major alteration: the young prodigy is now African. This was a great relief to Maltby and Shire, who didn’t relish the idea of writing an Indian-flavoured score; they had attended a sitar concert in preparation, and Maltby told me that as they emerged he said to his collaborator, “Let’s go back to your place and modulate.” Now they can have jazz.

Excerpt from Robert Cushman of the National Post.