After Half a Century, Prince Edward Island’s Musical Tradition Takes a Break

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Prince Edward Island’s best-known figure, Anne Shirley, is a fictional character. But that doesn’t deter tourists from around the world, and Japan in particular, from traveling to Cavendish to visit Green Gables, the farm that inspired Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1908 novel about the sassy orphan from the town of Avonlea, itself another fiction.

And since 1965, except during a pandemic-induced two-year break, most of those tourists have taken in performances of “Anne of Green Gables — The Musical” at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown.

But now anyone planning to make the show part of a trek to pay homage to red-haired Anne will have to do some additional planning. After 57 years, the center has decided that the musical will be performed every second year rather than annually.

The play was the first production staged at the center, and the decision to break its long run was one of many things that emerged from pandemic reflection, Adam Brazier, the artistic director of performing arts at the Confederation Centre, told me.

It was a change that Mr. Brazier, whose family has a long history on the island, took on with some trepidation.

I suffer from being an absolute people pleaser, and this was a such a large systemic cultural change,” Mr. Brazier said. “The unfamiliar always breeds the uncertainty and fear. I have to acknowledge that absolutely exists.”

But in Mr. Brazier’s view, a biennial “Anne” will allow the theater, which currently offers just two shows each season, to “preserve the legacy” of “Anne” itself.

As he anticipated, there was some immediate backlash on the island, and off, when the change was announced.

In a letter published by Saltwire, an online collective of Atlantic Canada newspapers, Paul Smitz of Brookvale, Prince Edward Island, said the decision was “ridiculous” and called for the resignation of Mr. Brazier as well as that of the art center’s chief executive.

“It has huge implications on tourism,” Mr. Smitz wrote.

Kathy and Dino DelGaudio of Vero Beach, Fla., who own a seasonal house on the island, wrote to say that they had attended the production every summer, except during the pandemic-related shutdown of the border, for the past two decades. They too said they were dismayed.

“Anne represents the essence of P.E.I. to us and put P.E.I. on the global map,” the couple wrote. “Big mistake, folks.”

But one of the new projects Mr. Brazier has taken on is, well, more Anne. The theater will create a musical version of “Anne’s Cradle: The Life and Works of Hanako Muraoka, Japanese Translator of Anne of Green Gables.”

During the 1930s, Loretta Shaw, a Canadian missionary, gave Ms. Muraoka a copy of Ms. Montgomery’s book, which Ms. Muraoka went on to translate, along with most of the Canadian author’s other works. Japan’s fascination with Anne, however, developed after 1953, when the translation, titled “Red-Haired Anne,” was included in Japan’s school curriculum.

(Michael B. Pass, a doctoral student at the University of Ottawa, has published a fascinating history and analysis of Japan’s relationship with Anne.)

Interest in the various Anne stories in Canada, of course, has largely been driven by television adaptations. The most recent, known simply as “Anne” when it was first aired by the CBC and then “Anne With an E” for a Netflix release, took a darker approach to the character’s story.

But it’s not just television. Catherine Hong wrote for The New York Times Book Review about the proliferation of book adaptations of the spunky redhead’s story. They include “Anne of Greenville” by Mariko Tamaki. Ms. Hong describes that book as “more a playful riff than a retelling — in which Anne is the half-Japanese, disco-loving, ‘deliriously queer’ adopted daughter of two moms.” She adds, “After the family moves to the conservative small town of Greenville, Anne encounters a scary nativist clique and a thorny love triangle involving two girls.”

[Read: Anne of Everywhere]

The musical production in Charlottetown was partly written by Don Harron, who is best remembered for his comedic performances as Charlie Farquharson, a grizzled Ontario philosopher-farmer. Mr. Brazier told me that the production had undergone many revisions and changes over the past half century.

In 1971, Clive Barnes, The Times’s longtime theater critic, gave a largely positive, if somewhat patronizing, review of a New York production of the musical.

“Simple, innocent and Canadian, this is the kind of show that will appeal most to the unsophisticated in heart — if they are still going to the theater these days,” he wrote.

With a cast of 26 actors and 14 musicians, Anne is a large and expensive production. But Mr. Brazier said that giving it a break every other year was not about saving money and that budgets for the theater had not been trimmed.

And Mr. Brazier said that the theater was committed to preserving what he called “a masterpiece of 1960s musical theater.”

He added: “We cherish this show and everything about it. I believe you can learn anything you need to learn about the musical theater from ‘Anne of Green Gables — The Musical.’”


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A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.


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