Canadian History Sings with Sir John A. Macdonald: The Musical

If the musical theatre world has taught us anything, it’s that pretty well any topic is ripe to have suddenly burst into song. We’ve had singing plants, dancing cats, shows on Mormons, the final days of Christ and even one about Spiderman. However, how would Canadian history fair if given a more melodic treatment? Sir John A. Macdonald: The Musical, opening tonight at Centrepointe, sets to answer that question, get you humming along and maybe teach you something about Canada’s past you didn’t know.

Gord Carruth knows a thing or 1867 about Canadian History! A wonderful melding of history teacher and composer, he's the country’s most prolific writer of historical musicals and, thus, the perfect one to pen such a crucial part of our past on, of course, such a milestone year.

“Having already written a musical about Joey Smallwood and about Pierre Trudeau, I saw in the life and times of Macdonald as, plain and simply, the stuff of drama. The sadness he endured in his personal life, the political challenges he faced and the scandals and questions that also defined his career as a politician,” the National ACTRA award-winning playwright tells Ottawa Life.

“As I left my research behind and began to write the story I found that lyrics for songs came naturally from the story of his life”

Carruth wrote the musical in September and October of last year, before the recent publicity surrounding Macdonald and the country’s Indigenous community, but he did not go into the story in order to put a shimmering coat of gloss on his subject matter. His aim was to be honest and balanced, not to re-write history. He says it is all in the musical hoping that the audiences view it as informative but, above all, “a pleasant evening at the theatre, sometimes moving, sometimes amusing.”

Look no farther than the production’s description in it’s want to tell of the history from various sides, even the ones that don’t cast the country in the most flattering of lights. The musical takes us back 150 years to not only tell us of the birth of Canada but, also, the Father of Confederation."Or could that be the Father of Genocide?" From the shameful acts committed on the Indigenous, the Canadian Pacific Railway scandal, the murder of Thomas D’Arcy McGee and the trail of martyr (traitor, to some) Louis Riel, the good, the bad and, yes, the ugly are all pieced together in song.

“Will it All Be Worth The While This Politics?” shows Macdonald’s reluctance to enter into his new position when first elected. “A Flash in the Pan” tells of how his rivals saw him as somebody who would be quickly in and out with not much of a legacy left behind. The Pacific Railway scandal shows Edward Blake and the Liberals singing "On The Take" where they are seeking  justice ala the Keystone Cops. The events in Charlottetown in 1864 create the up-tempo "Confederation Crusade" and Louis Riel sings the obvious "Mighty Métis Voice" that will not so easily be silenced.

“I find this production is offering a uniquely personal perspective to this historically public character. To prepare I actually spent some time in Winnipeg visiting the museum and his family home to try and get a better feel for the man behind the story,” says Ron Clarke who plays the controversial Riel in the production. 

Playing any historical figure always presents some challenges, says Andrew Galligan before he steps into the role of Sir John A. himself. Trying to find that balance, especially when portraying a politician, is a difficult task. A figure like Canada’s first Prime Minister, one who can be polarizing, certainly doesn’t make things any easier.

“There will always be differing views depending on the source material you study, much the same as today, the PM can make a statement that one newspaper will hail as a great thing, while another paper will view it as the worst,” says Galligan.

“Knowing how to read the middle comes in very handy. There are, of course, aspects that we know were awful, and being able to separate the character from yourself is important, especially when looking at views towards our First Nations people.”

The actor didn't go into the production with some historical backing. Galligan prepared for the role with much research. Fortunately, he was loaned the Official John A. Macdonald Album, a collection of newspaper articles and photographs surrounding his life. It brought him closer to the reality of his character and gave him a glimpse of how the man viewed the world.

“I believe he was flawed in many ways, as most individuals are. I do believe that his thirst for power and legacy led him to push things through without concerning himself about fallout from his decisions. Fallout that we are still feeling, be it from the role of the Indian Act, the building of the railway, or the flaws inherent to a Parliamentary system designed to serve a country the size of England, being placed in a country the size of Canada. “

Sir John A. Macdonald: The Musical is an all-ages production and one of the official events of Ottawa 2017. While the subject matter can at times be messy the production is first class. Shows begin this evening and continue until November 4th. Tickets are on sale now.