One of Canada’s most prolific creators of musicals
By Iris Winston
At first glance, Joey Smallwood, Michelle Obama and Samuel Pepys may not seem to have much in common. But the first premier of Newfoundland and Labrador (1949 to 1972), the former First Lady of the U.S. (2009 to 2017) and the 17th Century English diarist have all been the subjects of musicals by Gatineau resident Gord Carruth — along with other famous individuals, such as the angel Gabriel and former prime ministers John A. Macdonald and Pierre Elliott Trudeau.
Carruth, now in his 91st year, has written the books and lyrics and composed the music for 10 full-length musicals since 1974. All but the two most recently completed have been produced in Canada and internationally, usually with Gord at the helm as director, producer, publicist and fundraiser.
He has also written three plays. Of these, I am not a Legend, based on the life of American football coach Vince Lombardi, won him a national ACTRA dramatic writing award in 1986. But, it was not until he retired as an educator, after 35 years as a high school teacher and administrator in his native Hamilton and in Germany, that he turned on the musical-theatre tap almost full-time.
It all began after he presented a Broadway musical at Delta Secondary School in Hamilton, where he was teaching French and German.
“Back in the days when I went to school, the school play was the thing,” recalls Gord, who attended Delta before returning to teach there after graduating from McMaster University. “I was the first teacher in Hamilton to introduce a Broadway musical to high school. That was My Fair Lady. The next year, we did Oliver.”
The fame of these shows drew attention to the man mounting them in a high-school setting and the positive response to his productions was probably one of the reasons he was invited to join the founding board of Hamilton Place, he says. A multi-purpose arts centre, it was to become the home of Theatre Aquarius and Gord was later to become the board chair in charge of the complex. In addition, he founded a children’s theatre group, Popcorn Players, that performed there.
In 1985, he went to Lahr Schwarzwald in Germany for three years on a “loan of service” from his local school board to work for the Canadian Department of National Defence. He returned to Hamilton for just one year before going back to Lahr to work directly for the Canadian military in setting up second-language training for officers. After a three-year term in this capacity, he was invited to head the program nationally from Ottawa.
At this point, he was ready for a new career challenge. As always, he took on parallel challenges in the theatre world, founding a new company. Named GOYA — the acronym raised a few smiles — it was dedicated to presenting Canadian plays, beginning with two of his own. GOYA, now renamed Maple Leaf Theatre Productions, continues to produce plays by Canadian playwrights, most recently Yes I Can!, Gord’s musical about the life of Michelle Obama, presented at Centrepointe Theatre in October.
“It’s the first Canadian-written Black musical ever presented in Ottawa,” he says with some pride.
It will probably also be the last show that he will produce and direct in Ottawa. He says that Nicole, his wife of five years and supportive partner for the last 30, thinks it is time for them to rest. (The couple were married in 2018 by Greame, a navy chaplain, and the oldest of Gord’s four sons.)
However, his other recently completed musical, Changing the Label, telling the story of Diane Dupuy, founder of the black-light troupe Famous People Players, is currently under consideration for production by Theatre Aquarius in his hometown of Hamilton.
While this would be a fitting completion of the circle of creativity, particularly as he was inducted into Hamilton’s Gallery of Distinction five years ago, he says, “It’s the process that I love [more than the final product].” And probably this is why he has become known as one of Canada’s most prolific creators of musicals. The chances are, in between golf and bike riding, still among his regular activities, he will always be on the verge of just one more musical.
Full disclosure: Gord Carruth wrote the music and lyrics for Iris Winston’s children’s play, Let’s Be Friends.