Politics Imitates Art with 'The Best Laid Plans: A Musical'

A needed antidote in the age of #peegate, the show opens tonight in Vancouver.

By Shannon Rupp 19 Sep 2015 |

Shannon Rupp is a Tyee contributing editor. Find her previous Tyee pieces here.

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'The Best Laid Plans: A Musical' stars Andrew Wheeler as Angus, the reluctant candidate-for-office, and Nick Fontaine as Daniel, his young campaign manager.

In the wake of #peegate, it will be hard for any mere piece of musical theatre about political campaigns to be funnier than reality. But the Vancouver theatre companies behind The Best Laid Plans: A Musical are going to give it a try.

Peter Jorgensen who is directing the Vancouver show, says that far from feeling upstaged by the antics of those who would be MPs, he's feeling vindicated: life is imitating art nicely.

''Someone in rehearsal finds an article almost every day that is related to the story we're telling,'' Jorgensen says.

That story, based on Terry Fallis's Leacock Medal-winning 2008 novel, is about the absurdity of politics. In Fallis's alternate universe, the denizens of the Hill manage to be corrupt and hilarious in almost equal measure. And it has all become too much for our hero Daniel Addison, a disillusioned Liberal political strategist who tries to quit his job only to be sucked into doing one last election.

He agrees to find a token Liberal candidate to be sacrificed in a safe Tory riding. His new landlord Angus McLintock, a cranky Scottish ex-pat, turns out to be ideal. He's a professor who has views on how politics and government ought to run and he agrees to be a name on the ballot on the condition he can say what he wants and he's guaranteed not to win.

The two would seem to go together, but of course the public finds his candour refreshing, as did Fallis's readers: Angus is the honest candidate we all want.

''I think Angus is the reason that book is so well-loved,'' Jorgensen says. ''He's larger than life but he's still authentic -- he speaks from the heart. Angus is trying to do what is best for the nation and his constituents first. He's not thinking about what is best for himself.''

And wouldn't that be nice to find in a real-life politician? Which may be the secret of why Fallis's seven-year-old book always comes up for discussion again in election years: he won CBC's Canada Reads contest in 2011.

In that sense, you could call the co-production between Touchstone Theatre and Patrick Street Productions, which runs Sept. 19 to Oct. 3 at the York Theatre on Commercial Drive, a fantasy. Fallis's novel is a wry, gentle comedy that comes off as goofy rather than biting. Although it acknowledges the tawdry nature of politics -- fortunes turn on a politician's sex romp dubbed #diapergate -- it also captures the public's longing for something better.

That's what struck Jorgensen when he read the book during the last federal election: there's a hopeful note to it. It provided an antidote to his other reading material at the time, Lawrence Martin's disturbing Harperland: The Politics of Control.

Electoral song-and-dance

Given that Jorgensen's company specializes in musical theatre, he also thought the book's generous spirit and optimism would translate nicely into a musical comedy. So he ran the idea by Katrina Dunn, artistic director of Touchstone Theatre, who co-founded the In Tune conference. It's a biennial event of new musical theatre shows in development, panels and master classes all aimed at advancing that oh-so-rare thing, the Canadian musical.

''I think we have the talent here to do musicals but we don't have the infrastructure for developing them,'' says Dunn, explaining why she launched In Tune. She adds that her concerns are more than just artistic.

''Audiences are passionate about musicals, so they're the economic drivers for theatre companies: they do a musical at Christmas to generate the funds to pay for that new Canadian play in January,'' she says. ''I think it would be amazing if the musical was Canadian too, and all those royalties were going to Canadian creators.''

Touchstone has developed and produced new plays for 40 years, and she says Canadians have a great track record when it comes to original theatre, except for this one blind spot.

We have nothing like the Americans' rich tradition of serious Broadway musicals, including classics like 1927's Showboat, which explores racism, or 1957's West Side Story, which looks at urban gang warfare. Meanwhile in the West End, Brits can count more than a century spent churning out everything from the tongue-twisting tunes of Gilbert and Sullivan to operettas, to rock operas, to Andrew Lloyd Webber and his falling chandelier spectacles.

