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Terry Fox runs in Northern Ontario in August, 1980, during his Marathon of Hope. A musical version of his story, produced by Drayton Entertainment, will premeire in October.Dennis Robinson/The Globe and Mail

Is Canada ready for its first singing and dancing Terry Fox?

On Thursday, Nathan Carroll – an up-and-coming 27-year-old musical-theatre performer – will be announced as the star of Ontario theatre company Drayton Entertainment's upcoming world premiere of Marathon of Hope: The Musical, after a countrywide search for an actor to play the Canadian cancer activist and icon.

"It feels like a huge responsibility, to be honest – a thrill, but also a responsibility," Carroll said in an interview in advance of the official announcement. "I know him as this huge hero – when The Greatest Canadian competition was on [CBC], I remember being disappointed when he lost."

Carroll, who recently appeared in the Dora Award-winning ensembles of Once at Mirvish Productions and The Wizard of Oz at Young People's Theatre, certainly looks the part – in fact, he looks uncannily like Fox, the amputee who embarked on a run across the country in 1980 at the age of 21 to raise awareness and money for research into the disease that had taken his right leg. "It's hard for me to deny that there's a physical resemblance," he says.

More useful than Carroll's appearance to this initial production of Marathon of Hope – which features songs by John Connolly and a book by Peter Colley and begins performance at the St. Jacobs County Playhouse in Waterloo, Ont., in October – is that he has been involved in the development of several new Canadian musicals in recent years.

The George Brown Theatre School grad was in the original Storefront production of Chasse-Galerie, Tyrone Savage and James Smith's entertaining twist on the French-Canadian legend now headed to Soulpepper this fall; and also the first two workshops of Akiva Romer-Segal and Colleen Dauncey's Prom Queen, a new musical about Marc Hall, the teen who took his school board to court to take his boyfriend to prom, that will have its world premiere at the Segal Centre in Montreal in October.

After decades of institutional sidelining of musical theatre in Canada, it's been a heady period for the genre of late with homegrown shows such as Ride the Cyclone and Come From Away headed to off-Broadway and Broadway this season.

"My favourite thing to do as an actor is new work," Carroll says. "I'm excited to see theatre starting to take chances on the [new generation of musical theatre writers]."

Indeed, Alex Mustakas, the chief executive officer and artistic director of Drayton, is one of those taking a chance with Marathon of Hope after 2 1/2 decades of safely producing revues and Broadway-tested musicals and farces. He feels it was time for his company, a circuit of seven not-for-profit theatres in Southwestern Ontario that recently surpassed the Shaw Festival in attendance, to sink its teeth into a major project like this. "Less than two years ago, I went to see a workshop at Sheridan College – and I immediately fell in love with the music," he recalls.

Mustakas eventually came on board as director on the project and has shaped its current form over a lengthy and pricey – certainly by Drayton Entertainment's standards – workshop process, hiring Colley (I'll Be Back Before Midnight; Cagney: The Musical) to write a new book and encouraging the creatives to have Fox will address the audience directly. "It's been a daunting task," says Mustakas, who hopes to roll the 16-actor show out across his theatre chain in a coming season if audience response in Waterloo is positive. "This is obviously one of the great Canadian stories – how do you tell it in 2 1/2 hours of songs and dance and be true to it?"

Connolly has spent the past 12 years figuring that out – a marathon of his own, filled with hope that he would eventually win over the Fox family with his vision. The composer first started working on the musical in September of 2004 as a second-year musical-theatre student at Sheridan College and approached the Fox family right away – but it took a decade of workshops working with different directors and book writers for the show to get to a place where they would get on board for a professional production.

"They don't suffer fools gladly," Connolly says. "If you're trying to make money off Terry, they'll say no – and they'll leave a lot of stuff on the table."

Terry Fox's own musical taste – he was a fan of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams – has shaped the music that Connolly has written. "He was very much a typical Canadian suburban kid growing up, and I never wanted the musical or for the music and the lyrics to be elitist," the composer says. "I wanted to tap into the sound of the land, in the classic Canadian storytelling tradition, that big open sound: Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot …"

As for his lyrics, Connolly was inspired by the way Fox spoke: "Always very simply, directly and from the heart."

The musical's story focuses on the Marathon of Hope itself – Fox's fabled journey that ended after 143 days and 5,373 kilometres, when his cancer spread to his lungs. Fox died nine months later, but his quest inspired an annual run that has, to date, raised more than $700-million for cancer research in his name.

Fox's tempestuous relationship with his best friend Doug Alward, who drove the famous Ford E250 Econoline that followed him, provides much of the drama. Leslie Scrivener, a Toronto Star reporter who wrote a column and later a book about Terry Fox, is a character, as are Fox's parents and his brother, Darrell, who eventually flew in to act as a buffer between Terry and Doug.

Connolly and Coller have not deviated far from the facts. "Part of our mission is to tell the story correctly and clearly," Connelly says, adding that there's an eye to the musical being done in schools well in the future. "The Fox family is really looking at this as one of the ways the story is going to be told down the line."

Both Connolly and Mustakas felt Carroll was the right one for the role as soon as he auditioned but a five-day workshop in July clinched it for them. "He has the vulnerability and toughness," Connolly says. "We're casting a 20-year-old Jean Valjean here – it's a big singing role and Nathan is crushing it."

Marathon of Hope will play at the St Jacobs County Playhouse in Waterloo, Ont., from Oct. 5 to Oct. 30.

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