Stage right: Canadian musicians find much to love about writing theatrical shows

Stage right: Canadian musicians find much to love about writing theatrical shows

Leaping into musical theatre wasn’t the most obvious step for Alan Doyle’s career, but when an offer to write songs for a stage adaptation of “The Grand Seduction” landed in his lap, he was instantly intrigued.

The former Great Big Sea singer was asked to pen lyrics for a musical based on the 2013 Don McKellar film, itself a remake of the French-Canadian hit “La Grande Seduction.” Doyle felt navigating around an already established story based in Newfoundland and Labrador would be entirely new territory.

“What a fun thing to do,” he says of the collaborative songwriting sessions that he likened to performing improvisational theatre.

“Mary comes out. What does she sing? It needs to be something about the groceries.”

Five songs have now been written and Doyle says a workshop version of the play is expected to debut at the Charlottetown Festival, which runs every May to October in Prince Edward Island.

It’s just one of several musicals in development with a Canadian musician taking a key role behind the scenes.

While many singer-songwriters have lent their talents to playhouses in the past — including former Barenaked Ladies frontman Steven Page and Dave Bidini of Rheostatics — there’s a renaissance of theatrical ambitions afoot.

Page is currently developing his eighth project with the Stratford Festival, a musical tentatively called “Here’s What It Takes” that focuses on the turbulent friendship between two musicians whose career paths diverge.

Other hot commodities are headed to Broadway, including an adaptation of ”Pretty Woman” with ballad virtuoso Bryan Adams and songwriting partner Jim Vallance giving texture to the ”hooker with a heart of gold” Hollywood hit. The play makes its Chicago debut in March 2018 before hitting New York later in the year.

Meanwhile, Alanis Morissette’s influential 1995 album “Jagged Little Pill” will be the centrepiece of a production by the American Repertory Theater in Massachusetts next year. While the pop singer isn’t directly involved, if her hits “You Oughta Know,” “Ironic” and “Hand in my Pocket” prove they’re still huge draws then a Broadway run could be in the cards.

For musicians, working in theatre gives them an opportunity to sideline the rigours of touring and focus on writing.

Torquil Campbell launched his career as a thespian and still balances his musical output with indie outfit Stars by taking on the occasional scripted show.

“I love that sense of desperation that comes when a play begins,” says Campbell, who presented the show “True Crime” at Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre earlier this year.

“The audience isn’t certain they’re going to be engaged and the actors are not certain they can manage to convince an audience. There’s a huge bridge there to cross and it’s a thrilling risk to take.”

Billy Talent frontman Ben Kowalewicz looked forward to a similar sensation as he prepared for the Toronto engagement of “A&R Angels,” penned by Broken Social Scene founder Kevin Drew, which is running at Crow’s Theatre until Dec. 9.

Kowalewicz found a renewed creative energy performing with a small cast of experienced actors and an attentive audience.

“The closest I’ve ever been (to this) is doing a music video,” he says.

“Those 200 other strangers (in the audience) I was just with, it will never really be duplicated exactly the same way ever again.”

For Randy Bachman, it’s a fascination with the emotional mechanics behind writing and producing that has lured him into theatre.

Whenever the “Takin’ Care of Business” songwriter visits London’s West End theatre district he takes note of everything that resonates with him — from the stage layout, to the music playing while people are ushered to their seats, and the wares on the merchandise tables.

Bachman says he plans to apply that research to “Prairie Town,” a play he’s working on with a Broadway writer and financiers out of Winnipeg. He hopes to include songs from Neil Young, the Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive, as well as some others he wrote.

The storyline revolves around a U.S. draft dodger who flees to Winnipeg in the 1960s and falls in love with an Indigenous woman caught in her own turmoil involving residential schools. It’s set in Canada’s windy city, which Bachman calls “the magical Liverpool of North America.”

“They meet and fall in love with our music in the background,” he says, noting the script is still in development.

Clashing with all of these ambitions is the reality of getting a play into production. Rarely is the process easy, even when you’re a celebrity who can attract curious theatregoers.

Investors sometimes get cold feet and securing a venue can be challenging. Other times, the concept is a tough sell or producers get pulled onto other projects before work begins.

Grammy-winning producer David Foster has spent the better part of a decade involved in writing songs for a Betty Boop musical. Originally expected on Broadway in the 2010-11 season, the project instead languished for years, although he believes it’s finally gaining headway.

Foster, a Los Angeles dweller who penned some of Celine Dion’s biggest hits, recently purchased a New York dwelling in the hopes that living closer to one of the world’s theatre hubs will inject more life into the next stage of his career. He also has an autobiographical one-man show he’s trying to get some development traction for.

Foster says wading into the theatre world made sense for him once he stopped chasing massive chart success.

“You don’t have to write a song that will get on Top 40 radio, you just have to write a song that tells the story,” he says.

“Broadway’s a perfect place for me to write with abandonment again.”

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