Collaboration is always a complicated process that can ruin the best of showbiz partnership. Somehow Toronto’s Neil Bartram and Brian Hill have managed to juggle love, sex and playwriting without resorting to divorce or homicide. Together for 13 years after meeting as costars in the musical Forever Plaid, they’ve come up with a foolproof solution for long-term harmony.
“We work in separate rooms,” says Hill, laughing. “It’s worked out really well for us.”
“We sit and talk about what we want to accomplish in the scene,” adds Bartram, “and then we go off on our own. I’m the writer of the music and the lyrics, so that’s a self-contained entity for the most part.”
With Hill pounding out dialogue in his office and Bartram crafting melodies at the piano, the two have managed to create works like Not Wanted On The Voyage and the new Susan H Schulman musical Clara’s Piano. The world premiere of the duo’s “musical in one act,” a story of life-long friendship and sudden loss called The Story Of My Life, opens Thu, Nov 2 at CanStage.
The play introduces us to a writer named Thomas as he returns home for the unhappy duty of eulogizing his recently deceased childhood friend Alvin. Thomas has made quite a life for himself after leaving their hometown, winning awards for his best-selling books until being brought short by a vicious case of writer’s block.
As he struggles with the eulogy, Thomas is visited by Alvin’s spirit, who pulls the beleaguered scribe back through their 30-year history to tell the deceased man’s story.
What emerges is tale of an unlikely alliance between two misfits, facilitated by a sympathetic first-grade teacher. Facing the perils of elementary school together, Thomas and Alvin’s bond is forged through a shared feeling of being lonely outcasts from the brutal world of juvenile hierarchy.
Alvin (played by Jeffrey Kuhn), a free spirit raised by a single father after his mother’s early death, seems contentedly out of touch with his contemporaries. He is drawn to the quiet, pensive Thomas (Tony-winner Brent Carver). They find solace and companionship with each other, sharing confidences and making snow angels during those magical childhood winters that seemed to go on forever.
But the closest schoolday friendships are often rent asunder by the onslaught of adolescence and adulthood. Thomas and Alvin find themselves on very different paths. Alvin still chases butterflies and obsesses about his dead mother, content — if unhappy — to be the town’s gay misfit. Thomas moves to the big city in pursuit of college and a relationship with future fiancée Ann. The two friends lose touch.
When news of Alvin’s death reaches Thomas, he knows he has to make peace with the past before he can rediscover his inspiration.
“It’s this intimate little show that hopefully people can relate to,” Bartram says. “I think all of us have known an Alvin or a Thomas.”
“We both have had relationships and friendships that, when you look back on them, helps inform who we are now,” says Hill. “That’s the thing that triggered the writing of this — realizing we all have people like that in our lives.”
But given the title, whose life story is this? Both men dodge, but when pressed, Bartram finally cracks. “At the very genesis of this, I think I’m Alvin and Brian is Thomas,” he confesses, “and yet of course there are times where that interchanges.”
Helping the two dance the fine line between character development and real life is director Michael Bush, former artistic director of the Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC). Bush became involved very early on after hearing Bartram perform at a showcase he was producing, and becoming entranced with the composer’s sweet melodies and quirky lyrics. The song Bartram performed, “Mrs Remington,” later became a major number in the play as it began to take shape.
“Neil’s song was one of the few numbers where I asked the composer, instead of an actor, to perform the piece,” says Bush. “He stopped the show. I told him that, of all the 18 songs presented, I thought his was the best — despite three of them being written by my own partner!”
Thus began a two-year collaboration, with Bush meeting Hill and Bartram every few months to monitor their progress and offer suggestions for rewrites.
“I changed my life to do The Story Of My Life,” says Bush, who overlapped a gig directing the Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater production of Murderers with his current duties. “I knew I couldn’t just let it go.
“I’m drawn to the humanity of it, and the fact that this piece mirrors my own experience,” he says. “I had an Alvin, a friendship from my childhood that’s very similar to this, so I instinctively understood it.
“It reminded me that you’ve got to find the joy in every day, and I think that’s at the essence of this piece. These two characters found the joy of the moment as children, and then they lose it as they get older. Life does that to us.”
Bush speaks from experience, having recently given up the security of steady employment with the MTC to pursue his own dream of directing rather than focussing on the administrative side of things.
“I was holding onto some sort of false sense of security that life doesn’t hold for anybody,” he says. “When I resigned MTC and became a freelance director, I had only this show to do. Within three weeks I had five.
“If someone would have said to me that I would let my weekly salary go and have to get health insurance for myself I wouldn’t have believed it. There’s something to be said for letting go.”
Bartram and Hill are particularly grateful for Bush’s nurturing presence, pointing out that relations between writers and directors are frequently less than rosy.
“An antagonism can build up between directors and writers when each wants to tell a different story,” says Bartram. “But Michael connects to this story in a crucial way. Since the day we’ve met, he’s understood what we wanted to do with this piece and it’s been nothing but a joyful experience.”
Now that the musical has finally reached the stage, its creative parents are doubly pleased at the calibre of talent appearing in the lead roles. Nabbing Toronto treasure Brent Carver (Kiss Of The Spider Woman, The Lord Of The Rings) for the role of Thomas was a quite a coup for the trio as was finding their ideal Alvin in New York-based Canadian (and friend) Jeffrey Kuhn (the Stratford stalwart was most recently on Broadway in Wicked).
“For us it’s a fragile little thing,” says Bartram. “We always liken it to taking your baby and putting it in the town square for people to throw rocks at.
“It’s a blessing to have a director and actors that treat the play in a respectful way. We’re lucky that we’ve got such great help.”