Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Abominable Showman, March 2, 2013

The Peace Movement
CharPo looks back on the extraordinary career of theatre legend Roger Peace on the eve of the world premiere of his new musical about gospel and civil-rights  icon Mahalia Jackson, starring his old friend and muse, Montreal jazz great Ranee Lee
by Richard Burnett

One late morning on a boozy Memphis-to-New Orleans road trip with three friends some years ago, we drove our huge sky-blue Oldsmobile into the parking lot of the old, historic Lorraine Motel in Memphis. 

The Lorraine was walking distance from Beale Street, thus was popular with visiting celebrities like Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan and Nat King Cole during the days of legal segregation. 

It was also here where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968, as King stood on the balcony outside room 306 on the motel’s second floor. 

Now the home of the U.S. National Civil Rights Museum, my friends and I took a walking tour of the museum. When you step into room 306, it is as it was the very night Dr. King was shot, and throughout the room you can hear Mahalia Jackson singing Dr King’s favourite hymn, Take My hand, Precious Lord.

“I just happened to be reading a book about Mahalia Jackson and I just started writing,” says legendary Montreal actor, writer, director and producer Roger Peace whose new production The Mahalia Jackson Musical premieres at Montreal’s Segal Centre for Performing Arts on March 7 (previews begin on March 3).
Peace – whose musicals include Piaf: Love Conquers All (it debuted at Le Stage dinner theatre at La Diligence restaurant in Montreal in 1992 and starred Patsy Gallant before wowing Off-Broadway audiences at the SoHo Playhouse in 2007), Red Hot Mama: Songs and Stories of Sophie Tucker and Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, as well as the upcoming Judy: By Myself (about Judy Garland) and The Magic of Marlene (about Marlene Dietrich) – says his Mahalia musical is unlike his others.
Ranee Lee
“When I wrote [or directed musicals] about Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, there was a lot of dirt – drugs, prostitution, Billie went to jail. There was a lot of juicy stuff to write about. But when I started writing about Mahalia, she was squeaky clean. So I realized that this show has to be about the music.”

That, and how instrumental Jackson was inspiring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In fact, it was during his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington that Mahalia Jackson shouted to Dr. King, “Tell them about the dream, Martin!”

Dr. King stopped delivering his prepared speech and started preaching, punctuating his lines with “I have a dream.”

Roger Peace himself only arrived in North America just six years before the March on Washington, when he sailed from London to Montreal in 1957 at the age of 21.

“I did repertory theatre at age16 and although I wasn’t a dancer, I got a part in the musical Call Me Madam [which opened in London’s West End at the London Coliseum in 1952],” Peace recalls.

“I didn’t decide to come to Canada, I just wanted to travel. I was going to go around the world and got as far as Montreal,” he says. “I came across on the [ocean liner] SS Columbia and it was such a dreadful experience – it was just after the Hungarian Revolution and the ship was full of people from Hungary who had never seen the sea – and everybody was on the deck vomiting. So I got off at the first stop, which was Quebec City, with $36 in my pocket and managed to get to Montreal and couldn’t get any further.”

Just 21 years-old, Peace experienced the tail-end of Montreal’s golden Sin-City era. “Montreal was quite fun in those days,” he says.
Peace would appear on TV (including one appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show), in night-clubs, on film and the stage. Later, as artistic director of Montreal's Snapshot Productions, he directed such musicals as Nunsense I and Nunsense II, as well as Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill. 
If there is one theme running through all of his work, it is – like Hollywood film director George Cukor – tough-as-nails women.
“I just like writing for women,” Peace explains. “I can’t get myself excited about a Frank Sinatra or Dean Martin. And the women are usually larger-than-life, strong women, and they are glamororus costume-wise. I just feel so much more comfortable writing about women than I do about men. I’ve never been attracted to writing about men.”

Michelle Sweeney
I want to know more about his late 1980s production of Ain’t Misbehavin’ at La Diligence dinner theatre co-starring another larger-than-life diva, soul singer Michelle Sweeney (currently fronting a jazz orchestra in Eurasia) alongside Montreal jazz legend Ranee Lee and hot young actors Anthony Sherwood and Damien Joe Clarke.

“I think that was my first show at La Diligence and these were well-known local people,” Peace recalls. “I always try to do a show with as many local people as I can, and somebody called me and said, ‘You got to go look at this girl Michelle Sweeney!’ I didn’t’ know her. And Ranee Lee I knew little about as she was starting to get a reputation at that time.”

Roger’s artistic partnership with Ranee would prove to be especially fruitful. 

“I remember when Lady Day was playing Off-Broadway – I didn’t write it, I directed it – and I went down to New York to see if I could get the rights for her,” Peace says. “Because I’d worked with Ranee in Ain’t Misbehavin’, I thought this would be the perfect vehicle for her. So I went down specifically to get it for her and we did it.”

Peace continues, “Ranee’s great. I think Mahalia is our sixth job together. I call her a quadruple threat and she is a terrific person to work with. She is a something of a muse for me.”

As for Ranee’s old Ain’t Misbehavin’ co-star Michelle Sweeney, Peace says, “Just this last year I wrote an Etta James show for her which she is doing bits of in Russia, it’s called Etta James: Down and Dirty. We’ve talked to the [Montreal] jazz festival about doing it, and when Michelle decides to come back [to Montreal] one day, we’ll do it then. She would be very good at it.”

As for his musical The Magic of Marlene about Dietrich, Peace – who co-founded the Montreal-based entertainment company Copa di Ora with Allan Sandler and Barry Garber in 2010 to develop new musicals for global audiences – says, “That’s on the back burner, but I’m writing it and have someone in mind for that, and I got my Judy Garland show ready to go. And I’ve just gotten the okay from Dame Shirley Bassey and her management to do a show about her.”

But Peace, now 77 years old, smiles ruefully.  

“In my old age I don’t know if I’m going to live long enough to get it all done,” he says. “As for Mahalia, I hope audiences will be entertained by the music – we even have a small gospel choir onstage – and I hope they discover how important she was to the U.S. civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

The Mahalia Jackson Musical premieres at Montreal’s Segal Centre for Performing Arts on March 7 (previews begin on March 3) and runs until March 24. Click here for more info and tickets.

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Video clip of The Mahalia Jackson Musical


  1. Wonderful article and so well written. Cheers.

  2. Thanks for your well written article and I am looking forward to the show.
    Gordon Jesus

  3. Roger continues to R-O-C-K........... Him and RANEE - what a team...........


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