It takes a very special person to make a musical come to life. The challenges are apparent even from the writing process — one works to intertwine an original story with lyrics and imagines it into something corporeal. Britta Johnson has mastered this difficult task, and is making waves in the Toronto theatre scene with her new production, Life After.
Britta, who’s been compared to the likes of Stephen Sondheim, is quickly making a name for herself and building a respectable brand most writers hope to achieve. Toronto’s Musical Stage Company was so impressed by her work that they have chosen her to develop and produce three new musicals for the next three years — something unprecedented in Canada.
We had the opportunity to chat with Britta just days before the opening of Life After. Learn about her story below and click here to purchase tickets.
Kimberley Drapack: How did you first get involved in theatre?
Britta Johnson: I grew up in Stratford. My parents were both pit musicians and I grew up in the theatre seeing all the plays every year. It would often be substitute for babysitting. When they couldn’t find someone to take care of us we’d go see Hamlet again.
It was a really big part of my youth. The culture of Stratford, most of the people you look up to are making a comfortable living in the arts. It felt like a natural progression.
There are three of us in my family and we all went into it not thinking it was strange. Now that I’m an adult I see that it’s a bit strange but I didn’t know it at the time.
I started writing for my high school kind of as an excuse to get out of class and hang out with my friends and it slowly became a big part of what I do.
K: It seems as though you grew up with a great support system within a creative field.
BJ: Absolutely. I was the youngest in my family and both my sisters were really good at piano, and it was partially me being competitive that I wanted to get good at it fast.
K: What facets of musical theatre first drew your interest?
BJ: It wasn’t ever a decision that I really wanted to be a musical theatre writer. I was always really interested in theatre and storytelling and I’m a musician and a pianist. I used to want to become a writer for The Simpsons and it happened through writing for my high school shows that I learned I had a knack for it.
I think storytelling is important and there are all kinds of things that are made possible when you use music that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. It’s always the work I’m most curious about. I certainly don’t unconditionally love the form but I do think that when you get it right telling a story with music, there’s some honesty there that wouldn’t otherwise be possible without music.
K: When you’re writing a script, do you find it a tough process to jump from dialogue into a song?
BJ: It’s generally kind of rare that I’ve done all three, writing scripts and then the music and lyrics. I’m usually more of a songwriter, which makes it easier because someone else is making those decisions and it’s an active collaboration. With this piece, it’s not a super traditional musical, it’s mostly music and really plays with time and space. It’s not a super narrative-driven, linear thing. It was really about mining the emotional moments that were important to musicalize and then just making sure that they audience could stay on board and it felt like it had a natural progression and a satisfying arch.
That’s always the hardest part to write: the moment before someone starts to sing. It’s so strange.
K: How did your writing process begin for Life After?
BJ: It started as a series of songs about a loss of the same person. A story started to grow around it, but really music is the central driving feature. It was an organic process because I didn’t walk in knowing what the story was. I walked in knowing what I wanted to explore, which was what grieving feels like when you face it for the first time. Figuring out what story to hang it off of, because I do think you need some kind of foundation to let it live in and then figuring it out what that would be to earn the musical moments and to earn the emotional world that we were trying to set up.
K:How does it feel to be compared to the likes of Stephen Sondheim?
BJ: I mean that’s insane. I can’t really take that on board or I’ll have a nervous breakdown. I think he’s the master and the reason why I write what I do. That’s always exciting to read and I think he manages to do amazing things with his music. I’m honored by that, but if I think about it too hard I’ll need to leave town.
K: Not only is Life After well underway, you will have a busy next couple of years with The Musical Stage Company developing and producing three new musicals for the next three years. This is unprecedented in Canada. How does this process work? How do you feel at achieving such a big accomplishment?
BJ: Well, talk to me when I’ve written them, so who knows?
It’s crazy. It’s totally unprecedented and I’m keenly aware of how lucky I am to get this kind of support and I know I’m lucky to be coming up at this time where in this country it feels like people are starting to get excited about musicals again. I think what happened with Come from Away is part of that and I think that The Musical Stage Company are really unique in their vision and they’re so smart and ambitious. I’m lucky that my aesthetic lines up so much with theirs.
It’s huge and so exciting. Usually, as a freelancer, you have to finish one project and then have a nervous breakdown because you don’t know what the hell is going to happen next. To know where I’m landing after this is so huge. I get to turn the page and work on the next thing and to build my brand along with such an incredible company. I’m so thrilled I hardly know what to say.
K: How do you continue this flow and begin the next process? Do you have ideas in the back of your mind of what this process might entail?
BJ: Both musicals are already kind of on the burner. The next one is well underway and we’re doing a workshop of it in the winter. Life After is the only musical where it’s just me. The other two musicals will be with collaborators.
If I was doing three musicals alone, I wouldn’t have time to be speaking with you right now. (Laughs). I also want to go outside and sleep and stuff. I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say about them, but we’ve decided what they are and they’re on their way.
K: How do you continue to stay inspired while writing and producing multiple works at a time?
BJ: The lucky thing about my work is that it’s all very different from one another. Nothing else sounds like Life After. When I’m working on something, I try to immerse myself with things that make me feel the way I hope to make the audience feel.
I’ll often make myself playlists of music that gives me the feeling that I want the world of the show to have, and read things about the topic. I always try to immerse myself a bit in the feeling and the world of the show. I’m lucky and think I’d burn out a lot faster if I didn’t get to work on such different stuff. Nothing is like each other, or else I’d totally run out of ideas. I can turn the page and then think about the next thing I need to think about.
K: Do you ever start on one project and find that there are similarities with another? Is it ever difficult to have those moments?
BJ: Absolutely, and I do run into those. That’s when I need to cleanse my palette and try to listen, watch or read new things. I struggle to write more than one thing at once. I usually like to fully immerse in one and then fully immerse myself in another and I haven’t quite figured out how to do the juggling act but I’m working on it. Otherwise, there is a bit of bleeding that happens.
K: Life After has some sadness behind it, but there is a lot of honesty and truth in sad stories. They’re important to tell because a lot of people can relate. Do you find that when you’re writing or going through the process of developing a show you’re looking for something that an audience can grasp onto?
BJ: Absolutely. I think honesty has to be key, especially when you’re working in as heightened a form as this. You start feeling like you’re manipulating or lying to people pretty fast when what your characters are singing isn’t truly rooted in something about the human experience. Even if it is a comedy or a tragedy. I always hope, even if I’m working on something totally outlandish there is something within it that people can find to relate to. Especially when you’re talking about something like loss, or grief, something that literally everyone in the entire world has to walk through. You really want to get it right or else it feels like a disservice to your audience.
K: Do you ever feel as a writer you have a certain amount of power? Do you feel an added pressure?
BJ: Absolutely, and then I have to remind myself that nobody dies if they don’t like my show or if it doesn’t speak to them. Also, it would feel like a wasted opportunity if it didn’t. I want people to feel glad they came. You can only ever try your very best.
K: What’s your favorite part of opening up a show?
BJ: I’ve never got to work on this scale before. These are big companies involved and it’s a very extensive and impressive team. I’ve never got to collaborate on this scale before where everyone in the room is the very best at what they do.
It’s been really thrilling at how quickly things can happen and I trust everyone in the room so much and the collaboration has been so exciting. The piece has grown at such a rapid speed.
Getting into the rehearsal room was something that’s been in my head for so long and has been so great. It really is a team effort and that’s what I love about theatre, even though I get to do all the interviews. It’s good for my ego.