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Canada’s place in painting and musicals

By Adam Corrigan Holowitz

At the start of the twentieth century the visual art world was in the midst of revolution.

Monet and Renoir were leading the impressionist movement in Paris. Picasso was introducing cubism to the world.

Picasso, Bowl of Fruit, Violin and Bottle

Meanwhile, Canada was having its own artistic revolution. In 1912 the thirty-six year old graphic designer from Toronto Tom Thomson first entered into Algonquin Park and began creating sketches and small paintings which he would then take back to his studio and turn into some of Canada’s first artistic masterpieces.

There had been great Canadian painters before Thomson, including London Ontario’s own Paul Peel.

However earlier Canadian painters had been compelled to imitate European painters both in subject and style. Peel, for example, spent most of his career in France and proudly rejected any hint of modern painting technique.

Paul Peel, The Covent Garden Market, London, Ontario, 1883

Paul Peel, The Covent Garden Market
London, Ontario, 1883

Thomson on the other hand choose to paint Canada’s wilderness.

He also chose to paint the Canadian landscape in a modern style that was distinct to Canada.

You can see traces of the French impressionists in Thomson’s work.

Tom Thomson, Autumn Birches
Algonquin Park, Ontario, 1916

Monet and Thomson share a similar way of painting light.

Claude Monet Waterlilies
Giverny, France 1916-19

This does not mean Thomson was copying the French, in fact it shows the opposite.

Thomson was on the vanguard with the likes of Monet and Renoir. For the first time Canadian art was not copying the European fashion of fifty years earlier.

It is interesting to note that Thomson got his start as a painter relatively late in his life.

He had been working as a graphic artist for advertising firms in Toronto since his earlier twenties. Thomson had been creating other people’s visions for a long time. So when he started painting seriously he was not going to fulfill anyone else’s idea of what he should be painting, only his own.

Before Thomson the words “painting” and “Canadian” were not thought to go together. Art and culture was something from Europe, Thomson and his contemporaries changed that misconception by making distinctly Canadian artwork.

Canadian theatre makers have had to break down similar misconceptions.


The Canadian Musical

Since the 1950s Canadian professional theatre has been a strong cultural force.

However to this day it can be a struggle for Canadian plays to be given the same attention as American or British plays.

This has been even more difficult for Canadian musicals, but that tide is swiftly changing. It is appropriate that “Colours in the Storm,” currently playing at the Grand Theatre, is a Canadian musical about Canadian painting pioneer Tom Thomson.

Jay Davis & Binaeshee-Quae Couchie-Nabigon.
The Grand Theatre. Photo Claus Andersen

The show’s writer Jim Betts has done pioneering work for Canadian musicals similar to what Thomson did for painting.

Betts founded Northern River Music which publishes and promotes Canadian musicals, including two song book anthologies of Canadian musicals called Field of Stars.

The Grand itself currently has commissioned Canadian composer Leslie Arden’s new musical “Starlight Tours,” about police mistreatment of First Nations people.

Canadian musicals have a distinct style from American or British musicals. In many cases the location and subject is distinctly Canadian.

This is the case with the current Broadway hit “Come From Away” set in Gander Newfoundland (listen to the podcast with its creators here), or “Colours in the Storm” set in Algonquin Park or one of the earliest Canadian musicals “Anne of Green Gables” set in P.E.I.

The location, however, does not have to be geographically Canadian. There is a Canadian style beyond location.

I think it has to do with sensitively drawn the characters.

The 2006 Broadway Canadian hit “The Drowsy Chaperone” was set in a New York apartment and a 1920s musical comedy. However the show is without a doubt Canadian. The show’s main character, Man in the Chair, listens to a Broadway album and the show comes to life in his apartment.

Bob Martin in The Drowsy Chaperone.
Photo Joan Marcus

We never learn his name, but we know that he has been feeling “blue” and that he loves musicals. He could be a relation to Morris Panych’s “Man in Seven Stories,” a similar unnamed everyman who is facing sadness.

Canadian musicals frequently explore isolation.

There’s no doubt that Canadians, be they in Algonquin Park, Prince Edward Island or almost anywhere outside the large cities, experience isolation. It’s an experience Canadians share because of our vast and largely undeveloped landscape.

“Anne of Green Gables” is about a young girl who has lived in an orphanage, isolated from any sense of a family, suddenly integrating into a family, and community.

“Billy Bishop Goes to War” is about a man who was a solo fighter pilot in World War One; up high in the sky, only his plane and his wits keeping him alive.

“Colours in the Storm” is about a man who goes alone into the bush to create art. “Come from Away” is about a town isolated at the edge of North America which forms strong bonds among the stranded aircraft passengers.

Even the “The Drowsy Chaperone’s” Man in the Chair is alone in his apartment.

Musicals have a history of providing company, comfort or as Man in the Chair in “The Drowsy Chaperone” says “gives us a song when we are feeling blue”.

Perhaps the musical is the ultimate Canadian form of theatre. Whether you are in Algonquin Park, Canada’s North, Atlantic Canada or stuck in a traffic jam on the 401, a little song and a little dance in your heart can remind you that Canada is a big, warm hearted community.

Detail Details
Colours in the Storm
The Grand Theatre
Runs until May 6, 2017
Get info and tickets online
Call the box office: 519-672-8800

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Canada’s place in painting and musicals

Keith Tomasek
23 April 2017
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