|Chris Barillaro recording the Curtains Up theme with Roger Peace |
(Photo courtesy Curtains Up)
Following a lengthy battle with cancer, legendary Canadian theatre director Roger Peace died peacefully in the palliative care unit at the Montreal Jewish General Hospital on February 10.
Peace brought his love for live musical theatre to North America when he sailed from London to Montreal in 1957 aboard the ocean liner SS Columbia at the age of 21 and experienced the tail-end of Montreal’s famed and infamous golden Sin-City era.
The Montreal theatre scene wasn’t quite London’s West End, where Peace had landed a bit part in the musical Call Me Madam at the London Coliseum in 1952 at the age of 16. But he spent much of his professional life as a director and producer casting larger-than-life divas in his productions, notably his longtime muse, Montreal jazz legend Ranee Lee, and another of his favourites, soul singer Michelle Sweeney.
When another glorious diva, Juno Award-winning soul singer Kim Richardson, starred in his 2013 revival of Ain’t Misbehavin’ at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts, theatre critic Pat Donnelly wrote in the Montreal Gazette that Peace “directed Montreal’s first Ain’t Misbehavin’ at Le Stage dinner theatre at La Diligence restaurant in 1986. That one ran for more than a year and did a Canadian tour. There were only four singers, Michelle Sweeney, Ranee Lee, Dorian Joe Clark and Anthony Sherwood, with musical director Ari Snyder alone on piano.”
“We couldn’t afford a fifth performer,” Peace said.
Lee also starred in Peace’s hugely successful production of Lanie Robertson’s Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, which premiered at Club Soda at the Montreal International Jazz Festival in 1987. Lee’s performance as Billie Holiday in “Lady Day” would earn her a Dora Mavor Moore award after a lengthy run in Toronto. They would collaborate again, at the Segal in 2013, when Lee starred in The Mahalia Jackson Musical, written and directed by Peace (it was his 106th production).
|The 1986 cast of Ain't Misbehavin'|
Peace also wrote Piaf: Love Conquers All for Montrealer Patsy Gallant, and the acclaimed production won the Toronto Fringe Festival Award as Most Popular Show, The New York Fringe Festival Award for Best Musical and went on to a three-month run Off-Broadway.
Peace also wrote and directed the superb Songs and Stories of Judy Garland, which premiered at the Segal in 2014, starring Denise Rose as Judy Garland, based on Garland’s smash-hit performance at the Montreal Forum on October 29, 1961 – her one and only concert in Montreal. In the musical, Garland gives an interview to a magazine reporter backstage before the show begins.
“Oh my God, every queen in Montreal will be there!” I told Roger, who smiled.
“Oh, I hope so!” he said.
The musical arrangements for the Garland show were by Montreal pianist Chris Barillaro, who also co-starred in and was musical director of the Segal’s 2015 revival (by Montreal’s Copa de Oro Productions) of the hit 1990 Stuart Ross ensemble musical Forever Plaid about four guys killed in a car accident on their way to their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. Interestingly, Peace – who directed the musical – did a mime act as Mr. Pastry on the Sullivan show in the mid-1960s.
“I was very young and didn’t understand how important (playing the Sullivan Show) was until I started doing tours,” Peace told the Montreal Gazette. “And the signs would say “as seen on” or “directly from” the Sullivan show. I did a tour with Jimmy Durante. It was Jimmy Durante and Mr. Pastry. I had no idea how it was going to impact on my life.”
|Roger Peace and Ranee Lee|
Meanwhile, after his successful collaborations with Peace, Barillaro would sing the theme song for the popular Montreal arts and entertainment website Curtains Up (which I contribute to), a song written by Peace with orchestration by renowned jazz pianist Taurey Butler (watch the making-of videoclip below).
“Roger was a consummate professional who loved and lived musical theatre,” says veteran Montreal theatre critic Sharman Yarnell, who co-founded Curtains Up. “He loved Montreal and the small but vibrant theatre community here. Tuesday and Thursday nights he usually spent at our home having wine and nibblies – and he and (my late husband, actor) Walter (Massey) would talk of nothing but Broadway of the 50s and 60s. After Walter died, Roger looked after me. It is as simple as that. He was a true and steadfast friend who was always there for me. I will miss his caring face, his laughter, and gentle ways more than can be put in words.”
Another old friend, Michelle Sweeney, says Peace was one of the most ardent supporters of her career from the very beginning.
“What Roger did for me when I first came to Montreal – when we did Ain’t Misbehavin’ I was the young kid in the group, then he asked me to do Eubie with Geraldine Hunt – he started me off,” says Sweeney. “We did a lot of television together, he was my agent as well as my friend, and when I was in Kazakstan, we tried to write The Etta James Show. He was a great friend, both he and (his spouse) Pierre (Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier), and I sang at many parties at their house. I learnt to sing Send in the Clowns because of them, for their wedding (on July 30, 2005).”
Shortly before Peace passed away, Sweeney visited her old friend in hospital and sang him Send in the Clowns one more time: “I sang a little bit to him, he heard me and he smiled, he gave me a little laugh and I told him that I loved him.”
|Michelle Sweeney performing at the House of Jazz in August 2013. Seated at the front table (L to R): Roger Peace, Sharman Yarnell, Walter Massey and Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier (Photo by Richard Burnett)|
On her Facebook page, Peace’s longtime artistic muse Ranee Lee wrote on February 12, “I am by no means alone in the grief of the dimmed light for a rare and lovely flower-being, who is Roger Peace. His quiet heroism is now the apex of his many contributions. I am one of the many beneficiaries of his generous and courageous spirit and part of the bouquet of so many flowers that he has Artistically Arranged. We will miss you Roger, but I will carry you in my heart for the rest of my journey. Thank you.”
Peace had other works in development, notably The Magic of Marlene, based on the life of Marlene Dietrich, and a show on Shirley Bassey.
|The 2013 cast of Ain't Misbehavin'|
(Photo courtesy Segal Centre)
Peace and I had talked about his Dietrich show because an old friend of mine, Montrealer John Banks, was 15-years-old when he met Dietrich backstage during her run at Her Majesty's Theatre in Montreal back in 1960. In a memorable story, Dietrich hired Banks on Halloween night when he sassed back at her, and he became her personal assistant for the next 12 years. I offered to introduce John to Roger, but the timing was wrong.
But there was no doubting Roger's love for the great divas of song and stage.
“I do love my larger-than life divas,” Roger once told me. “I’ve always been attracted to writing for women, and directing women. I just can’t get excited about a Dean Martin or Frank Sinatra. But Piaf, Dietrich or Judy Garland? It’s so much easier and more fun writing musicals about these extraordinary women.”
Not to mention casting the likes of Ranee Lee, Michelle Sweeney and Kim Richardson.
“I’ve been extraordinarily lucky,” Roger said.
|Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier and Roger Peace at the |
House of Jazz, August 2013 (Photo
by Richard Burnett)
Peace is survived by his beloved spouse, renowned Montreal physician Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier, who posted on Facebook that a Celebration of Life Memorial will be held in Montreal this spring.
When Peace passed away, Tellier wrote, “This has been a rough day! Roger always said ‘You are never too poor to not have a bottle of champagne in the fridge for an emergency!’ This is an emergency! I will miss him so, but I must move on and honour his soul by adding more fun in my life.”
My heartfelt sympathies to Dr. Pierre-Paul Tellier and to Pierre and Roger’s friends and family. Thank you, Roger, for entertaining us all over many decades. Sleep well.
Visit Curtains up for news on the Roger Peace Celebration of Life Memorial, at curtainsup.tv.
Click here to read more about Roger Peace in the Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia.