When Montreal theatre producer Allan Sandler was at “death’s door” not long ago, three things kept him going.
“During the three weeks I was in isolation, I thought there’s no way I can leave my wife now, no way I can leave my kids, and yes, no way I can leave Les Belles-Soeurs,” Sandler, today restored to health, said while announcing that he has secured the worldwide rights to produce an English musical based on the classic Quebec play by Michel Tremblay.
Sandler’s Copa de Oro Productions and the Segal Centre for Performing Arts are collaborating on an English adaption of the hit French musical version of Les Belles-Soeurs, which debuted in 2010, went to Paris in 2012, and is still touring Quebec.
The world premiere of Belles Soeurs: The Musical will be at the Segal in October. Sandler is already talking about taking it to Toronto and elsewhere in Canada after that.
Sandler, a veteran of English and French theatre, was smitten by the French musical from the moment he saw it four years ago, and knew he had to do it in English.
A literal translation of this tragi-comedy, which debuted in 1968 and relies heavily on joual, he soon realized, would not work. So Sandler started “from scratch” to retell this beloved story of a working-class Montreal housewife whose life is turned upside down after she wins one million trading stamps.
But he was adamant that it must retain the “spirit” of the original – the same characters and story, even use the same set. He just wants to give it a little more oomph.
While the French original was “a play with music,” the English one will be more like an American musical show, he said.
It will be directed by René Richard Cyr, who wrote the book and lyrics and directed the French musical original for Théâtre d’Aujourd’hui, and it will have the same musical director, Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter Daniel Bélanger.
The English book and lyrics are being written by Brian Hill, an actor and director best known for writing the musical The Story of My Life, which went to Broadway and earned four Drama Desk Award nominations.
Neil Bertram, who was composer and lyricist of The Story of My Life, is writing the English lyrics and adapting the music.
“Our task in adapting the French musical to English has been to combine the essence of our original production with the structure of the Broadway-style musical, while ensuring that the story and the characters remain quintessentially Québécois,” said Cyr, who is making his English directorial debut.
Hill and Bertram said they have been very conscious of the “iconic” status of the 15 female characters in the play, while trying to render them universal enough to appeal to English audiences here and beyond.
Sandler said casting is all but complete. The actors, who are from Montreal and Toronto, will be announced on March 27 when the Segal unveils its 2014-2015 season.
The approximately $400,000 budget for the initial three-week run (“and growing by the minute”) has been secured, said Sandler who most recently partnered with the Segal in staging Ain’t Misbehavin’ and The Mahalia Jackson Musical.
The staging of an English Belles-Soeurs musical at the Segal, which has Tremblay’s blessing, has significance beyond promising to be good entertainment, according to the centre’s executive and artistic director Lisa Rubin.
“Theatre and the arts are the best way to break down barriers between communities,” she said. Twenty years ago, Dora Wasserman, the late founding director of the Segal’s Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, realized that. She was the force behind the first Yiddish adaptation of Belles-Soeurs (Sisters-in-Law).
But anglophone audiences have “a different sensibility,” Rubin said, and the musical’s creators have the challenge of maintaining the original’s integrity and connecting to non-francophones.
Les Belles-Soeurs was first performed in English more than 40 years ago, and has since been translated into more than 25 languages and staged in some 40 countries.b