Richard Ouzounian talks about his new musical, Larry's Party
By Antonio Tan
You would think, as the theatre critic for the Toronto Star, the host of a CBC Radio program devoted to musicals, and a husband and father of two, that adding the task of writing – and sometimes directing – musicals would prove daunting for Richard Ouzounian.
"I’ve gotten used to it," laughs Ouzounian, whose new musical Larry’s Party has its world premiere at the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts on January 11th.
And it would seem he would have, especially after having had such a varied 30-year career in the theatre.
His professional career started while he was still in university, but his love affair with the theatre began at the age of 5, when his parents took him to see Peter Pan on Broadway.
"It was by accident, actually. My parents couldn’t get a babysitter, so instead of missing Mary Martin, they bought an extra ticket, and brought me along. Ever since then, I’ve been hooked."
It seems that Mary Martin made such an indelible impression. By age 13, Ouzounian says "I was going to the theatre on my own."
He began performing in summer stock in upstate New York when he was 19, and went off to study theatre at the University of British Columbia, where he made a few important connections, including the Tony-winning actor Brent Carver and his future collaborator, Marek Norman.
He got noticed for a university cabaret production he directed and, by age 22, was directing his first professional production.
Since then, Ouzounian has gone on to become artistic director of five major theatre companies, among them the Young Peoples Theatre, Manitoba Theatre Centre, Centre Stage (now called the Canadian Stage Company, which is producing Larry’s Party), and the Neptune in Halifax. He also served as an associate director at the Stratford Festival for four seasons.
He settled down in Toronto in 1989 and was assistant director to Hal Prince for the original Canadian production of The Phantom of the Opera, where he oversaw the quality of the show for a year.
His official day job after that was head of arts programming at TV Ontario, but on the side, Ouzounian hosted his own TV program, Dialogue (on which he interviewed arts personalities), and was theatre critic for CBC Radio, before moving on to The Star this past June 27, 2000.
His radio program, "Say It With Music", is devoted to the music of Broadway, and has been on the air for 11 years.
Somewhere in the midst of all that, he found the time to write two musicals: Dracula (produced at the Stratford Festival), and Emily (Charlottetown Festival). Both opened in the same summer. The former went on to become the best-attended Canadian musical in the Stratford Festival’s history, while the latter ran successfully for two consecutive summers.
His most ambitious project to date is Larry’s Party, starring Brent Carver. Like Ouzounian's other musicals, it is written with his friend Marek Norman.
The musical is based on the novel of the same name by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Carol Shields.
Ouzounian read the book when it was first published in the fall of 1997 and was impressed with its story of Larry Weller and his journey of self-knowledge and discovery as he struggles with marriage, career, and parenthood.
Ouzounian confides that one of the reasons he fell in love with it was that he found a strange connection with the title character.
"We’re both of the same age, although I’m older than Larry by five months. And we also lived in Winnipeg around the same time, and also got married around the same time."
It may not sound like much of a connection, but it was enough to compel him to think of the novel when he and Norman were looking for an idea for a musical.
It came one evening when the two of them were driving home from the Canadian Stage Company’s production of Claptrap.
"We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a show produced by Canadian Stage?’ We made a list of what we thought would be good musicals ... stories that would appeal to CanStage and the general public.
"It had to be something that was Canadian, definitely, as well as something that would be compelling, dramatic, and commercially appealing."
Larry’s Party emerged as the writing team’s top choice.
"Many people would never imagine Larry’s Party as a piece to be dramatized or musicalized.
"It’s not like Ragtime, where it was apparent that there was something you could really work with. If you read Larry’s Party, it looks difficult ... but it has an emotional sweep that makes it an attractive piece for the stage."
They were not the only ones thinking of adapting the novel. CanStage artistic director Martin Bragg had been considering commissioning it as a play. Ouzounian and Norman’s timing could not have been more perfect when they approached Bragg in May of 1998.
The contract was signed the same month, for a presentation of the material in December of the same year, allowing Bragg and CanStage the option of producing it. The project was approved by Shields almost instantly – in 45 minutes, which is considered prompt in the world of the Internet.
"I started working on it during the summer. I had just finished overseeing rehearsals for Emily in Charlottetown, and hopped on the plane to see the first preview of Dracula that same evening. While on the plane, I started writing the lyrics for a song in Larry’s Party called ‘Little Lost Lives’.
"Eighty-five to ninety percent of the time, the lyrics come first. I then send them off to Marek."
But in the case of Larry’s Party, Ouzounian reveals that a lot of the lyrics have come directly from the source.
"They just sang to me," he says.
The music for Larry’s Party, he says, is a dramatic departure from the other two shows that he and Norman had previously written.
The other two were darker and more traditional, but the score for Larry’s Party is more a pop score, spanning 25 years of the genre, from the 70s to the present.
The cast is a small who’s who of Canadian theatre. Aside from the touted Brent Carver, who won the coveted Tony Award in 1993 with Kiss of the Spider Woman, the cast also includes Barbara Barsky (who ironically just finished playing opposite Carver in Stratford’s Fiddler on the Roof), Susan Gilmour, and Julain Molnar.
The director is none other than the acclaimed Robin Phillips, who just finished directing a highly praised revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night starring Jessica Lange in London’s West End.
Ouzounian admits he’s enjoying the hype surrounding this production, but is quick to admit that, of course, it’s partly due to the involvement of Carver and Phillips.
Still, despite the pre-opening hype, the hectic rehearsal and technical schedule, and whatever other rigours that are involved with getting a show up-and-running, Richard Ouzounian doesn’t seem to be too nervous, especially when presenting the show first in front of the discerning Toronto press.
"You can’t forget that I’m also a critic, so I’m prepared for anything. If it gets not-so-good reviews, then that’s fine.
"But if it gets good reviews, then that’s even better," he chuckles.
"Forty five years ago I started out as a kid in the audience, just there to love the show, and in many ways, that's what I still am."
Larry’s Party has its world premiere engagement in Toronto from January 8 to February 3, 2001, before heading off to Ottawa’s National Arts Centre (February 14 to March 3) and The Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg (April 18 to May 12).
For more on Larry's Party and other shows in Toronto, visit On Stage Toronto
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