This new column for Signal Toronto is inspired by Mark Wigmore’s new podcast, Art at the End of the World. The 10-part series investigates the careers of some this country’s most engaging personalities, while seeking reflections on what it is to be an artist during a time of massive cultural change. The inaugural post is a first-person account by Mark that describes some of his process in getting to know Britta Johnson. Every week he will introduce us to his podcast guest, each with a special connection to Toronto.
Jan. 27, 2019
By Mark Wigmore
“All I know is I’m going to San Diego with Life After, which is very far south, and afterward I have a bit of time. So I think I’ll stay. Maybe go further south. And that’s all I know.”
Britta Johnson and I are sitting in her west-end Toronto kitchen nook on a chilly winter afternoon to discuss her career, and I am envious. Her success as a young talk-of-the-town theatre maven is impressive, sure, but the idea that she will be able to amble down California beaches while dreaming up her next creative project is artistic ambrosia. Just having time to think in a warm and beautiful setting feels like a fable from a bygone-era of boomer singer-songwriters, not an activity for a multi-tasking millennial. But after a five-week run of her six-time Dora Award winner Life After at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego in the spring of 2019, 27-year-old Britta Johnson will finally take a moment to breathe. In fairness, with three major pieces of musical theatre all in some form of production over the last six months, she could use a break.
“It’s been a big year… an outlandish experience. I don’t think I was in my body for any of it.”
I first learned about Britta’s talents while booking a guest for my program “Arts Toronto,” which ran for four years on Jazz FM91. Her publicist skilfully weaved the idea of an interview in support of Life After after solidifying the studio time for the actual person I was after. I said I would give it some thought.
Scouring the press release I gleaned that topics within the piece would include the loss of a father and searching for identity in the aftermath. At first glance, I quickly judged it as ‘eat your brussels sprouts’ theatre. In other words, maybe not your favourite subject matter, but ultimately good for you. There was also her noted ability to borrow from the Sondheim handbook of dense lyrical content, and sung dialogue. These elements were red flags for a tepid musical theatre imbiber like me, and I was straining to commit to a conversation. But after listening to several stripped down numbers from Life After, learning about her love of genres beyond the Broadway idiom, and noting her dizzying artistic output up until that point, I couldn’t brush it off. And good thing. She would become the toast of the Canadian theatre scene mere days later.
Britta Johnson grew up in Stratford, Ontario, watching and listening to her parents perform. As pit musicians (her father was trombonist Jerry Johnson), they were busy most evenings during the busy Stratford Festival season.
“[Me and my sisters] would really see everything. We would often sit in the pit for the musicals, or sit backstage. It was kind of our backyard in a way. When they couldn’t find a babysitter I would go see ‘Man of La Mancha’ again.”
Britta’s childhood may have been unusual in its autonomy, but it still had structure. Her parent’s arty social circle provided family, friends, and maybe most importantly, other kids to run around with; a pint-sized theatre gang happy to explore the dark corners of Stratford Festival theatres.
“It’s a pretty unique place to grow up because it’s this very unique ecosystem of working artists with their kids. An incredibly inspiring and supportive community of big thinkers and all my parents’ friends were artists too, and so many musicians. I just thought that’s what all grown-ups did.”
It seemed obvious to me that Britta would be a classic ‘theatre kid.’ You know the type. The Anna Kendricks and Andrew Garfields types of this world. During my high school years in Victoria, B.C., at Claremont Secondary, the ‘theatre kids’ were a breed all unto their own; young performers that entrench themselves in the history and culture of theatre with an almost cult-like dedication. But while Britta Johnson grew up, literally, in theatres, she certainly doesn’t put herself in that camp.
“Actually no, I never loved it that much. We didn’t actually listen to musicals at home. [Broadway recordings] have never made sense to me. I know people who can get familiar with a show just from listening to the album, [but] the pieces that are missing make it feel silly to me.”
She was certainly familiar with the stock classic scores and songs that Stratford would keep in rotation, but her interests went well beyond Tony contenders. Britta’s love of Joni Mitchell and Claude Debussy likely rival the reverence she has for Larson and Sondheim. That was much in part to her father, Jerry and his eclectic album collection that could be heard booming from the unfinished basement during her formative years. His love for jazz, classical, folk and pop music would help to solidify the points of reference she uses to this day.
“We were raised without traditional religion, but somehow music in our house was a religion. If anything’s going to make me believe in god, I think it would be music. It feels just outside what I know how to talk about, and that’s what I like about it.”
Passing on his passion for an entire world of music would be a gift Jerry would leave his daughters. He passed away after a battle with cancer when Britta was just 13.
Three years later, Britta did something extraordinary for a 16-year-old. She wrote a musical. It would seem that despite her lack of cultish fandom, musical theatre structures, composing and songwriting were in her DNA, perhaps by a Stratfordian osmosis. There was also the hole left in her heart by losing a parent. I imagined her trying to fill it by doing something that would make him proud but she asserts her family is simply go-getters.
“In high school, I asked if I could get credit for writing a musical, and they said yes. I did it to get out of science. I couldn’t believe I was getting away with it! I also didn’t know it was insane to write a two-act musical, I just did it!”
The result would be a “very silly” piece titled ‘The Big Box Story.’ It chronicled the scourge of big corporation capitalism barging its way into a small town. It was met with huge success and massive support from Stratford businesses. A reminder, she was 16!
