Sammi Herlich interviewing Britta Johnson

From U of T to Musical Theatre: Interview with Britta Johnson

 As a current student, I'm always interested in where U of T alumni are today so I can learn from their experiences and be inspired by where a degree at U of T can take you. I had the pleasure of interviewing Britta Johnson, a writer, lyricist, and composer, and also a graduate of the Faculty of Music who has been described as "Canadian musical theatre’s next great hope" by the Toronto Star. Enjoy!


Britta Johnson, a Faculty of Music graduate and incredibly accomplished in the musical theatre industry, is a great inspiration as to where a degree at U of T can take you!🎶Stay tuned for the full interview in our upcoming blog post.💙 —Sammi

♬ original sound - U of T Student Life

Sammi: What got you into the musical theater industry? And what has your journey been?

Britta: Well, I was raised by two pit musicians at the Stratford Festival. So musicals and theatre were a big part of my youth. It was a really normal part of my life. But I officially started to write in high school, mostly, because if you wrote a one-act show for our school's Fall Play Festival, you got to sign your friends out of class whenever you wanted. So that's why I did it. However, as soon as I did it, and I was kind of like in this room of people making something altogether and laughing really hard and writing songs. I've always been very serious about the piano, and I love to write songs. And I love to, you know, share what I think about things through writing songs. I kind of found my home very early. I think my first show was when I was 14, it was this kind of aha moment where I was like, oh, I think I want to do this forever. This is how I want to exist in the world. And I've been really lucky to get to do it ever since then.

Sammi: How did U of T impact your accomplishments and where you are now? I know your work, “Life After,” has won six Dora Awards, it’s heading to Mirvish. So how did U of T kickstart your passion and dreams for this?

Britta: It connected me with a lot of the very best musicians I know, which building community in the arts is the number one thing, like building community with people you're going to want to create with, I've met some really amazing collaborators here. And I met really amazing teachers here who kind of helped me to expand my sound and challenge what it was that I was trying to do. And I just spent my four years here taking in a really wide array of music and trying to learn as much about it as possible and broadening my palate, [and] on a basic sense, it just made me a much better pianist, because I had to. And it helped me to be a little less lazy in my technique, which I think has helped me as a writer because I am better at embodying the kind of the music I'm trying to write and better at articulating the ideas I'm trying to share. It's given me the language to do that. And the community to do it with.

Sammi: If you could go back in time, what would you tell your first-year self? Where would you begin?

I'd tell her to calm down. I mean, I think like many art students, I spent my four years here with just rampant impostor syndrome in a way that I think sometimes limited the questions I felt comfortable asking or how empowered I felt in class, where now that I'm a little bit older, I realized that was all pretty much made up. And this is a place for me to learn what I wanted to take from it, what I needed to find the connections where I see them. So I would tell her to relax and tell her to believe in herself a little bit more. Being in school for the arts can be complex, because it's such a subjective thing. And it's really easy to take what you're told literally and take it on to mean that you're doing the wrong thing. Whereas actually, everything you're being offered by your instructors is just suggestions that might spark inspiration that might grow into something. So I think I was young, and I was scared a little bit, and I gained confidence through the program. But if I could go back and talk to her, I’d tell her to relax. I look back at how anxious I was, and I go, everything was fine. It was all fine, you know, and you were gonna be fine. And that's hard to know that when you're 19.

Sammi: What has your biggest challenge been in the musical theater industry? And how do you overcome those challenges?

Britta: I think the complexity of freelancing is that you always think the opportunities are going to run out, it's really hard to have faith that things are gonna keep unfolding as they're meant to. And I mean, COVID specifically offered such a challenge to everyone in the theater industry, it was really hard for all of us to believe that our work was going to come back in any kind of meaningful way. So I think my biggest struggle is figuring out how to build a sustainable schedule where I don't burn myself out. But where I also say yes to the opportunities that are the most exciting to me. And that balancing act of trying to both take care of myself and engage in lots of work that's really fulfilling is sometimes a challenge. I love to say yes to everything, and then lose my mind trying to pull it off. It's hard to find that balance. Because I don't know if that feeling ever goes away, that feeling that maybe this is the last contract I'll ever have. I don't know if it ever goes away. I talk to some of my mentors who are a lot older than me. And that feeling hasn't abandoned them yet. But you just kind of learn to live with it, I think.

Sammi: And I know, the arts field and industry in Toronto tends to be viewed as pretty competitive. Maybe a small, kind of tight-knit arts scene. How does one set themselves apart and kind of break into the art scene here in Toronto?

Britta: I think it's all about building connections and being really kind and curious about other people's work. Take the meetings. If you're inspired by something someone's doing then, like, reach out to them. And no one in the history of time has ever disliked hearing from someone who has been impacted by your work. So don't be shy in reaching out to people you want to work with and be really kind to your collaborators, I think the best thing you can be as an artist is be good to work with. Because you're often working bananas hours for very little money. I think what's most important is you foster a community that can kind of hold each other, and you being a generous part of that community means people are gonna want to work with you again and again. And just be brave and be honest and humble and keep trying to refine your work, you know, never be satisfied. Which maybe doesn't sound as positive as I want it to, but it's just always strive to be better, more curious and more expansive, and the things you're trying to do, and then people want to work with you. And be nice. I don't know if everyone would say that. But I think being nice has really served me well.

