Sir John A. gets the musical treatment by Gord Carruth

Sir John A. Macdonald

In Confederation’s 150th year, Sir John A. Macdonald has become a focus of much interest.

Teachers have tried to obliterate his name off schools across Ontario. ManyIndigenous peoples revile him. Others elevate him to the lofty status of Father of the Nation.

Plays have been written. A opera has been revived that has portrayed him in dark light and now a new musical will attempt to put him in perspective.

Sir John A. Macdonald — The Musical is the work of Gord Carruth, who has a resumé that extends over 40 years that is chock full of musicals and plays that feature historical subjects. He’s tackled, among others, Vince Lombardi, Joey Smallwood, Pierre Trudeau and now Old Tomorrow, Sir John A. Macdonald.

Gord Carruth

He turns to these figures from history, because, he said, in an email interview, that their lives are full of the stuff of drama.

“When I wrote Joey (on Smallwood) in 2001, I found, not surprisingly, that his life and times were really the ‘stuff of drama’ and then I saw the same thing with Trudeau later and of course with John A. It’s as simple as that. If it were not so, I would not waste my time. I found that the events of their lives led so easily to lyrics and music.”

The piece coming to Centrepointe Theatre on Nov. 2 features an ensemble cast of 18 with actors playing multiple roles. They tell the story of Macdonald’s life in song from the Canadian Pacific Railway Scandal, the murder of Thomas D’Arcy Mc Gee, the trial of Louis Riel to legacy of shame that is the residential school system.

Musically, Carruth says, the production is “perhaps closest to the style of Rogers and Hammerstein with ballads such as the song Will It All Be Worth The While This Politics?, recitatives such as Flash In The Pan, The Perfect Team and On The Take and large production numbers such as Confederation Crusade.

My lyrics,” Carruth added, “have always tended to be a natural extension of dialogue. It would be called a ‘book musical.’ It’s not like Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s work, basically ‘sung through opera or a jukebox musical like Mamma Mia or the unstructured relationship musicals of Sondheim where practically everyone is somehow psychologically screwed up.”

One thing this musical is not is hagiography, Carruth says.

“It is filled with warts and I hope honestly well balanced. I wrote it last September and October before the recent brouhaha surrounding his legacy so I was not influenced by that. I was not out to totally vilify the man. I would have had to vilify much of the 19th century. But he does get his well deserved knocks from me.”

The many shades of grey that surround Macdonald are what appealed to Carruth. 

“Exactly right. Grey. That is why he appealed to me. He did love power (There is a song called Power sung by his law partner Alexander Campbell. Macdonald certainly knew how to exercise it.

“As I look back now on what I wrote, I don’t think I touched enough on his sense of humour. I hope I showed his ability to bring together men of vision  to get something done the way he wanted things done.”

Carruth says he hopes that audiences that come to see the performance will experience “as honest a portrait as possible.

“Let them decide the balance between the Father of Confederation (versus) Father of Genocide.

“They will, however, probably come in looking to have their views verified. I will certainly not portray him as a garishly dressed buffoon as Mavor Moore did in the opera (Louis Riel) and the audiences will leave humming tunes much more easily than the atonal music of Harry Somers.

“The musicians I have worked with for more than 30 years are basically the same ones Gord Lightfoot uses in his studio work and on tour.”

The Ottawa shows will be the premiere of the work. But future productions remain to be organized, he says.

Carruth says he’s pretty satisfied with the final product.

“My own evaluation is it is the most satisfying and maybe the best thing I have ever written right up there with my play based on the life and times of (the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers” Vince Lombardi which won a few awards.”

He’s a devotee of something Noel Coward once said: “I can abide anything in theatre as long as I am either moved or amused. If neither I shall get up and quietly  leave at intermission.

Andrew Galligan portrays Sir John A. Macdonald. Photo: Christopher Whan

“Andrew Galligan’s portrayal of John A. is riveting and when he sings near the end of Macdonald’s life One More Mountain, I know what the audience’s reaction will be and if he were alive I am sure Sir Noel would  get up … to applaud, not to leave.”

Gord Carruth has won more than a few awards and has had plays produced across Canada, in the U.S. and in Europe, so maybe he knows something after all.

Sir John A. Macdonald — The Musical
Maple Leaf Theatre Productions
Centrepointe Theatre
Nov. 2 and Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 4 at 1:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.