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A brief shining moment

A brief shining moment

It could’ve been a classic. So why did a high-flying NWT musical miss its chance?
By Tim Edwards
Jan 14
2019
From the December 2014 Issue

The year is 1978 and you’re sitting in math class on a Monday morning in February. Through the window, Yellowknife, a city of just 10,000, is obscured by dark and snow. There won’t be light for a few hours yet, and it’s hard to keep awake. The bell rings, and you wander through St. Patrick High School to your locker. In amongst the bellbottom pants, flannel tops, huge glasses and long hair, there are gold miners and government workers passing you in the halls, looking as if they came straight out of the 1940s. And as you near the gym, where these adults and some students are headed, you hear the voices of dozens of people, far more awake and alert than you, break into song. Peeking into the gym in this reverie, you see them assembled in a huge reconstructed log cabin, and you hear the dreamy, lilting chorus: “…And two lips that say forever, our two hearts will be together. Two hands and forever; one…true…love.” Peeking through that door, you might think, “This seems way bigger than just a school play.”

More than 35 years ago, Yellowknife almost produced Canada’s next great musical: 22 scenes making up two acts, played out over two-anda- half hours, dotted with 23 original songs sung by close to 95 actors. Its soundtrack was pressed onto vinyl in anticipation of an opening night that was attended by all the political and business brass North of 60—movers and shakers like territorial commissioner Stuart Hodgson, and Bud Drury, a regular player in prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet. It travelled to Whitehorse, and the CBC talked about bringing it to the national stage, either through broadcast or a show at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. “It was a big deal,” says Bonnie Dickie, a radio journalist at the time, and a performer in the play. It had almost all the opportunity a new production could ask for. It got bigger than it was ever meant to be, and would’ve gotten even bigger if things had played out just a little bit differently. 

***

“I’d been doing theatre [in Yellowknife] since 1970,” says director Alex Czarnecki. “I demanded a lot from people. You have to be a bit of a benevolent dictator, you know, when you’re directing something. And people loved it. People committed.” At a house party in the fall of 1977, Czarnecki got talking to Robin Beaumont and Graham Hall—“Two wonderful guys,” says Czarnecki. Hall was the area manager for CBC, though he’d been involved in theatre in England. Beaumont worked for the city, but his background was in composition. He’d worked on musicals with famed composer Leslie Bricusse in England, and the two also wrote songs for Sammy Davis Jr. At this party, Hall the writer and Beaumont the co-writer/composer pitched an idea to Czarnecki for a local musical they’d called Two Hands and For Ever. It would be a show about life and love in Yellowknife’s early days, and the town’s hard-luck sense of community, they told him. Czarnecki joined them at Beaumont’s apartment the next day and they sang him some of the songs; a few days later, they regrouped with more singers, and the ball was rolling. “The music was great,” says Czarnecki, and it was mostly written, if just in Beaumont’s head. But the script was, as Czarnecki puts it, “a box with just bits and pieces.”

Czarnecki, a teacher at St. Pat’s high school, agreed to take it on as a school play. There were pieces that needed to come into place fast. “You can get wonderful people [acting],“ he says, "but if you haven’t got the production team to back that up, wow, it’s finished.” He assembled the costumes, make-up and construction teams locally. He got master carpenter Ed Oberst to manage the construction of a set that would transform the school gym, and later the theatre in Whitehorse, into a replica of the Wildcat Café, a symbol of Yellowknife’s Old Town since 1937, when it was built by John Mainland “Smokey” Stout and Willy Wylie. The larger-than-life set for Two Hands and For Everreproduced the café’s peaked roof and log walls, and reached out above and around the audience seating. “You became part of what’s on stage,” says Czarnecki. “You were sucked into that just by where you were sitting.”

The school board liked the idea of the play, and wanted to open it up to the community. Soon, teachers and miners and parents were on board, and the production grew in scope. “What normally would be a 16-week rehearsal [schedule], turned into half a year,” says Czarnecki. The characters were rejigged constantly, and the script rewritten in late-night sessions. Some great actors were bad singers, and vice versa, and the production team had to make the music fit the cast. It wasn’t easy.

