Developing new musicals often happens outside the shiny marquee lights of New York City. Recently, Chicago and Boston have played host to a number of new shows while a few theaters in Connecticut have done similar work, both recently and as far back as “Annie” and “Oklahoma.” But even further away in Alberta, Canada a new musical is taking the stage for the first time.
It’s the first venture into hosting a developing, out-of-town tryout for Theatre Calgary and its artistic director Stafford Arima. Arima, whose Broadway credits include “Ragtime” and “Allegiance,” begins this residency with “Mary and Max,” an adaptation of a 2009 award-winning animated film. “It's about two lonely souls,” explains Lauren Elder, a New York-based actress, “I play Mary Daisy Dinkle, who's a young girl living in Australia. She has a brown birthmark on her forehead and kids make fun of her. She doesn't really have any friends and one day she finds an address of someone living in New York City and decides to write a letter and it ends up going to Max Horowitz, who is a middle-aged man who has Asperger's. They connect because they are both outcasts in their worlds and they become lifelong pen pals. It's a beautiful story about friendship and connection.”
Elder has been attached to the show since its inception. She’s been friends with the composer Bobby Cronin since 2010 and recommended he see the movie, never thinking it would become his next project. Book writer Crystal Skillman and director Stafford Arima came on board a while later and the show has been in development for the last four years. Actors Anthony Galde and Nick Adams joined for a reading in 2016, playing Max and Damien, and have stayed with the production ever since.
“It's been a dream of a process,” Galde says (via a group phone-call with Adams and Elder), “to be able to create something like this and have input in the creative process with our director and writer. As actors, that's really the ideal process to be able to contribute not only your choices with the characters, but also have your opinions be heard on the shape of the show and what you think is working and what you think might need a little bit of changing.”
After years of workshopping and rewriting, “Mary and Max” is finally in front of an audience - the show opened October 16 and is running through November 11. “It's been really exciting,” Elder says of the first fully-staged production, “It's been amazing to be there for the whole process and see how everything has evolved and changed.” While the show is currently frozen, changes were made until the last minute of opening night (including 65 pages of revisions during one week of tech) and the show will continue to be fiddled with after its run at Theatre Calgary ends.
Although the cast agrees that taking the show to New York would be an ideal next step, being so far away for this run has been exceptionally helpful. “The pressure to have a polished, finished product is not there,” Elder explains. “To have the safety and comfort zone of a smaller but substantial theater that's very far out of town,” adds Nick Adams, “it gives us the freedom and confidence to be able to make choices and see what works and what doesn't, and it's invaluable for the creative team, writers, to experience that and see how they can better craft it after this experience.”
Elder, Galde and Adams says that audience members of all ages have been responding well to “Mary and Max,” while Louis B. Hobson writing for the Calgary Herald called it a “high spirited, totally delightful [and an] impressive, satisfying start.” Part of that seems to be the love that each member of the team puts in it. As Galde says, “it's been a group effort on all fronts, so I feel like our hearts are all in this project and that's the best thing that we can have as actors. We all really love each other, too. Stafford is such an unbelievably giving human being. That makes it easy, 'cause we all get along really well. It's kind of dreamy.”