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 band, The Band, as told through the eyes of Al Manuel, his last remaining brother.
This Spring, Grainger will witness the world premiere of Manuel at Western University’s 400 seat Paul Davenport Theatre from April 26 to May 1.
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. Manuel is a joint production of Grainger’s Blues Canvas Concert Productions and Pacheco Theatre.
The Beat Magazine: Arts & Culture in Southwester Ontario's Rick Young chatted with the playwright and producer about Manuel.
“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,” recalls Pacheco. “After the first read-through, Glenn made more changes, thus creating our annual read-through with different actors over the last 4 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.”
A little history 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 of Canada in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
The original line-up consisted of American Levon Helm, drums; and Canadians Robbie Robertson, guitar; Garth Hudson, keyboards; Rick Danko, bass; and Richard Manuel, keyboards – 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 with The Last Waltz farewell concert in 1976 which was immortalized in the Martin Scorsese documentary film. The group recommenced touring without Robertson in 1983 ending with the untimely suicide of founding member Richard Manuel on March 4, 1986 after a gig in Florida.
Why a play about Richard Manuel now?
“Richard Manuel was an immense talent as a musician, songwriter and especially as a soulful vocalist. That is why he merits a play about him. To this point, there has been a bewildering lack of canonization of his talent through storytelling. This play aims to kick open the door,” says Grainger.
“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,” continues Grainger.
While fans of The Band can find out information about Manuel's public life quite readily via the internet, articles, and videos, what is not well known to the public is the impact his struggles with alcohol and other substances and his subsequent suicide had on the family and in particular, his brother, Al. It’s why Grainger has chosen to tell the story through the eyes of Al Manuel, who reflects back on memories from 1956 through until 1986, the year Richard died.
“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,” says Grainger. “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.”
When asked if any of the other surviving members of The Band have been involved with the project, Grainger says, “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.”
Producer John Pacheco says casting for Manuel has been a gradual process. “Casting was an ongoing process for Manuel during our five-year collaboration. The play has 24 cast members, including some familiar names and newcomers. John Garlicki plays Al Manuel, while Stephen Ingram captures the essence of Richard Manuel,” says Pacheco.
The 5-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, adds Grainger.
And while the story doesn’t end well, Grainger argues that it is much more than a cautionary tale about fame and fortune and life on the road as a musician. “The play is about resolve and strength of the human spirit,” says Grainger. “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.”
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.
Tickets for Manuel are available through the Grand Theatre Box Office at grandtheatre.com, 519-672-8800.
Rick Young is the founder and publisher of The Beat Magazine: Arts & Culture in Southwestern Ontario.