I remember the moment in seventh grade in the middle of French class in Halifax, Nova Scotia when I turned to a classmate far savvier than I was and whispered, “Broadway’s in New York, right?” At twelve, I had an elusive concept of what this “Broadway” was. It was something printed on my cast albums of Les Miserables and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat but whether it was one theatre or five hundred, on the same street or in the same city, whether a literal place, or something mythological or symbolic, I was unsure. There was one thing that I knew for certain, however; Broadway was the best of the theatre.
Somewhere within the first twelve years of my life this belief became engrained in my brain and I trusted it with all the innocence of youth. But, is it true? Where did the idea that Broadway is the best come from? Well, it came from Broadway, of course.
For over one hundred years New York has heralded itself as being the centre of the world. This belief spawned pride and the pride spawned lucrative business ventures which led to the building of some of the world’s biggest or most eminent buildings, enterprises such as The New York Times and Wall Street, and the myth of the American Dream was perpetuated by the accomplishments of such prominent businessmen as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and Thomas Edison. New York, with its bright lights and Statue of Liberty, became the beacon of hope and the pinnacle of that dream for the masses that flocked there from small towns in the United States and the millions of immigrants who flooded New York City steadily until the 1950s. These people perpetuated the myth that New York was the best as it subtly wove its way into our cultural history and the myth was appropriated for the stage, into songs, into novels, films and onto television until the myth seemed like fact engrained in the international subconscious.
In asserting that one’s city is “the best” or indeed “the centre of the world” is an active position for one to take and it is fraught with the potential of realizing dreams, of daring to think big, lofty, grandiose thoughts, to have unconventional ideas, and soon the city is saturated in YES. And so, Sam, Lee and Jacob Shubert and Oscar Hammerstein I built a remarkable amount of new theatres and ushered in a Golden Age for Broadway.
In the early 1900s George M. Cohan was one of the biggest stars on the Broadway stage and he was utterly draped in the American flag throughout his career. The shows that he wrote, the songs that he wrote and the way he conducted his life were all brazenly touting his patriotism of Broadway, New York and the United States of America. This set the precedent for the American Musical Theatre at a time when London was arguably still, in reality, the theatrical capital of the world. Cohan, Shubert and Hammerstein knew that what they were doing was brilliant, it was new, it was exciting and most importantly, it was theirs, and that would make it great. Their *belief* would ensure that it would become “the best in the world.”
Theatre is not mathematics, it is not science, it is subjective and personal and qualitative, and it’s slippery to measure and to evaluate. It is art, and although we scramble to herald things as being “the best” and to award those things we see as being “superior”- none of it is truth. It is all opinion. So, Broadway may not actually be the best, but that’s beside the point; look at all the miraculous, beautiful, extraordinary things that have come from the New Yorkers faith in themselves, their pride in themselves; their belief in one another and their artistic community. Frank Rich, a former theatre critic for the New York Times, never criticizes Broadway in general. He doesn’t say, “Americans cannot produce hits from London well.” He doesn’t say, “Americans can’t” he doesn’t say “Broadway can’t.” To do so would be a serious affront to his country. How presumptuous and unpatriotic it would be to put into print the very idea that the United States of America COULD NOT do something or COULD NOT do it well! It would be outrageous. Rich, like all good critics, speaks in specifics. If a show fails it is not Broadway’s fault. It’s not America’s fault. It is a combinations of factors that besieged one particular show. Broadway changes, and it can be compared to its past, its future can be speculated upon, but no one tells Americans that they are, in general, ultimately inferior without sparking outrage.
It sounds just as outrageous to me when critics say that “Canadians cannot” do anything or “cannot do this particular thing well.” To believe that we are inferior or second-rate to either the United States or to Great Britain is a passive role to take. We therefore do not support our own ventures. We approach everything with cautious criticism and apologies. We preface everything with, “of course it’s just Canada… so it therefore won’t be as good as something done in the States or in England… we’re just trying OUR best… but really, what good is that?” We happen to be just as competent and creative and brilliant and ingenious and gifted and bursting with stories to tell, ideas to share, buildings to build, companies to invent, theatres to found, and art to create as any other country in the world. We need to stand patriotic, glorious and free of all this inferiority nonsense! We need to herald ourselves as being the best and to believe it, because if we can, if we can convince ourselves that we are worth investing in as a country, the most miraculous and exciting and extraordinary miracles will begin to happen in Canada. We just need to say YES, WE CAN.
There is a great man in the White House in Washington D.C. tonight. And I want to leave you with his words because I feel like this is not a time for apathy, this is not a time for feeling defeated or mediocre. This is a time of change, and invigoration. This is a time of optimism and hope and faith that a belief in these things will bring great rewards. As Barack Obama said a mere few months ago- that fateful historical inauguration day, “where we are met with cyncism and doubts and those who tell us that we can’t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: YES WE CAN.” I want to feel Canadian spirit rumble merrily out into the streets, like the day after our Olympic team is victorious in hockey. I want to see pride shining in the eyes of our people as they support the artists, and all the creative ambitions and ventures in this country. I want us to move forward with confidence, bravery and determination to be our own best. And to have that be more than enough.
I have faith that Yes we can.
Please also take a moment to vote for the First Annual TWISI awards and honor the theatre artists that you feel are the most deserving in this country. Make your voice heard. Cast your vote before June 21st, 2009. Click here for more information.