Patsy Gallant says she got her latest role the way any struggling actor does. “I auditioned,” she explains. One might think that a singer and performer as well known and experienced as Gallant might get offered a role, but she is quick to point out that such a career path means constant work and vigilance.
“That’s the business. But you know what? When I went into the audition and read for the part in Lies My Father Told Me, I could see how strong the show is, and I really wanted that part.”
Gallant landed the role of Edna, the local prostitute who evades the police while charming the men of Montreal’s Jewish district in the 1920s (the neighbourhood now known as Mile End). The musical, held over until May 29 at Montreal’s Segal Centre, is the latest incarnation of a short story by Ted Allan.
It was a CBC radio play (starring William Shatner), a Yiddish-language musical, and most famously a Golden Globe-winning, Oscar-nominated movie in 1975. Allan’s story nostalgically depicts the life of poor immigrant Jews in Montreal, through the eyes of a young boy.
Gallant says playing a prostitute came easily. “I just played myself! No, I’m kidding. I really liked the part, and I think the play is worthy of Broadway. The funny thing about my part is I spend a lot of time with the children in the play, but they don’t really know what I’m up to. They just think I’m a bit eccentric.” While preparing, she declined to watch the ’75 film, which was a groundbreaking hit for Canadian cinema at the time of its release: “I wanted to do my own thing. I’ll watch it now, though.”
Gallant is an institution in Quebec. The New Brunswick native settled in Quebec with her family as a young child. She sang along with her siblings in the group called the Gallant Sisters. She went solo in 1967 and eventually hosted her own variety TV program, The Patsy Gallant Show. But it’s her disco cred that gay fans will always remember, in particular the mega hit “From New York to LA,” which has become a dancefloor classic, followed by “Sugar Daddy.”
“I was on the British program Top of the Pops twice performing that song,” Gallant recalls. “You know, I don’t really look back at that time. I live in the present. I didn’t really have time to think about it back then. You only realize the impact many years later.”
And Gallant says the times weren’t always so good. “The toughest part about this business is making sure you’re working, making money for rent and to eat. In the ’80s, I went through a very harsh time. I got divorced, lost my TV show, was sued by my manager. The recording business was going through a black hole when cassettes came in. I had a young son I had to provide for.”
That’s when Gallant tried her hand at live theatre and found herself in demand as a stage actress, performing in such hits as Nunsense and Starmania. “It was as simple as my saying to myself, ‘Why don’t I try that?’ Being in show business means you’re constantly having to reinvent yourself.”
And Gallant says that even when things looked dire, her gay fans never left her side, something she’ll never forget. “I feel so lucky to have them! I have performed several times at Divers/Cité in Montreal. I guess it’s because gay men love divas. And women who dress up. And on my show I used to wear dresses with a slit up to my waist, so there you are. I love those fans right back.
“My son has noticed how many gay fans I have. He turned to me and asked me once, ‘Mom, do you have any women fans?’”