Enter stage right: A big year for Wexford

By Quinton J. Hobson

Wexford Gleeks perform at Show Choir. The Music Theatre program has an ambitious 2015 lined up.
Wexford Gleeks perform at Show Choir. The Music Theatre program has an ambitious 2015 lined up.

If you’re curious to know what 150 youths are up to during regular working hours almost every day, you need look no further than Pharmacy and Lawrence.

Although initially appearing to be nothing more than your average Scarborough high school, that’s where you’re wrong.

Enter the auditorium and you’ll be surprised to find 150 sweatpants-clad teenagers seated in rows of cushioned seats, chairs you’d be hard-pressed to find in any other public school. Even more unusual, these chairs are seldom filled, as they are only used during the rare silent moments of the day when said students are taking a break from singing, dancing or acting.

Enter: Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts’ Music Theatre program.

At the head of Music Theatre you’ll find artistic director Ann Merriam, who founded the program in 1988 as a way to “keep kids out of the malls.”

Merriam, no stranger to hefty tasks, expects 2015 to be an especially big one for her Performing Arts department as she unprecedentedly prepares two full-scale musicals at once as opposed to the usual one a year.

Although supported by a team of devoted artists who Merriam admits “work for next to nothing” when she first founded the program nearly 30 years ago, she did so with little money, accepting whatever help she could get from whomever was brave enough to offer it, among them her ex-husband Bob Johnston, who used to travel to Toronto from New York offering his assistance. He currently is the program’s music director.

Things have definitely improved. In the early years, Merriam, a trained pianist, would direct and choreograph shows herself. On choreographing, Merriam chuckles, “you’d never find me doing that today.”

The two musicals at hand are Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Summerland, the latter of which is completely original to the program, slated to be transported downtown to be performed at the prestigious Toronto Fringe Festival this summer.

The brainchild of Merriam’s daughter Barbara Jonston, who created the show with collaborators Anika Johnson and Suzy Wilde, Summerland revolves around the misadventures of 13 misfits, troubled high school students who are mysteriously transported into a magical kingdom. The musical first premiered in-house at Wexford last year and proved such a phenomenon that the program was invited to perform it again this year, only in a slightly different way.

Asked why they would do two musicals given the amount of work it takes to prepare just one, Merriam explains this will broaden the program’s horizons. For the first time they’ll be inviting students and professionals from outside the program to be a part of it, as well as inviting some graduates and alumnae back to reprise their Summerland roles from last year.

Currently housing 150 students, much more than a typical arts program, Merriam believes this is what makes Music Theatre unique, and is determined to put all 150 of them on stage.

Describing Summerland as a “show for the kids,” Merriam says its message is important and universal, and resonates with her students. The students, less than 10% of whom will actually venture into the arts after high school, acknowledge the program is no cakewalk but they’re grateful to it.

The program’s enrollment is remarkably diverse, spanning virtually every race and religion.  Noting a large portion of the students are African-Canadian, part of Merriam’s goal has been to get more of the Black community coming out to support them.

Costing $20, tickets go on sale in early May.