As for Canada's contribution to the art form, everyone remembers Anne of Green Gables: The Musical, which has been running in Charlottetown since 1965. That makes it the longest running musical theatre production in the world, according to Guinness (and Wikipedia).

But beyond that, the Canuck triumphs with song-and-dance have been few and far between. The Cultch's 1978 production, Billy Bishop Goes to War, about the World War I flying ace comes to mind as one show that played to international acclaim. More recently the Toronto-made musical The Drowsy Chaperone (1998) won awards on Broadway and in the West End -- but it's worth noting that the latter is a takeoff on American musicals in the 1920s.

Laying cross-country plans

Musical theatre just doesn't seem to be a Canadian thing, which is why most artists with a talent for the genre leave the country. Jorgensen, who studied in Capilano University's jazz program, eventually went to New York to further his training. He worked off-Broadway before returning to Vancouver.

But he and Dunn are hoping that The Best Laid Plans will be a Canadian-made musical with broad appeal. It's a big investment for the two small companies -- it took about $200,000 to develop the show, which is roughly twice the cost of Touchstone's average play.

It's a relatively big show, with a cast of 10 and five musicians. It also has a trio of creators: the book is by Governor-General award-winning playwright Vern Thiessen; music and lyrics are by Benjamin Elliott and Anton Lipovetsky. Dunn served as the show's dramaturg (a kind of editor for new plays).

Dunn and Jorgensen are gambling that their investment will pay-off with a cross-country tour since many companies are on the lookout for a homegrown musical with a distinctively Canadian flavour. They're also hoping a little of Fallis's good fortune will rub off on them.

Fallis, now on his fifth book, tells anyone who asks that he is the luckiest guy ever. He made what looked like a miraculous jump from communications consultant to bestselling novelist seven years ago via an unlikely new medium: podcasting.

The former political aide knew he had a story to tell about the hijinks that come with a federal election, but like most first-time novelists, he couldn't get an agent to read his manuscript -- let alone a publisher. At the time, ebooks, Amazon, and the collapse of bookstores was driving publishing houses into bankruptcy or mergers. There were hardly any houses to pitch, and no one was about to invest in a novice novelist with a charming Canadian story.

So Fallis fell back on what he knew -- marketing -- and he took it to the people. He delivered his novel free, chapter by chapter, on the theory that listeners who enjoyed the podcast would buy the book. They did. Encouraged by that, he submitted it for the Leacock Medal, and the win got him a contract with a publisher. The podcast is still available on iTunes, along with the sequel to The Best Laid Plans and his three other books. (In 2015, Fallis proved he wasn't just lucky when he won the Leacock Medal again, this more recent time for No Relation).

Small screen stumble

Fallis and his book were living a charmed life until The Best Laid Plans was adapted as a CBC TV show in 2014 -- and tanked. Perhaps because the honourable Daniel is too nice a character for the era of dark-and-edgy anti-heroes. Or maybe the producers fumbled, stretching the book across six episodes and adding their own filler? Whatever the reason, critics couldn't condemn it enough.

Vice took exception to everything about it, including the CBC failing to mention the hero's Liberal pedigree. Alan Jones called the series ''…the sort of wish-washy middlebrow garbage that's afraid to take sides.''

Then he got warmed up: ''The average voters of The Best Laid Plans… are just apathetic drones, waiting to be inspired by some centre-left sentiment delivered charismatically from an eccentric Scotsman.''

Maybe Jones is a Tory? Regardless of why he hated the series, a year later he makes Fallis and the show's producers sound psychic. Replace ''Scotsman'' with ''Quebecer'' and you could be talking about our current reality.

As the news stories break, it's hard to imagine Jorgensen and Dunn finding a better tale to tell during this long journey to the polls. Not only does The Best Laid Plans offer us some much-needed laughs, it delivers some perspective.

No matter how much damage those rat-bastards have done, we can take some comfort in knowing that at least bad politicians can inspire good art.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Music, Elections

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