Stan Rogers would be 50 this summer -- still the loudest voice in any room, no doubt, passionately committed to, well . . . something. He was that kind of guy. That booming voice was stilled in August of 1983, in the notorious Air Canada fire on the tarmac at Cincinnati, Ohio, when Rogers was only 33 but already recognized as one of the great Canadian singer-songwriters.
In the 17 years since Cincinnati, his presence has never faded. That's a tribute to how much his songs mean to those who sing and hear them. But for every Canadian who can (drunkenly or not) shout out "I'm a broken man on a Halifax pier (from Barrett's Privateers) or, like Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson, quote the visionary "tracing one warm line through a land so wide and savage" (from Northwest Passage), there are probably a dozen who have never heard of Stan Rogers and his songs. This summer in Toronto, a theatre company wants to help change that with Stan Rogers: A Matter of Heart, a production opening July 13 (previews begin today) at the St. Lawrence Centre's Jane Mallett Theatre.
"They're not going to see a biography of Stan, that's not what it's about," says associate musical director Paul Mills. "It's a musical revue. Stan's music was dramatic; it translates to the stage beautifully. He wrote story songs about ordinary folks and the drama in their lives. He sang the songs with strength and conviction. It's the same here. Four characters come alive through his songs."
Think Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Or better. Musical director Bob Ashley has done four or five productions of Brel. "Stan Rogers draws on a wider scope," he says. "I knew nothing of him. I'm from theatre -- Stephen Sondheim, Rogers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter. But these lyrics are so well-written, they are so universal, they speak so directly, from the heart. It's just wonderful, wonderful stuff."
Dan MacKay, Frank MacKay, Terry Hatty and Charlotte Moore are the performers who will take the songs to the stage. They're backed by a six-member band (including Ashley and Mills) who also drift in and out of the Stan Rogers stories-in-song.
Musically, it's a fortunate twinning of theatre and folk. Mills, once a stalwart producer at CBC Radio ( Touch the Earth; Scales of Justice), now a record producer/engineer, and co-owner of a small record company, was one of Stan Rogers's closest friends, producing his albums and often playing guitar with him on-stage. Ashley, in addition to being the answer to a Canadian music trivia question (yes, Bob Ashley gave up the piano bench to Burton Cummings in the Shakin' All Over-era Guess Who), has been a highly visible contributor to Toronto music theatre for years. Their collaboration has been enthusiastic. "Paul brought his sensibilities," Ashley says, smiling, "and we met in the middle."
That means some new shadings on Rogers songs, and new interpretations. Rogers was 6 foot 4, barrel-chested and known for blasting out refrains in an invincible baritone, but, as Moore proves, his songs respond beautifully to the nuances of a woman's voice.
Director and producer Jim Betts was artistic director at Theatre Orangeville when Stan Rogers: A Matter of Heart -- conceived by Diane Stapley and Vince Metcalfe -- took its first steps in 1998. The show has grown in each of three productions since. "We have a living, breathing theatre piece," he says, expressing the same sort of passion that Stan put into writing these songs. Rave reviews for the Hamilton production this April convinced Betts and partners to try Toronto, where they'll be fighting for an audience that's already being pumped to attend The Lion King and Mamma Mia!. Betts, frankly, is counting on word of mouth, positive reviews and a modest, proudly Canadian promotional campaign.
"No, it's not Mamma Mia! and it is not The Lion King," the voice on the phone laughs from Hamilton. "But I am hoping theatregoers see it through different eyes. This is a musical that talks about being Canadian and how important that is. That idea is under attack, but I don't think we've lost sight of it yet."
The voice is Ariel Rogers, Stan's widow and major keeper, through Fogarty's Cove Music, of his musical legacy. Ariel Rogers has raised their children, continued her own work in Hamilton theatre, and delighted Rogers fans by issuing unreleased material in the years since his death. (The CD count now stands at nine.) It is not always joy, carrying Stan's legacy, but her memories are vivid and bright: "He was amazing," she says. "We were soulmates." Ariel met Stan in 1973, after hiring him to play at a local fundraiser. In those days Stan was an aspiring singer-songwriter, hanging with the crowd at Smales Pace Coffee House in London, Ont. (Willie P. Bennett and David Bradstreet were there, the brilliant Laura Smith was a waitress, too shy to sing.) He'd been raised in Southern Ontario, but his parents were proud Maritimers and his love for his family's roots near Canso, on Nova Scotia's northeast coast, helped him find his distinctive voice.
"He would go there every summer," Mills says. "Finally, his Aunt June said, 'You should start writing about this part of the world where your family comes from.' And, in a very short time, he wrote Fogarty's Cove, Make-and-Break Harbour, all those songs on his first album. We demo'd them in Danny Lanois's basement studio [in Hamilton] I played it for Mitch Podolak [then artistic director of the Winnipeg Folk Festival] who went on to finance the first record. That was a breakthrough for Stan as a writer. Suddenly, he was writing narrative. He found the narrative voice and developed that craft till he was one of the best at it."
He also became a powerful performer, working on-stage with his gifted younger brother Garnet. As a writer, he broadened his canvas to take in much of the Canada he grew to know well. He read voraciously, talked endlessly and wrote in a disciplined fashion about people and events that touched him -- the stillness descending on a empty Maritime fishing town; a sudden widow-making squall on the Great Lakes; our romantic yearnings after the doomed Franklin expedition; the fading beauty of a farmer's wife. At the time of his death, he had penned an estimated 100 songs.
"All of his recordings were small-label, independents. He had brief stints with major labels," Mills says. "They would try to change him, and he'd just walk away. He was totally uncompromising when it came to his music."
The show closes with his most stirring anthem. The Mary Ellen Carter is the rousing tale of a crew's bold vow, against all odds, to raise their sunken fishing boat. It concludes: "And you to whom adversity has dealt the final blow/ With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go/ Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain, and, like The Mary Ellen Carter, rise again."
"They aren't just songs," American folk singer John Gorka said of Rogers's songs. "They're literature . . . rich with detail, full of life." In the years after Rogers's death, they proved inspirational to countless Canadian artists, and are credited as a major influence on the breakout careers of East Coast artists, including The Rankins and Rita MacNeil.
"There are echoes from everywhere, every year," Ariel Rogers says of her husband's wide-ranging influence. "Al Purdy called and asked if it would be okay to use Reaching for the Beaufort Sea (from Northwest Passage) as the title for his autobiography. He never met him, but in the front of his book it says, 'To the memory of Stan Rogers.' "
Clarkson premiered the biographical film One Warm Line as host of Adrienne Clarkson Presents. "She had never heard of Stan before that," Ariel says, "and she was shaken."
"Rise again," Mills quotes from The Mary Ellen Carter. "That's a recurring theme in the show. I get chills every night when we play it. All of his friends, we still remember him. He's still hanging around. I have a strong sense that Stan is smiling down on us."
"I love it, the honesty of it all," Ashley says. "It's all from here -- from the heart."
"We lost a pretty significant person, culturally," Ariel Rogers says Ariel Rogers, looking back at the airplane fire that took her husband's life. At the time of our interview, she was about to depart for the annual Stan Rogers Songwriters Festival, held on the July 1 weekend near Canso. "If the really big wigs who run the world don't know that, it doesn't matter to me, because enough people do. [Our family]still has real difficulty dealing with the loss. It makes the music more precious. I think his songs are still a wake-up call for Canadians. What that man wrote is about you."
Stan Rogers: A Matter of Heart opens July 12 and runs until Aug. 5 at the Jane Mallett Theatre, 27 Front St. E., Toronto. Tickets at all Ticketmaster outlets. Phone: 416-872-2222.