Playwright Glenn Grainger has spent the last seven years of his life researching and drafting scripts for his play, Manuel, the story of Richard Manuel, a founding member of the seminal North American rock/roots group The Band, as told through the eyes of Al Manuel, his last remaining brother.
Working alongside Grainger at various points for the past five years has been award-winning director John Pacheco, who has been getting ready for production and casting roles for its characters. This spring their partnership will culminate with the world premiere of Manuel, a joint production of Blues Canvas Concert Productions and Pacheco Theatre, at Western University’s Paul Davenport Theatre from April 26 to May 1.
For the uninitiated, The Band evolved out of The Hawks, the stellar back-up band that accompanied Canadian Music Hall of Fame member Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, a transplanted Arkansas rockabilly musician who found fame and fortune in his adopted country in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The original line-up consisted of American drummer Levon Helm and Canadians Robbie Robertson on guitar, Garth Hudson on keyboards, Rick Danko on bass, and Richard Manuel — all of whom hailed from southwestern Ontario.
After being chosen to accompany Bob Dylan on his “electric” tours in 1965 and 1966, the group moved to New York and released its critically-acclaimed debut album Music from Big Pink in 1968. The Band would record 10 studio albums, ending its run as the original configuration in 1976 with The Last Waltz farewell concert, immortalized in the Martin Scorsese documentary film. The group recommenced touring without Robertson in 1983, but finished with the untimely suicide of founding member Richard Manuel in 1986.
I spoke with playwright Glenn Grainger and director John Pacheco about the play, about Richard Manuel, rock and roll, the challenges of bringing Manuel’s life to the stage, and what audiences can expect. What follows is an abridged version of that discussion.
Who was Richard Manuel, and why does he merit a play written about him?
Glenn Grainger (GG) — Richard Manuel was an immense talent as a musician, songwriter and especially as a soulful vocalist. To this point, there has been a bewildering lack of canonization of his talent through storytelling. This play aims to kick open the door. The play focuses on Richard’s talent and also the relationship he had with his last remaining brother Al. Al was a teacher at my middle school in Elmira, Ontario. I knew the family quite well and was close friends with one of Al’s daughters. I have been a fan of The Band since my mid-teens. Since beginning the process of writing this play, I have got to know the extended members of the family, including Richard’s son.
Why have you chosen to tell the story through the eyes of Al Manuel?
GG — Fans of The Band can find out information about Richard’s public life quite readily via the internet, articles, and videos. There has been a good amount of information about his struggle with alcohol and other substances and his subsequent suicide. What is not well known to the public is the impact Richard’s struggles had on the family and in particular Al. So this is a once private family story that Al has had the courage to make public. Al understands the potential value this story will have to break down stigma and help others in finding the strength to talk about important issues that affect all of us. Al also has light and funny memories of his relationship with Richard that are included in the play. As Richard’s last remaining brother, Al is also one of the last remaining family connections to these stories. Al also connects us to a time in our local history, as the Manuel family was from Stratford.
Is this play a cautionary tale about fame and fortune and life on the road as a musician?
GG — More than just a cautionary tale, the play is about resolve and strength of the human spirit. What interested me as a writer and as someone who works in mental health, are the ways in which a brother finds strength to carry on after tragedy. Al’s life is an inspiring testament to how one keeps going. It is also a chronicle of how he has come to understand the way in which Richard lived and died.
Has there been any involvement by the surviving members of The Band?
GG — I have had two occasions to speak with Garth Hudson and I told him about the play. Garth was quite helpful in sharing background information related to Richard’s pure joy of making music. I have also spoken with Ronnie Hawkins. Robbie Robertson keeps a lower, more private profile. I have been provided with insights from long time cohorts about the incredible, positive emotional impact of Richard Manuel’s voice and music. Information about The Band in the play is provided only to give context and as a backdrop to the main storyline. Our play is about blood brothers.
Why has Pacheco Theatre chosen this particular play for its Spring 2016 production? Does the fact that this is the play’s world premiere bring any added pressure to this series of performances?
John Pacheco (JP) — When Glenn and I met through a mutual friend, Mike Froome, about five years ago, the script was still in its early stages and at that time, Glenn and I, along with several London actors did a read-through of that draft. Glenn was hoping to stage the play in 2012, but the timing just wasn’t right. After the first read-through, Glenn made more changes, thus creating our annual read-through with different actors over the last four years. Each draft drew us closer to where we are today. While going through the rewrites, we wanted to time the opening of Manuel with 2016, as it’s the 30th anniversary of Richard’s death on March 4.
I think presenting a play with Richard as the subject matter already comes with its own pressure to present the facts well, knowing how sensitive the material is and how well loved Richard and The Band are. So, yes, it being a world premiere does add pressure, and much like Glenn said, “This play aims to kick open the door.”
John, what can you tell me about casting for Manuel?
JP — Casting was an ongoing process for Manuel during our five-year collaboration. The play has 17 cast members, including some familiar names and newcomers. John Garlicki plays Al Manuel, while Stephen Ingram captures the essence of Richard Manuel.
GG — The five-piece band Driftwood was formed specifically to provide the music for Manuel. Band members are Stephen Ingram, Brandon McHugh, Greg Williams, Jeff Lupker, and Igor Saika.
Why is the play being staged at the Western University campus, as opposed to Pacheco Theatre’s usual location, McManus Theatre?
GG — The 400 seat Paul Davenport Theatre was chosen as it lends itself very well to the production of this particular play. Its facilities are simply outstanding.
What else should our readers know about Manuel?
GG — As well as dramatic through dialogue, the play is quite lively. Audience members should arrive early as the doors open an hour before each performance and live music will be played by Driftwood before each performance. Part of the proceeds of the play will go to support The Richard G. Manuel Music Award which goes to a well-deserving performance music student at the Don Wright Faculty of Music at Western University.
Terry Danko, the play’s Music Consultant and brother of Rick Danko, is a special guy and a special musician whose talent speaks for itself. He is intimately familiar with the music of the play having spent time in his brother Rick Danko’s band and having spent many years with Ronnie Hawkins. Terry was also present at Shangri La music studios in Malibu during the mid-’70s when The Band recorded there. He has performed on stage with Levon Helm and Garth Hudson. He also performed gigs with Richard Manuel in the late ’70s and early ’80s. It’s an honour to have him help our band Driftwood whose members are all proficient musicians themselves. Terry’s insight and help is invaluable. The guys have truly appreciated having him with us.
Manuel, a joint production of Blues Canvas Concert Productions and Pacheco Theatre, plays at Western University’s Paul Davenport Theatre from April 26 to May 1. Tickets are available through the Grand Theatre Box Office at grandtheatre.com, 519-672-8800.