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Everything that's wrong with the Winnipeg Free Press----in one easy lesson.

If the Winnipeg Free Press was a real newspaper, this city would be buzzing with excitement today.

The streets would be electrified with anticipation. There would be only one topic of conversation--- “Are you going?”

It’s the biggest cultural event of the year in Winnipeg and the city’s biggest newspaper has hardly grunted an acknowledgement. The Toronto Globe and Mail has carried more stories on it than the Winnipeg Free Press.

It.

The Boys in the Photograph.

The world premiere at MTC of the new musical by Ben Elton and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

If you know next-to-nothing about it, you can thank the Winnipeg Free Press.

Like all beleagured dailies in the Internet Age, the Winnipeg Free Press clings to its last tattered source of respite.

We’re professionals, they bleat.

We’re trained journalists, unlike those not-to-be-trusted bloggers.
We know what is and is not news, and how it should be delivered.

Don’t worry your pretty little heads, leave the decisions about news to the trained professionals.

What The Boys in The Photograph has shown is that there isn’t a breath of news judgement left in the Winnipeg Free Press.

The FP has failed to recognize how important this production is.

It isn't just the $1.5 million cost of the production which MTC is co-funding and which makes it the most expensive production in the theatre company's history.

"The future of The Boys in the Photograph depends entirely on how Winnipeg receives it. The only other planned staging, in Toronto, was scrapped last year because, according to a Mirvish Productions spokesperson, the company still hasn't located an appropriate venue.
“We have to make it a huge hit here,” he says. “The audience is going to have to love their night, and I'm confident they will.”

So wrote Patrick White in last Saturday's Globe and Mail in a story ever-so-appopriately sub-titled "Why is Ben Elton, British tabloid celebrity, premiering his new Andrew Lloyd Webber musical at the Manitoba Theatre Centre?"

The FP has failed to do what newspapers do best -- bring people together around a single issue.

What an amazing lost opportunity. They could have spent weeks building up the story to the April 30 opening night.

Starting with the backstory.

The Boys in the Photograph is the rebirth of a play written by Elton and Lloyd Webber ten years ago about how the outbreak of IRA terrorism impacts the Catholic and Prostestant boys on a soccer team in Belfast.

When it hit the London stage in September, 2000 it was called The Beautiful Game, playing off the label given the sport by soccer great Pele. It was well-received and ran for 11 months. But it never made it to Broadway (for obvious reasons, as you'll see in a minute).

The play sat on the shelf for another five years until Elton found himself in Toronto preparing a run of his play We Will Rock You, based on the music of Queen. As he tells it, while casting the play he was stunned by the level of talent he was seeing in Canada.

“It was sort of heartbreaking because although we cast the very best cast, we knew we could have cast it twice with all the brilliant people we saw.” he told one interviewer. The talent pool lit his creative fire. Maybe, he thought, maybe it was time to redo The Beautiful Game, only this time to bring it to its full potential.

He floated the idea past Toronto impresario David Mirvish, who pulled out his chequebook. There was a problem. There was no venue open in Toronto for a play of that size. Mirvish had an idea---take it to Steven Schipper in Winnipeg. He's good people. They know what they're doing there. You won't be sorry.

So here it is.

Gone is the original title. The producers discovered that patron shorthand had turned The Beautiful Game, the musical, into Andrew Lloyd Webber's "soccer musicial." Out went the emphasis on the sport in favour of a focus on the players.

A quarter of the original music has been replaced. And anyone who saw the original would only recognize three-quarters of the script. Elton says he recognized the original staging was too dark, too depressing, too hopeless.

He doesn't say, and for some reason none of the interviewers has asked him the obvious, that post 9/11 the future was, and is, bleak for a play where the hero sympathizes with and eventually joins the IRA to become a terrorist bomber. Just try pitching that one to Broadway.

The Boys in the Photograph isn't making that mistake.

Who's in it?

Some of that mind-blowing talent that Elton talks about.

Jeff Madden, now playing Frankie Valli in the Toronto production of Jersey Boys, was targeted for the lead role of John until he bowed out last October. Tony Lepage now plays the local football star John Kelly, trying to balance his wife, his hopes of a playing professional soccer and his pals who are being drawn into the "struggles" that will tear Belfast apart for the next 30 years. ( edited May 3rd)

Erica Peck is leaving the Toronto production of We Will Rock You to play the wife. She thinks she's coming back. But if her meteoric rise on the theatre scene is a clue, who knows what planet this 22-year-old is destined to land on? You might ask her mentor--Ben Elton.

You want more gravitas? Richard McMillan played Scar in Toronto's Lion King. Scar. What more do we need to say. He's coming to play the priest who coaches the team in The Boys.

The 57-year-old Stratford veteran has appeared on Broadway, at the Shaw Festival, with the Canadian Opera Company and in movies ranging from The Day After Tomorrow to M. Butterfly. McMillan, wrote one reviewer, (has) won more theatre awards than you've had hot dinners.

The "professionals" at the FP have demonstrated they don't even know how to exploit a "world-class" opportunity.

Three weeks ago they launched their terrible We Believe in Winnipeg campaign with an edition focused on the arts. It turned out to be a regurgitation of the yellow pages listings under A for Arts, without the phone numbers.

The back page was a full-page ad for The Boys in the Photograph.

But these "professionals" never thought that, hey, maybe we should include an entire story about this, the most exciting theatrical production in the city all year. All they could see was the ad revenue.

Ben Elton and Andrew Lloyd Webber are quite prepared to share the success of the musical. As Elton told Sun Media reporter Lindsey Ward:

"If this is the hit that I believe it will be, Steven specifically and the MTC in general will have been one of the principal reasons. And if it goes around the world as I hope and pray it will, then the MTC will yet again have a world banner to wave. It won't be the first time, but it might be the biggest."

And maybe then the Winnipeg Free Press will wake up in time to hop on the bandwagon and demonstrate, once again, what "professional journalists" they are.

Everything that's wrong with the Winnipeg Free Press----in one easy lesson.

Class dismissed.

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