Former Elmira man’s longtime desire to write a play about Richard Manuel bears fruit, with production slated for April
The music genius and defining struggles of one of The Band’s most prominent members will be brought to life on stage this spring as Manuel premieres at the Paul Davenport Theatre in London, Ont.
Richard Manuel, who sang, played piano, and composed music for The Band, was an original member from 1967 to 1976, and then again when the band reformed in 1983 until he died in 1986.
Playwright Glenn Grainger, formerly of Elmira, began writing the musical back in 2009 based on stories told to him by Manuel’s brother Al. Al used to teach at Elmira’s Park Manor Public School and Grainger had became friends with his daughter, Krista, and then later Al himself.
The story follows his musical career and his untimely death, when he took his own life after struggling with his mental health for years.
The play’s been a long time coming, with numerous concerts held to raise funds and also promote the project, but Grainger wanted to make sure he did it right.
“It has been a very up and down journey, but mostly very positive. The idea behind it was we always wanted to try to produce the play ourselves at a local, grassroots level and a community level here in London. We did these concerts to promote the project, but also we were looking for musicians who could actually play the music for the play. The Band were known as the musician’s musicians. To find the right mix of musicians and to find the right musicians with enough talent to pull it off was a process. We took a patient approach to it,” Grainger said.
They created a scholarship at Western University in Richard Manuel’s name about a year and a half ago. That opened the door for them to get interest from musicians who are either graduates of the Don Wright Faculty of Music at Western or they’re currently enrolled in programs there.
“We have a graduate of the program, we have a master’s student who’s at Don Wright right now and we have an undergraduate who studies performance at the Don Wright. We’ve got two other great musicians who can certainly hold their own and have a deep passion for the project and are wanting to help tell the story,” Grainger said.
Actor John Garlicki will play Al. The undergrad student at the Don Wright Faculty of Music, Stephen Ingram, will play Richard.
He says the cast is mostly local, helped by their partnership with Pacheco Theatre’s community theatre group. John Pacheco is directing the play.
The production draws heavily on The Band’s songs, naturally.
“There’s a lot of songs by Richard that he sang with The Band or songs that he wrote with The Band featured in the play. The Shape I’m In is one that people will know. Across the Great Divide is another one by The Band that people will know, and some of maybe his lesser known stuff. So it’s exciting to be able to shine a light on his talent,” Grainger said.
This marks the first play Grainger’s ever written. Since he started it he’s begun working on a couple others, but this will be the first to come to fruition.
“To be honest every challenge has been something that I look forward to because music is a passion of mine and telling the story of one of our most beloved musicians who came from Canada and came from our own backyard, grew up in Stratford,” Grainger said.
Grainger wasn’t always such a big fan of The Band. He was more interested in classic rock in his teens, but once he got into The Band he couldn’t get enough.
“I knew the family and I was friends with Krista, Al’s daughter, and that moment when I was 12 when we heard the news about Richard passing away, it’s one of those moments where you realize something’s going on, the adults are kind of muted about everything, but you can just kind of pick up from the vibe that something big has happened. And then as I got older I started to love the music and learn more about the story. That stayed with me for a lot of years,” Grainger said.
Aside from a love of The Band and being privy to stories about its members, he was inspired to write about Richard after working with local playwright and program manager for the Ontario Trillium Foundation, Kathleen Cleland Moyer in Kitchener. He says she got him thinking about how stories are all around us and you just have to be aware of your surroundings and what can be turned into good stories.
“I think it’s an important story because it hearkens back to a time when folks kind of kept things under the carpet a little bit, with mental health. And I think we’re coming to a time now where we’re realizing it’s good to talk, it’s good to tell these stories and hopefully it’ll resonate with people. And men especially tend to keep emotional issues to themselves because of stigma and maybe this play helps with that,” Grainger said.
He says it’s not a play necessarily about mental health, but there is definitely a message in there. There are also funny parts, stories Al’s told him about when he and Richard were children.
Part of the proceeds from the play will go toward the Richard G Manuel Music Award scholarship at Western University.
The London theatre community who’ve sat in on read-throughs of the play have been overwhelmingly positive and he’s excited to see how audiences react when it takes to the stage in April.
“First and foremost I want them to have a sense of how great an artist Richard Manuel was, as a songwriter, as a musician, as someone who was deeply committed to creating great music and somebody who really cared deeply about music and wanted to ensure that other people could hear his music and enjoy it. But also I’d like them to take away with them a sense that it’s okay to talk about mental issues that might be ailing you,” Grainger said.
Terry Danko, brother of The Band’s Rick Danko and who played with Ronnie Hawkins for many years and spent time with The Band is the special music consultant on the project.
Audience members are encouraged to come to the show early as there will be special selections of songs by The Band played by the play’s band that are not included in the play itself.
Manuel premieres at the Paul Davenport Theatre in London from Apr. 27-May 1, with a preview show on Apr. 26. Tickets are $35 and available at www.grandtheatre.com.