A talented team of young creators on a whim set out to create a new all-Canadian musical that uses an all-American comic book as its genesis. In a conversation with Stewart Yu, who co-wrote, RIVERVIEW HIGH (now playing at the Firehall) with Angela Wong and Mike MacKenzie, Firehall Artistic Producer Donna Spencer asks him why they did it? She thought they would be musical theatre addicts and that this passion had spilled over into a need to create something of their own, but it turns out that a casual conversation between friends who like to dream crazy dreams led to a commitment to create a new Canadian musical.
Donna Spencer: Whose idea was it to do this?
Stewart: Angela and I came up with the concept together in April, 2011. We weren’t very serious about it at first, but thought “Wouldn’t it be fun if there was an Archie musical”? But I had never written any music before and Angela didn’t have any experience in theatre so we didn’t think the idea would ever go anywhere. We’re the type of friends who love talking about ideas so when we would get together we would talk and laugh about the potential show off and on and eventually we found ourselves with a basic plot outline for the musical. And that’s when we realized we were actually getting serious about doing this and if she was on board, so was I.
DS: So you followed that dream! I think that is one of the reasons people love musicals. In a musical anything seems possible and usually the good guy gets the girl. Or in this case, maybe the good girl gets the guy? Why this story?
Stewart: Although we both loved Archie Comics, we soon realized that some of the things that happened in them did not make a lot of sense to us now. How could two girls be okay with sharing this boy? It didn’t make sense from a 21st century perspective so even though the characters were inspired by the comics, RIVERVIEW HIGH, is not the story of the Archie Comics.
DS: Okay so what is it about then? Teenage angst?
Stewart: Yes, but in a fun teenage angst way. It is a story about a clueless teenage boy who is forced to grow up whether he is ready to or not when he is given the ultimatum by the two girls he has been dating – sweet blonde Cathy and sexy brunette Erica. It is a story about love and whether or not you should follow your heart or your head.
DS: What can audiences expect?
Stewart: It is a ninety minute show that will make people laugh, perhaps, they will even recognize themselves from their teenage years and they will see some of their favorite Archie characters in a whole new light. With a cast of twenty-three of some of Vancouver’s best young musical theatre performers and a band of four talented musicians playing the show nightly, people are going to tap their toes and hopefully go out of the theatre humming a few of the twenty musical numbers in the show.
DS: After having this great idea, how difficult was it to actually write the musical?
Stewart: We worked on the show on and off for just over two years as we had jobs and school and life so finding the time was difficult and there were many months when nothing happened. And even though we had a plot-line it was difficult to write. After getting my feet wet by writing some of my first-ever songs for the show, I got to the point where I just couldn’t get words onto the page. At that point, we invited Mike Mackenzie to get involved and lend a hand. Mike is the director but he, also, has written lyrics for the show and given us insight into producing musical theatre. We applied to the Firehall in 2012 to produce the work as part of the Fringe Bring Your Own Venue program and when we were accepted were terrified as we hadn’t finished the show yet. And the rest is history!
DS: Yes, audiences loved the show during the Fringe and it sold out every performance at the Firehall and at the Pick of the Fringe. And you won an Outstanding Production Award at the Ovation Awards! Have you made any changes since then or will those audiences who saw it at the Fringe see the same show?
Stewart: That’s one of the great things about getting to do the show again. The show is essentially the same but since the Fringe we have continued to develop and strengthen the work. There are some changes to the script along with a couple of new songs which I think help clarify a few of the story arcs.
DS: Testing new works in front of audiences is so important, isn’t it? And having an opportunity to go back into a work after you have experienced the audiences’ response to an initial production is so important. I know that creating a new musical is not an easy task – there are so many components that most people don’t even think about. Thanks Stewart for your time. Welcome back RIVERVIEW HIGH and thanks for following through on that original crazy conversation!
RIVERVIEW HIGH opens tonight and runs through til August 24. Tickets ($18-$20) are sold out for tonight, but still available for the rest of the run. Click here for more information or to buy tickets.