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New musical explores life of Canada’s first prime minister

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The executive producer and co-writer of a new musical honoring Canada’s first prime minister believes Americans have always been better storytellers where historical figures are concerned.

“I just think Americans are adept at telling their historical stories in a way that’s compelling, and we’re not,” said James Garrard of the Kingston, Ontario-based Salon Acting Company. “We’re hoping, with this show, to address that disparity.”

“Sir John, Eh? The Musical” tells the story of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald (1815-1891), who lived in Kingston and is buried there. Mr. Macdonald is also called Canada’s Father of Confederation.

He was a colorful character. Canadian journalist and political scholar Arthur Milnes, who created the Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission, has called him a “lovable rascal.” The commission is presenting the musical.

“It’s a little like the Lincoln bicentennial up here,” Mr. Garrard said of the celebrations for 2015 noting the birth of Mr. Macdonald.

The new musical comedy, which is “not without tears,” runs Wednesday through Saturday at Kingston’s Grand Theatre, 218 Princess St.

Mr. Garrard described the music in “Sir John, Eh?” as a mixture of “21st century indie rock meets 19th century Victorian folk music.”

Along with Mr. Garrard the show was written by Salon Acting Company members Grant Heckman, Anna Sudac and Spencer Evans. Mr. Garrard said the acting company has been building the show since 2009 with numerous workshops and in vignettes performed at Kingston’s Sir John A. Walking Tours held in summers.

Mr. Garrard said that following its Kingston shows, a national tour is possible within a couple of years.

“The musical deals with his personal and public life, warts and all,” Mr. Garrard said.

Mr. Macdonald was born in Scotland and emigrated with his parents to Canada at age 5. He eventually became a lawyer and in 1835 opened a legal practice in Kingston that became one of Canada’s busiest. He was appointed prime minister in 1867 and served two terms before his Conservative party was forced to resign and he lost the election of 1874. He regained power in 1878 and in March of 1891 won his fourth consecutive electoral victory. He died three months later and is buried in Kingston’s Cataraqui Cemetery.

The burial site is center to the plot of “Sir John, Eh?,” which is set in the present day. It opens with a struggling band of young musicians who are filming a music video on a summer’s night in Cataraqui Cemetery.

“The leader of the band asks the band to stop on their way to their next gig in Montreal because she’s fulfilling her grandfather’s dying wish: go to the graveyard, take a bottle of whiskey and pour it on his grave,” Mr. Garrard said.

Among ghosts they encounter are the ones of Mr. Macdonald and his first wife, Isabella. The band members accuse him of ruining the country, and subsequently their lives.

Mr. Garrard said the musical purposely targets the younger generation with hopes of getting them involved in how they are governed.

“Young people everywhere are pretty cynical about how they are governed these days, and we think that’s dangerous,” Mr. Garrard said. “Even though we are doing comedy, we have a serious, underlying purpose, which is to engage our young people in thinking about politics, history and how they are governed.”

Mr. Garrard said that if it wasn’t for Mr. Macdonald, young Canadians could very well be learning American history in classrooms.

“In the Macdonald era, there was a great fear that Canada was going to be absorbed into the United States,” he said. “Macdonald was a champion of Canadian independence.”

But among the “warts” the musical explores is the resignation of Mr. Macdonald’s government in 1874, mainly due to “shady dealings” involving the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

But first and foremost, Mr. Garrard said, “Sir John, Eh?” is all about entertaining people.

“The music is interesting and very well performed,” he said, and it’s a show that will get people singing and tapping their toes.

“If that show happens to be about history and politics, there may be some residue there that’s worth having,” he said.

The details
WHAT: Sir John A. Macdonald Bicentennial Commission presents “Sir John, Eh? The Musical” by Salon Theatre Company.
WHEN/WHERE: Six shows — 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 10 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. Friday; and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Grand Theatre, 218 Princess St., Kingston, Ontario.
COST: Ticket prices are $25 for students, $45 for adults and $35 for senior citizens plus consumption tax and handling fee. To order tickets, call Grand Theatre at 1 (613) 530-2050 or go to its website at http://kingstongrand.ca/
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