For the last few weeks, I have been up in my old stomping grounds, Whitehorse, pursuing what I often did when I lived here in the 80s and early 90s – bringing a theatrical dream to life. Back then, it was most often an established show, or sometimes a script of mine with music from long ago. This time it’s different. And it’s undoubtedly the most complex project I have ever put together.
Any of the millions of passengers who have ridden the White Pass and Yukon Route – “the scenic railway of the world” – in the 117 years since its completion (and I know that includes many Uxbridgers), would immediately recognize it as a marvellous technological achievement. Indeed, the WPYR is recognized as an International Civil Engineering Landmark, on a par with the Panama Canal, the Eiffel Tower or the Golden Gate Bridge.
What the vast majority of those passengers will not have realized, however, is that the mastermind behind the railway’s creation was the son of poor Irish immigrants in Ontario’s Ottawa River valley. That he ran away from the family farm at 14 to work on the CPR. That over the years he learned every job on the construction line, and at only 25, was the principal contractor on a major railway in Washington state. That he was on the pier in Seattle when the steamer Portland docked and touched off the greatest gold rush in history. That he was only 33 when he agreed to build an “impossible” iron road across the White Pass into the Yukon to serve that gold rush. That despite countless obstacles large and small, presented by man and Mother Nature, he drove the last spike at Caribou Crossing only two years, two months and two days after laying the first track on Broadway in Skagway. And that before his 46th birthday, he died as a result of a shipwreck in the Inside Passage, bringing supplies to another railway project along Alaska’s Copper River.
The story of Michael J. Heney is intrinsically theatrical: a larger-than-life hero, achievements against the odds, beating the bad guys, tragic death. And so, more than a year ago, Yukon composer Matthew Lien and I determined to bring that story to life in a grand piece of musical theatre. It’s called “Stonecliff,” after the small village of Heney’s birth (but also after the major obstacle he faced in building the railway), and it will premiere here at the Yukon Arts Centre on November 17, as well as touring to Anchorage, Skagway and Dawson City.
Creating Heney’s story for the stage was a hugely complicated endeavour. He became known to his men as the “Irish Prince” – his heritage was very important to him – so the score is played on traditional Irish folk instruments, but incorporating the ragtime and “tin pan alley” styles so intrinsic to the time and place of the WPYR’s construction. Matthew’s songs for the play incorporate a wide diversity of styles. There is a lively Irish folk dance to open the show, a driving railway workers’ theme, an original rag, a comic song for the Klondikers as they disembark (drunk with glory and maybe some other things) on the Seattle pier, a piercing Celtic lament for a lost foreman along the line, and a haunting ballad for Heney as he contemplates his future. Some of the lyrics are sung in Gaelic or in Tlingit (from Skagway to Carcross, the railway traverses traditional Tlingit territory), so experts in those languages were brought on board for translation, and to coach the actors in pronunciation.
Writing a play is often about deciding which fascinating characters to include, and which to leave out. As it is, “Stonecliff” has more than 40 speaking roles, played by only 10 actors, who change personas as often as they do costumes.
Writing a historical play also requires hours of research, making sure, for example, that the details of railway construction in the dialogue and lyrics are true to the period, and to that particular project, and finding a balance between enough railway lingo to make the show interesting and authentic, but not so much as to lose the audience.
Theatrical success also lies in finding the right collaborators to make the costumes and props, to create the dances which will keep the stage alive, and to design the projections which will create convincing environments for the actors to work in. Musical theatre is the art form with the broadest variety of artists combining their creative visions, making it both extremely challenging, and very satisfying when it comes together.
Some of the “Stonecliff” team are from my new home in the Ottawa Valley. But most of them are from the Yukon. It’s been more than two decades since I directed a show here, so when I flew up in May to conduct auditions, I had no idea what to expect, especially since the play requires so many men, and men are usually scarce in community theatre. But I was delighted at the turnout, as I was when the Yukon corporate community also gave strong support. Rehearsals have been going well, and I expect a grand success.
Before I sign off, I must not forget a very special group of supporters who have been instrumental in getting this project off the ground. They’re not from the Yukon, or from Heney’s Ottawa Valley homeland. A lot of them haven’t even been involved in theatre before. But all of them are cherished Uxbridge friends, who have stood by me as I’ve tilted at windmills before, and despite that, have chosen to do so again. So to Dave Jones, Frank Chown, Randy Hickey, George and Barb Pratt, Lynn and Jerry Gaetz, Glen Chapman, Elinor Cole, Barb Murphy, Carol Guinane and most of all, to my dear Lisa, thank you for helping me chase this dream.
And I hope all of you get an opportunity to see “Stonecliff” someday. Take my word, it’s a wonderful show.