Robert McQueen started his theatrical education at Studio 58, a theatre training program at Langara College, in Vancouver. From there he moved to Toronto and then New York where he studied at the Herbert Berghof Studio. But it wasn’t until he got a call from Kathryn Shaw, his former teacher, asking him to direct a musical at his alma mater that he even considered directing. McQueen has continued directing since then, working in Canada and internationally. He is now the director of new musical development at the Musical Stage Company in Toronto. His production of 42nd Street for Theatre Under the Stars premiered on July 4 and ran through August 18.
For McQueen, one of the most important aspects of a musical is its use of composition; the role of music can make or break a production. It’s because, as he explains, “Music can say things in a way that language can’t always.” He’s also quick to point out that some musicals don’t offer an experience in which “the music isn’t just providing a nice melody, but that the music is an essential component — the major component of the work, in a way.”
The criteria that McQueen holds for a production’s use of music are the same as for dance: it has to be cohesive with the world that the musical has created. In his production of 42nd Street, McQueen is making a few changes to create that harmony. 42nd Street is “a musical about the making of a musical,” so his first instinct was to break the production down a bit, to strip away some excess polish and theatrics.
McQueen made the set reflect that decision by “crack[ing] open the design so that you can see the entire theatre.” That change means that most of the action in the musical happens within a theatre, and so “Dance was literally used within the structure of making a musical,” he says. He also decided to take out the “endless big and glitzy production numbers,” opting instead for only two large-scale finished numbers, with the rest appearing in rehearsals as works-in-progress. And in this piece in particular, most of the dancing is tap, which is in line with the spirit of the 1930s (42nd Street was first released as a movie, in 1933) and with its overall tone. “When you get it right, [tap] feels like such an expression of exuberance and joy,” McQueen explains. “And that tone fits into the world of this piece so perfectly.”
McQueen has spent most of his life living and working between New York, Toronto and Vancouver. And though he notes a slight difference in the narratives that Canadians and Americans are drawn to, McQueen firmly believes in open collaboration between Canadian and United States musical theatre communities. Given the current political climate, some people might think that now would be a bad time for a flourishing relationship with our neighbours to the south, but McQueen disagrees. He acknowledges that there used to be a strong anti-American sentiment amongst the Canadian musical theatre community but loves that “Younger people aren’t burdened by that. They’re going, ‘Great, if we can have some success south of the border, why wouldn’t we do that?’ ” This changing mentality is one McQueen accredits to the fact that many established companies across the country “that have been run by somebody who’s been there for thirty or forty years” are now “handing the reigns over to really well-versed, well-experienced younger people” who are eager to push the envelope. “It’s just this kind of amazing alchemy — creative alchemy — that starts to happen,” he says excitedly. “And I think we’re so rich in ability and a talent pool in Canada, and so I find all of it to be very exciting. I find it very vibrant and alive.”
Even considering Canada’s own political changes (namely, the election of Doug Ford as the new premier of Ontario, where McQueen is a part-time resident), he’s optimistic. “It doesn’t matter which kind of government we have in. It doesn’t matter who’s running the province; it’s always going to be an issue. And sometimes the battles will be larger than they are at other times, but no one can stop creativity; no one can stop that force.” In a time full of so much social turbulence, McQueen sees a production like 42nd Street as being just as important as a piece of political theatre. He’s aware that “It’s not a piece that’s going to address pressing contemporary issues,” but he’s reminded of an experience he had back in 2001, as the associate director of Mamma Mia’s Broadway production.
Premiering on October 18, 2001, just a month after 9/11, Mamma Mia! appeared in the aftermath of devastation. McQueen remembers sitting with the rest of the cast and crew, discussing their feelings about the event and questioning why they were putting on this show in light of the horror of that day. He remembers the director, Phyllida Lloyd, responding, “It’s what we do. This is what we can do. People are going to need to be able to come to the theatre and have an experience that is full of joy and full of love.”
Sure enough, McQueen remembers the production receiving a letter shortly after the show opened, from none other than Meryl Streep. The letter explained that Streep’s daughter had been deeply affected by 9/11, but after being brought to see Mamma Mia!, she laughed again and “Something cracked through; something opened for her.” Though not nearly as devastating, McQueen looks at the time we’re in now, and at 42nd Street, and feels that “There’s a wonderful story to be told, one that’s as valuable as the most rigorous political theatre can be.”
That power that musical theatre has, and that dance has as well, is so vital to the human experience at large. It’s why this production was first created, in film form, during the Great Depression. And it’s why new governments and social injustices won’t change the need to produce art as both an escape and a commentary on the current events. As McQueen points out, “Music is like a plum line into the emotional life of most of us as human beings. It hits trigger points that words alone can’t,” and dance has that same ability, as does most art.