“After, I thought, I guess this is my life now!”
And so it was. In her late teens, Britta started putting ideas down for a much more personal venture. Something that would start to unpack the loss of her father. She had the beginnings of something, almost comedic to start with, but at the advice of some of her early mentors, she began to realize that music and lyrics had the power to the process of dealing with the most difficult and vulnerable of subjects.
“How can we use music to create a story that feels the way that grief feels and the way that growing up feels? I think that music can carry all of that.”
After attending university and penning a handful of other projects, Britta began staging iterations of her new and challenging idea. Life After took its first steps thanks to the help of the Paprika Festival. She toiled further and took it to the Toronto Fringe Festival and found wild enthusiasm. It would eventually find a place within the Canadian Stage’s 2017/2018 roster. The piece follows 16-year-old Alice, dealing with the myriad of emotion surrounding the death of her famous father. It was not meant to be autobiographical, but comparisons would, of course, get made.
“The initial questions of [Life After] and feeling of it certainly inspired my life. Loss is a part of everyone’s life, it’s a universal thing, and the only way I knew how to talk about it is through music.”
My initial Jazz FM91 interview with Britta took place just days ahead of Life After‘s opening night at Toronto’s Berkeley Street Theatre. I made a last minute request for a ticket and arrived cautious but curious about what I might witness. I sat in the last row by myself. Like most critics, I left the building in astonishment. How had this 26-year-old talent given us a story with such emotional depth? All while being wrapped in a wondrous and magical fabric made out of her music and lyrics. The staging was simply superb.
I shared my review on the air and found that I was joining a chorus of admiration.
Toronto Star: “Britta Johnson is Canadian musical theatre’s next great hope“
Broadway World‘s “Review: Britta Johnson’s LIFE AFTER is Musical Theatre Perfection.”
You get the idea.
Life After was held over and quickly made the rounds as the show to see in 2017. The buzz continued the following spring when it would be nominated for a whopping 12 Dora Awards, eventually claiming six statues. Britta and her fellow cast and crew members cracked more than one bottle of champagne that night, but she takes winning in stride.
“You can’t buy into that too much, because then it also has to mean something when you don’t win. That’s a tough trap to fall into.”
She may have to make more room on her mantle in 2019. Just months after her Dora wins for Life After, she orchestrated an entirely new show, this time with the help of her sister, actress and writer Anika Johnson, who she has collaborated with on numerous occasions (her other sister Eliza is an opera singer). The immersive cult-gospel experiment, Dr. Silver was a clear departure stylistically, but once again, the piece dealt with the death of a man that cast a long shadow in its aftermath. Dr. Silver was met with a built-in audience, hungry to see what Britta had in store for her next act. Hundreds made their way to Heliconian Hall, in Toronto, to experience it. In less than a year, she had delivered another ambitious production. The output was breathtaking, if not hazardous to her health. I was curious as to why she moved so quickly.
“When you are a young artist, you take the opportunities you are given. But it was a fast turn around. I’ve been thinking about Life After since I was 18 years old. It’s been a really slow burn. [Creating Dr. Silver] was like, we wrote a show fast, and then people came to see it.”
And she has yet to waste the spotlight. As soon as Dr. Silver wrapped, it was revealed that she would return to Life After. This time, for a U.S. premiere in California. But it turned out to be not so much a light script dusting off as it’s been a serious rethinking of the celebrated piece’s more problematic numbers.
“It’s a whole new production with a whole new creative team. I’ve been going back and looking at some parts that have really got my goat and fixing them up. I have always known that I can make it better.”
And a significant rewrite means that she has once again put herself in the position to mine the caverns of loss. If an artist truly needs to feel the emotion within her creation, Britta has been grieving her father in a very complete and complex way, for a long time.
“What was I thinking? Why do I make myself return to this and not just think about it but write music about it? Go to the inner core of my heart and say how does this sadness sound? But it’s also been a gift, its given me a lot of perspective on loss, and that’s a good thing.”
Britta Johnson’s Life After debuts at The Old Globe in San Diego California on March 22, 2019.
You can hear new episodes of Mark Wigmore’s podcast Art at the End of the World. Mondays and Thursdays.
Mark Wigmore is a passionate media & broadcast professional. His career focus has been to cover and celebrate arts, entertainment & culture.
He is the host and producer of the podcast, Art at the End of the World.
Prior, he was the Senior Arts Editor and Morning Show Host at JAZZ.FM91 in Toronto. As well, he hosted and produced over 200 episodes of the station’s arts & entertainment-focussed interview program, “Arts Toronto”. It featured movers and shakers from the worlds of music, film, theatre, visual arts, books, fashion & pop culture. Recent interviewees include Eugene & Dan Levy, Molly Parker, Ethan Hawke, Damien Chazelle, Emma Donoghue, New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik, Kiefer Sutherland, Tony Bennett, Measha Brueggergosman, Thomas King & Sonny Rollins.
Mark‘s career path covering arts and culture includes working with CBC Music, CBC Radio One, 103.9 PROUD FM, News Talk 1010 CFRB, the Toronto Sun, AOL, and The Danforth Music Hall. He has also written for the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Sun, Tribute Magazine, the East York Mirror, and Chill Magazine.