“When people start sensing any kind of falling-apart at the executive level on these things, morale starts to fade,” says Czarnecki. “I could never ever, ever reveal that things behind the scenes weren’t always rosy.” He fought with Beaumont and Hall over what to add, what needed to be cut, what songs could stay, what scenes needed to be overhauled because they’d looked good on paper, but didn’t work on the stage. “We had these battles, but it never ended up in animosity.”

The school board’s support for the project strengthened as the production geared up; they’d become its executive producers. Two and a half weeks into rehearsals, the board arranged for an album of the soundtrack to be recorded and pressed. “Crumb balls. We hardly knew the songs,” says Czarnecki. “But it had to be done within that timeframe because CBC was free [to do it].” By March, the whole school had become a production centre, and students were sent to the city’s other high school for some of their classes. And in April 1978, the play hit the stage. “This thing was nowhere near ready.” But if you were hearing about it in the south, you’d think they’d blasted a channel through the ice and rock and rebuilt Broadway.

The 1970s were a time of momentum in Canadian theatre. In 1971, a group of leading Canadian playwrights signed the Gaspé Manifesto in Quebec as part of an effort to ensure half of Canada’s theatre productions were Canadian content by 1973. They never reached that goal, but that decade certainly saw a marked increase—and interest—in Canadian content. So when tales spread of a new original musical way up North, the stories took hold.

“It was no longer a show in Yellowknife,” says Czarnecki. “It was a new Canadian musical. That’s how it got noticed in Edmonton and in Toronto—‘What the hell is Yellowknife doing with a new Canadian Broadway musical?’ The heat was on to make this into something worthy of the preliminary word that was getting out there.” The problem was, no matter the hype, it was just a community production, with all a community production’s trappings. “It was being built up beyond what it was, and [Beaumont’s] intentions were never to do that—he just wanted to do a local show,” says Czarnecki. So here was a show with a last-minute script and amateur actors, and half a year previous it was just an idea. Yet the CBC was talking about broadcasting it nationally, and rumours swirled of it going on national tour. All before an opening night that Czarnecki thought would be a disaster. But it wasn’t.

*** 

The Curtain opens and a man in a tassled moosehide jacket walks onto stage singing the first song, “It’s a great big land.” Others join him and they sing of the North’s Genesis-like birth, and the arrival of the caribou and then humans, and we leap forward into the 1940s. Three love stories take shape—between a bush pilot and a wily French-Canadian waitress, between a prospector and a prostitute, and between an old minister and the show’s main character, Flo, the Wildcat Café’s fictional proprietress. But by the end of the first act, the economy has crashed and Giant Mine has begun laying off its miners. People start leaving the North. The second act kicks off with the discovery of a new gold vein near Giant—one that’s “two hands wide and goes on forever.” Our lovers return to live their dreams, and they do so, happily ever after.

“It’s a knockout,” wrote the Yellowknifer—“visually, vocally and, often, emotionally.” Said the short-lived Arctic in Colour: “[It] contained the essentials of a truly Northern play.” The Edmonton Journal said: “History will be made.” The audience loved it. Czarnecki remembers being amazed when they walked out singing the songs—songs about being able to order anything from the south through a catalogue, but none of that mattering if they didn’t have the one they loved; about turning down a man’s date request and not giving a damn; songs about the soulless Ottawa bureaucrats; about dreams of a city where “the gold is paved with streets.” The momentum held, and the play even flew to Whitehorse in two DC-3s, one Hercules and a Twin Otter. But when it came time to take it further, reality kicked in for the amateur staff and cast. “It could have become quite an important new Canadian musical,” says Czarnecki, now a filmmaker. “But what do you do? Can you imagine suddenly being given this wonderful encouragement to rewrite that and take it on a national tour and play it in Ottawa? You’ve got a job, you have bills to pay. How do you do that? … We were all thrilled but we just couldn’t do it.”

So that’s where it ended. In 2009, there was talk of the play being revived for Yellowknife’s 75th anniversary celebrations (initiated by former CBC radio journalist David Miller), but the money fell through and with it so did the plans. But the album still exists in some people’s collections, as do the sheet music and bits and pieces of script. It’s just waiting, says Czarnecki, to be resurrected.