Sammi: You're right now working on “The Last Timbit,” which is the Tim Hortons musical for their 60th Anniversary. It’s making its debut pretty soon. What inspired you to be involved with this opportunity? It's definitely a unique project. I'm very curious about how you got into that and what that's been like.

Britta: I keep waiting to wake up from this weird dream I’m having. But I haven't, it's actually happening. It happened as a seed of an idea from an ad executive that which, what I mean is like, take all the meetings when people approach you, because it was someone, this amazing woman who came to a show I had in town seven years ago and liked it and was interested in writing and we had a coffee and talked about writing musicals. And now she works at an ad company and she was like I have the big idea, do you want to talk to me about it? And it was, you know, a connection I made a long time ago not related to this. And it started as this idea that came from her to celebrate the 60th anniversary, more incredible artists kept getting on board. The corporation kept saying yes to our ideas. And now we have a full-scale musical being mounted at the Elgin in two weeks. So yeah, it's actually been such a thrill.

I think, Tim Horton's kind of lends itself to song. Because most Canadians have a relationship with it, big moments in their life. And the team that they've put together is pretty amazing. Like, I go to work every day and the designers and the two other writers I'm working with like, it's just the A team. And we're really proud of what we made. And we laugh so hard every day, and we kind of can't believe it's happening. And we hope everyone will come and have a Timbit with us. 

Sammi: And I'm wondering, what's your creative process like for translating your visions and your musical ideas into an actual theatrical production?

Britta: The thing is, I find my process is different every single time. I think so much of a creative process is about trying to meet the work you're working on and trying to meet its specific needs. So even like, my writing schedule, for each work, what time of day I write, if I'm writing alone, or in partnership, what that partnership looks like, what kind of designers I want to be working with, like, it's really distinct for every process, but it's always really nonlinear. And really strange, and often seems like I'm getting no work done at all. And then I'll do a lot of work in very little time. You're a creator, you know what it's like. Sometimes you're in the channel, and sometimes you're not. But it's really just about trying to stay awake to the needs of the specific project you're working on. And if that means changing gears about how you're approaching it. Being awake to that not getting if an idea isn't working, having the bravery to walk away from that idea is a big part of it.

The biggest thing with a musical is just buckle up because it takes a long time. And it takes many steps, the show of mine, "Life After," premiered at the Toronto Fringe in 2016. And since then, you know, it had its professional premiere at Canadian Stage, it's had two big American productions, and now it's coming back to Mirvish. And every single time I crack it open again, and we workshop it again, and I change things and move things around. It's kind of like every opportunity, you have to keep refining it because musicals are big, huge moving, a lot of moving pieces, it's hard to get it right. Every time you have the opportunity to learn from an audience you take it and, you know, buckle up because play the long game, but find the gift in that, that getting to keep working on something is actually a gift, and keep refining it and keep listening to your audience is quite a gift. So I think that's it, getting used to, at least for musicals specifically, it's so normal for them to take such a long time. So it's not a unique thing. It's specific to the art form and in truth is something I really enjoy, to keep getting to come back to something and refine it is kind of my favorite thing about this particular industry.

Sammi: Do you have any advice or takeaways for current U of T students who are maybe hoping to follow their passion and their dreams, and it sometimes can feel a bit daunting at times to kind of go that route, or especially in the creative fields, any kind of things you wish you knew when you were sort of thinking about this potential career path?

Britta: I would say that the fear and the doubt doesn't go away. And so it's not really to be trusted. It's just your brain trying to protect you from disappointment. So you can kind of say, like, thank you very much for trying to protect me, and I'm still going to pursue it; if there's something calling to you, it's important to listen to that. But to not take for granted, [it's] hard, it's very hard. And it demands a great deal of sacrifice and bravery. It's not an easy path. But if you're called to it, it's very worth pursuing. And the things that are telling you not to do it are just, you can say, like, thanks brain for trying to protect me, but I'm gonna do it anyways. It's all about just remaining really curious and really humble and trying to stay connected to your community of artists around you. And then it makes everything easier to exist in community. To be a supporter of other people's work means they're going to be a supporter of your work. And ultimately, making art is all about community. It's all about trying to find an audience and being part of other people's audience. So be really generous in that and show up for your people, [and] then you'll usually be met with the same, I think. 

Sammi: Are there things that students can be doing now that would help them when they graduate or it's kind of you kind of figure it out as you go?

Britta: If you want to be an artist, go see a lot of art, like whatever it is you're interested in, go to the theater, go to the galleries, go to the shows, if there's someone's work you like, try to talk to them. People love that, you know, so do it. Networking can feel like this really dirty word. It feels kind of [shady] and L.A. It's not really, it's just about connection and conversation, which is what art is about. So just for now, just be in the city and enjoy your city and go see things you love and try to make connections from there and then that's the thing to do. You know, read books. Take a walk. Hang out with your friends. Have a nice time. Eat your vegetables and that's my guide. You can trademark it.

Sammi Herlich and Britta Johnson in front of Student Life back drop.

– Sammi