What happens when an existing show suddenly gets $200,000 in funding for expansion and fine-tuning?
If it’s The Hockey Sweater: A Musical, very good things occur, according to the show’s co-writers Emil Sher and Jonathan Munro.
The musical is an adaptation of Roch Carrier’s beloved short story about young Roch, whose universe is knocked sideways when he mistakenly receives a Maple Leafs sweater from Eaton’s instead of a Habs No. 9 jersey, like Maurice Richard’s.
The show is a Segal Centre production. It premiered in Montreal last year and plays the National Arts Centre starting Dec. 5. Between the two runs, it got $200,000 from the NAC’s National Creation Fund, which was launched in 2017 to help develop ambitious new Canadian works. Over the next several years, the fund will invest up to $3 million annually in theatre, dance, music and other productions.
The Hockey Sweater musical was Sher’s brainchild, but it was created quickly to take advantage of funding last year from the federal government and the City of Montreal. “Often the gestation period for a musical is four or five years, and I think we did it in two … We were under the gun,” he says. The NAC money was an opportunity to make it “richer.”
The new funding meant the chance to work with a dramaturg, create new characters, polish the script and the choreography, and make other improvements.
But it also meant that the creative team could afford to take time to mull over what it had done and wanted to do with the show. “This notion of buying time is so valuable,” says Sher, who wrote the show’s book and co-wrote the lyrics with Munro. “Not only time to create but to reflect, to go down the wrong path. Part of the process is giving you the luxury and liberty to make mistakes and say, ‘No, that’s not working; let’s go back.’”
Munro, the show’s composer, says the funding also offered the opportunity for a massive rewrite of the score and to produce four new songs that help carry the show’s themes like identity and belonging.
Those new songs include Breakaway, sung by Roch and his teammates in the second act. The tune, says Munro, embodies “how everybody is different and yet we’re all united in that we’re all searching for our own voice and our own identity” – clearly a message with political overtones for Quebec and the rest of the country.
Carrier has been totally open to the musical reimagining of his original story, says Munro. “This is my guess, but I think that’s because he’s a creator himself. So he understands the process, that there may be tangents we find that work.
The NAC, in turn, was open to ideas for expanding and polishing the show. Noting that shows with a long shelf life typically have several iterations before they reach final form, Heather Moore, artistic director for the National Creation Fund, says the folks behind the Segal Centre production knew what they liked and what they wanted to improve.
The revamped show is the first out of the gate under the funding program. More will come onstream in the coming months and all will be assessed for how well the investments worked, according to Moore.
“We’re not going to forensically account them. But we’re going to look at (things like) did they get critical acclaim, did they get audience acclaim, did they go on to have a life?”
Looking back to the original production, Sher admits to some trepidation about adapting and expanding Carrier’s very short and now-iconic tale. “We knew there’d be some who’d say ‘Don’t touch it. It’s a perfect little story.’ But I always see adaptations as not replicating something but recreating it. I had to believe we could open it up in such way as to preserve the spirit of the story.”
He feels that he and Munro stayed true to the original story and intent by constantly going back to the source to ensure they didn’t lose direction.
There were challenges, says Munro. “The tricky part is creating a world where people just randomly sing but making it believable.” On the other hand, he notes that the show is very much about having a voice, and that speaks to music.
Munro hopes that audiences will leave the theatre feeling “transported” by the musical numbers. He says those numbers evoke emotions ranging “from upsetting to completely uplifting.”
Kind of like a hockey game.
The Hockey Sweater: A Musical is in the Babs Asper Theatre Dec. 5-23 (previews, Dec. 5 & 6; opening night, Dec. 7). American Sign Language (A.S.L.) presentation Dec. 22 at 2 p.m. For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca.