The backstage story of Allison MacDonald’s struggle to take Handel to Broadway for the opening night of her grand passion.

Allison MacDonald wakes in a New York City hotel room with The Vision. For a year she has obsessed to her husband, Barry Gilson, about creating a Les Misérables mega-musical based on the life and music of 18th-century composer George Frideric Handel – he of Messiah – but they couldn’t agree on a storyline. Now MacDonald has seen it. Maybe it’s lack of sleep, excitement, inspiration from attending a symphony, an opera and, the night before, a revival of Cabaret, or simply that she has become possessed, but in the next 20 minutes with Gilson she burbles it out. It’s all there, exactly how it’s going to be. Later the Vancouver couple walk out into the New York streets, convinced that they will bring The Vision back here one day. It will be called The Masque Affect. It is autumn of 1998. In the next five years, The Vision will lead them to the creation of D’masque Productions, a $250,000 roll of the dice at a gala premiere at The Centre for the Performing Arts and a backstage drama that deserves an opera of its own. Opening night in Vancouver for a musical of the magnitude the couple envisions for The Masque Affect starts at about $2 million. To get the money, you have to attract the right people. To get the right people, you have to have the right product. And the right product? That’s Allison MacDonald’s first assignment. MacDonald is tall and verbal, a high-octane redhead with a quick sense of humor and a coy smile who looks like she could be an actress. The Vancouver-born child of an opera singer and an orchestra conductor, she veered, coming of age, from theatre into the real world. She worked in hospitality, retail and technology. In her late 20s she devised a computer imaging document system which converts paper data to digital, sold it to the Royal Bank and managed the system for 10 years. Then, at 38, the DNA kicked in and she enrolled in music school – by which time she was remarried and mother to a blended family of five children. She had always wanted to write a musical, particularly one with a large choral component. In music school, when she discovered the volume of Handel’s choral work and his humanitarian qualities, she knew it was Handel’s life she wanted to write about. After the New York trip, MacDonald moves into a small office on Homer Street and continues to research the life, times and music of Handel, an entirely self-funded effort. It is no small task. George Frideric is considered by many scholars as the greatest to ever scratch quill to paper. The famous quote from Beethoven is that “Handel is the greatest composer who ever lived. I would bare my head and kneel at his grave.” Whether you buy that or not – musicians tend to romanticize – you’d have to agree G.F. was nothing if not prolific. In his 74 years, Handel wrote opera, chamber music, concerti, sacred music, anthems, hymns, antiphons, canticles, concerto grosso, dramatic cantata, Italian arias, Italian duets, masques, motets, odes, oratorios, psalms, serenata, solo sonata, English cantata, Spanish cantata, French cantata, German sacred cantata, and Italian cantata – lots and lots of Italian cantata. He wrote for theatre, keyboard, organ, clock-organ, orchestra, dance, harp, oboe, flute, recorder, wind ensemble, viola, violin and voice. Simply searching out and listening to everything Handel wrote is a vocation in itself. And while Handel’s music is in the public domain, standard arrangements of his works are not. Modern arrangers purposely write extra trills or wrong notes, like musical fingerprints, into Handel scores for identification. The alterations allow music publishing companies to sue for infringement of copyright if the work is used without permission. To own the theatrical rights for the music, each selection must be rearranged from Handel’s original composition, which is both expensive and time-consuming. Music notwithstanding, MacDonald also discovers that The Vision is elusive, particularly when you try to nail it to paper. What makes the task even tougher is her experience, which up to now, she says, amounts to writing “one article for a technical journal.” Draft one takes three years. Finally, whatever it is she manages to squeeze onto the pages, the product is right enough to attract artistic director Michael Cavanagh, the first of the right people the project needs. Cavanagh is freelancing for Vancouver Opera, directing Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, when she calls. The timing is good. Cavanagh is looking for the next big thing. In the world of opera, the guy is a pistol. His directing calendar is so blocked-in that he can afford to wrap up his tenure as artistic director of the Edmonton Opera and bid farewell to the fundraising schmoozing and opera administration he loves less for what he loves most – “to manufacture surprise and delight.” He is a great believer in the power of enthusiasm. Which, to know MacDonald, is a good thing. MacDonald, he says, “has a ton of enthusiasm, a great idea and the commitment and energy to see it through. An infectious combination.” Cavanagh signs on as director and dramaturge. Dramaturgy, the dictionary says, is the art of writing or producing dramas. Cavanagh and MacDonald begin the rewrites, although he is reluctant at first. He thinks Masque might work as a choral piece in a small theatre, but is that MacDonald’s vision? It isn’t. They rewrite the piece to better define the characters, enlarge the story and give it more arc. Then Cavanagh convinces Jeffrey Huard to come aboard. Huard is also hot, a former musical supervisor for Livent during Garth Drabinsky’s glory days. Huard is at the time working on Broadway, building Marvin Hamlish’s new musical, Sweet Smell of Success. He also has a couple of strong resumé items: he knows early music and has previously conducted Handel choral works. His agent is not excited about the prospects, but Huard believes there will be a royalty stream here and plunges in to take charge of the music presentation. Meanwhile, Barry Gilson has been exploring the investment landscape. A former director with the British Columbia Automobile Association (BCAA) who managed the assets and, in his words, “facilitated” BCAA’s real estate portfolio, Gilson structures the D’masque pyramid of companies. There will be general partners, limited partners and production partners. The incentive for initial investors: they get to partner with the partners who own the holding company at the tip of the pyramid, the company which will retain and license worldwide rights. Worldwide rights give the holding company royalties on the music and a piece of the box office on each and every performance of Masque wherever it is produced. Gilson’s investor handout suggests $6,250 similarly invested in Phantom of the Opera would have returned 600 per cent or $3.75 million. But the handout also clearly underlines the risks: “Seussical starring Rosie O’Donnell was a $10-million loser” and “Tom Sawyer was a $7.5-million flop.” [pagebreak] From the first investors in the holding company D’masque raises $250,000. The original backers are Gilson, MacDonald, Cavanagh and several others including Kathleen Laverty, owner of Horizon Art Galleries, who signs on to develop business relationships, and Sharka Stuyt, ex-worldwide marketing director for Pivotal Corp. and once voted one of the 20 most influential women in B.C., who consults on marketing. They create the poster, launch the website and prepare a gala workshop (a preview of the musical) at The Centre for the Performing Arts to be directed by Cavanagh, with an orchestra conducted by Huard and an audience of several hundred potential investors. MacDonald’s next job is to find the investors. One consequence of being the CEO of a company listed on the BCBusiness TOP 100 is that people like MacDonald know where to find you. MacDonald pores over the list. Cold-call telephone solicitation scares her to death. “Sometimes they tell you to piss off but the rest of them love you.” She smiles her coy smile and continues. “Some people say, ‘Well, I’m not interested but maybe this guy is. I’ll call him and tell him to be nice to you.’ ” MacDonald works her way through the list and the referrals and lines up an appropriate investor audience. Broadway production on this scale would take six to eight weeks of rehearsal. Cavanagh has less than two. From a virgin script he must direct 22 actors and opera singers, a dozen symphony musicians (including two harpsichordists) and the 30-member B.C. Boys Choir, plus oversee the stage lighting, overhead projection, costumes, props and crew. It is now June 2002. Three days before the gala preview Cavanagh is still blocking the opening scenes of Act Two, but if anyone is anxious, it doesn’t show. On the same day at the Westin Grand Vancouver, an “official sponsor” of the production, Barry Gilson confidently speaks to me at lunch about his intent to sell 250 units in a limited partnership at $6,250 per unit. The resulting $1.56 million, plus another half-million in corporate sponsorship, will be enough to launch The Masque Affect locally. “We want to ensure this product is sound, very strong, developed here first,” he says. “Once it is, we will move it to Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto. Our intention is to move it to London. And then New York. That is our grand plan.” Three days later, on one of those warm summer nights when the light is at the magic hour and life feels expectant, about 500 freshly picked, smartly dressed invitees arrive at The Centre and gather in the packed, mirrored lobby. The theatre seats about 1,800. Five hundred people scattered about the front rows would not create the impression of a sold-out, standing-room-only hit, so the potential investors are held in the lobby and then herded through the theatre to rows of bleacher seating at the back of the stage. The investors find a seat and face the stage with the cavernous, empty theatre in the background. Investors not accustomed to being on stage, especially in a theatre the size of The Centre, are surprised at how immense the house feels from the performers’ perspective. A nice reversal of fortune: the atmosphere is appropriately established. The 12-piece orchestra begins the overture from the wings. A scrim is lowered and lit to serve as a backdrop on which vast movie-sized images are projected to suggest the finished scenery. Actors in full costume sweep in, performing alternately in scenes played stage right and stage left as the life of George Frideric Handel unfolds. The audience travels with Handel into the royal court at Hanover, into graveyards at midnight, through town markets, down cobblestone streets and over the high seas. In the story Handel falls in love with a princess, quite probably sires the next heir to the German throne, flees to Ireland and takes his final breath as he burns the princess’s love letters, defending her honor to the last. At the play’s climax, the B.C. Boys Choir appears in the balcony of the theatre to sing the Hallelujah Chorus, as if from the heavens. Traditionally an audience stands when the Hallelujah Chorus is performed and on this night a few people – then more – then finally everyone stands as the workshop reaches its climax: Masque is a show with a built-in standing ovation. The music soars, the stagecraft works and, given the limited rehearsal schedule, the actors and singers perform admirably, but The Masque Affect fails to affect this moneyed crowd. The workshop does not raise a single dime. You can imagine the second-guessing. MacDonald reviews the written comments from the audience: Perhaps the problem is that Masque feels derivative. Is the Masque in the title too reminiscent of the mask of The Phantom? Is the competitive Mattheson character in the German court too reminiscent of Salieri in Amadeus? Maybe the audience is confused. In the play there are three Handels: Old Handel, Young Handel and Muse Handel, the one who does the singing. In fact the five lead characters each has a singing Muse. Everyone speaks in flowery olde English (“Love takes its flight on the wings of constancy and causes faith and hope to triumph in the heart”). And what does “the masque affect” mean anyway? (MacDonald explains that operas were once called masques, and that we all wear different masks which affect viewers in different ways.) Perhaps it’s the plot. If it’s a love story, why does the love interest die in Act One? If it’s about rescuing love letters, why do we see at the beginning of the play that Old Handel already has them? Some people in the audience argue it’s the music. Did Gilson and Cavanagh pick the wrong Handel tunes? Is Vancouver even the right city in which to launch this ambition? Thanks to David Mirvish, Toronto seems more likely. In the 2004-2005 season Mirvish will mount Wicked, which he describes as a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, direct from Broadway; The Rat Pack, about Frank, Dean and Sammy; The Last Empress, a Korean-language musical; and We Will Rock You from London’s West End. Not to mention his current hits The Producers, Mamma Mia! and Hairspray. You know the other argument, the one about Vancouver’s general lack of geist. Globe and Mail columnist Lynn Coady describes it thus: “Fostering a vital, thrumming arts scene in the ‘City of Glass’ [is] like trying to get a really good cup of tea at Starbucks . . . [which is] not what Starbucks is about. It will always be an afterthought, a begrudging concession. . . .” On that last point, the director of the Office of Cultural Affairs for the city of Vancouver politely disagrees. Burke Taylor says, “We have the capacity to produce world-calibre art and creative products in pretty well every discipline.” He points to a long history in the visual arts: Emily Carr, Jack Shadbolt and Jeff Wall. In dance, our successes include Ballet B.C. and Holy Body Tattoo among others. The Arts Club has sent shows on tour across the continent; Billy Bishop Goes To War came out of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre; and The Playhouse’s The Overcoat, which, like Masque, has a classical music score (Dimitri Shostakovich), has received “extraordinary reception across Canada and the U.S.” Taylor also diplomatically points out that Vancouver artists have had a better track record in some disciplines than others. “In terms of comparison to the large-scale, original Broadway musical form,” he adds, “there are very few works anywhere that have had that kind of global commercial success.” [pagebreak] So is that it? Sure, Les Misérables began in the Palais des Sports, an arena in Paris, before it hit the London stage five years later, but then maybe Vancouver isn’t Paris, and this isn’t Les Miz. Everybody has an opinion. Nobody shows them the money. Cavanagh blames the times. June 2002 is not yet a year after the September 11th terrorist attack on New York. North American money markets have not recovered and, Cavanagh says, Vancouver’s economy is “artificially depressed, particularly because of political blunders and wrong-headed leadership.” MacDonald blames herself. Her confidence is not helped by the workshop’s sales approach which operated under the adage if you want money, ask for an opinion. It overlooks another adage well known to writers: ask 10 different people and you’ll get 10 different answers. The audience response cards transform potential angels into drama critics. In the aftermath, MacDonald says, “I felt exposed. Naked in front of these people.” During the summer she actually keys the responses into an Excel spreadsheet and over the next few months weighs the pros and cons of the observations, some good, most bad, trying to find a consensus. What was the ratio of people thinking this way . . . or that way, or another way entirely? It is futile. A theatre insider at the event suggests the mistake was that the creative team treated the workshop as a marketing exercise not an investment opportunity: “People invest in businesses they know and most of those people didn’t know anything about theatre. They wouldn’t have recognized the potential if they’d seen Les Miz in workshop. You’d be better just to show them a balance sheet.” And like a good play, just when you think the situation can’t get worse, it does. MacDonald pitches the project again on November 26, 2002 at Vancouver’s Angel Forum at the SFU downtown campus, where new companies have 15 minutes to make a presentation to an auditorium of investors. She doesn’t have a chance with investors primarily interested in technology companies that own patents and start-ups that are already demonstrating revenue, and this fundraising fails, too. Then in 2003 she is confronted by two off-stage tragedies which will change her life and the Handel script she is rewriting. Her son, now in his 20s, is diagnosed with an illness similar to the one some say stalked Handel. While Handel was working day and night, compulsively composing the oratorio Messiah, he shouted at a servant for entering the room without knocking: “Get out, you idiot! Can’t you see? You’re frightening off the angels!” The point is that Handel didn’t think he was seeing angels in the room where he was composing, he was seeing them. “At some phase of the illness, schizophrenia always involves delusions, hallucinations or certain characteristic disturbances in affect and the form of thought,” reports the American Psychiatric Association in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Afflicted with bipolar schizoaffective disorder, a form of schizophrenia, you do not imagine colors change or that God is speaking to you directly. Blue does become yellow and the Divine Voice whispering in your head is The Absolute Truth. It is not knowing what is real and what is not that overwhelms you, much like the visitors who haunted John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. “I was with him day and night for almost six months,” Gilson says of her son. “We talked about perspective, how the mind works, feelings of euphoria, depression, the manic state of working, working, working. . . .” One day, she says, he looked her “square in the eyeballs and said, ‘I trust you because you’re my mother.’ His world was rebuilt on the foundation that your mother can be trusted when your body is telling you to trust no one.” Meanwhile, MacDonald’s marriage collapses. The year has become a train wreck. Not surprisingly, she cannot work on the play for most of 2003. “I definitely withdrew,” she says. “How could I say to people this was what I was going to do when I didn’t even know where I was going to live? Anyway, I don’t think that anybody really cares. They’ve got their own kids, their own divorces.” She finds a Yaletown address, a new job at a company appropriately called Liberty, and begins again to realize The Vision. In the settlement with Gilson, she says, he got the house, she got the property – the property being The Masque Affect, which she now believes in with renewed evangelistic commitment. In the rewrite, Handel’s life story is less about German princesses and love letters and more a visual and theatrical creation about the wonder of angels and the torment of demons experienced by a musical genius in full bipolar flight. “There will be a lot of scholars outraged by the idea of a schizoaffective Handel,” says Cavanagh, fresh from directing Cavalleria Rusticana in Winnipeg and The Magic Flute in Minneapolis, and still committed to MacDonald’s project as its dramaturge, director and one of the original investors, “but history is full of holes and gaps especially when it comes to the ‘why’. What is it about this person that makes his music great and timeless? What drives him to create one piece after another? What are the demons haunting him?” In a three-act play, Act Two is usually full of conflict and complication, all of which is resolved in the third act. In MacDonald’s life, Act Two has faded to dark. How the final act will unfold is yet to be seen, but it will open with MacDonald and Cavanagh shepherding readings of The Masque Affect rewrite in Vancouver and Toronto later this year. The readings – using professional actors – will help them tweak the final script, which will then be presented to potential investors and corporate sponsors. New investors will have the opportunity to buy in at the top of the pyramid with the original backers to earn a share of the world-wide royalty and performance rights – potentially the most lucrative source of return on investment. The initial objective is to raise $150,000 for a new workshop and through that, raise a further $2 million for a Vancouver opening. Why go on? Well, there’s the more than $250,000 already invested in the project, not counting MacDonald’s years of sweat equity. There are the original investors like Gilson, Cavanagh, Laverty and Stuyt who remain committed to the project. Music arranger Neil Weisensel and musical supervisor Jeffrey Huard are still looking for their royalty streams through Masque’s substantial copyright music arrangements. And there is Allison MacDonald. Cavanagh says, “She has the unwavering commitment that you just can’t help admire and join in on. There’s no off button for her.” “Look,” MacDonald says, “all artists put their work before people at great risk to their personal character, and you need great strength of character and determination to withstand that. Besides … what have I got to lose?” she asks. “Face? I’ve got no face to lose.” When you hear stories like this one, you want them to end well. You want to believe that people triumph. You want dreams to come true. You want to stand, applaud and choke back a tear at the final curtain. For that to happen, all this story needs now is what we all want in life – a great third act. The handle on Handel If you invested $6,250 in The Phantom Of The Opera – the asking price of a unit in The Masque Affect – you would have banked a return of about $3.75 million. Of course it doesn’t always pay to bet the favorite. Not even Andrew Lloyd Webber. Who knows if his current show, Bombay Nights, will be profitable, but his last four shows missed on Broadway. Aspects Of Love reportedly lost $8 million. Even on a three-year run, Sunset Boulevard didn’t make a profit. By Jeeves flopped. And while it won the 2000 London Critics Circle Award, The Beautiful Game, a musical about soccer, didn’t score at the box office, partly, Webber claims, because theatre-going tourists stopped coming to England during the country’s foot and mouth hysteria in 2001. The era of the British mega-musical, according to John Kenrick, author of History Of The Musical Stage, passed with the last millennium. Then, for a few years, what he calls “corporate musicals” in which the actors are interchangeable and the music is indistinguishable (Disney’s The Lion King and Beauty And The Beast) dominated Broadway. Recently the big, all-American, showy Broadway musical comedy has made a roaring comeback. Many are based on well-known movies: The Full Monty, The Producers, Thoroughly Modern Millie and Hairspray. Where does The Masque Affect, a big operatic story about the life of Handel, fit? In the opinion of Oscar Hammerstein: “It is nonsense to say what a musical should or should not be. It should be anything it wants to be. There is only one absolutely indispensable element that a musical must have. It must have music. And there is only one thing that it has to be – it has to be good.”