John Gray, playwright, composer, pianist

John MacLachlan (Howard) Gray. Playwright, composer, pianist, actor, writer, b Ottawa 26 Sep 1946; BA (Mount Allison) 1968, MA (British Columbia) 1972, honorary LLD (Mount Allison) 1989. Raised in Truro, NS, John Gray played Hammond organ and trumpet ca 1964-8 with the Lincolns, an R&B band popular in Nova Scotia. He later drew on the experience for his musical Rock and Roll. Gray went to Vancouver in 1968 to study theatre at the University of British Columbia. He was a founder (1972) of the Tamahnous Theatre, which produced an early Gray effort, Salty Tears (libretto by Jeremy Long), at the City Lights Theatre.

Composer of Musicals
Living 1975-82 in Toronto before returning to Vancouver, Gray worked initially as a composer and director at Theatre Passe Muraille, contributing songs to various productions, including the collectively conceived play 1837: The Farmer's Revolt. His first major musical, 18 Wheels (1976), was introduced in 1977 at Passe Muraille and later toured nationally. It was followed by Billy Bishop Goes to War (1978, a collaboration with Eric Peterson) and Rock and Roll (1979). The latter was premiered 16 Mar 1981 at the National Arts Centre, toured in Canada in 1983 and was adapted for a CBC telecast 20 Apr 1985 as The King of Friday Night. Gray appeared at various times in productions of all three works.

Gray's other musicals included Don Messer's Jubilee (1984, premiered 4 Jan 1985 at the Neptune Theatre, Halifax, and toured nationally) and Health, the Musical (1989, premiered 24 Feb 1989 at the Vancouver Playhouse). Thematically, many of his musicals explore the internal and external pressures that have shaped Canada's self-image; stylistically they draw on the energy and structure of the travelling vaudeville and concert troupes that were his introduction to the performing arts in Truro. The librettos for 18 Wheels, Rock and Roll and Don Messer's Jubilee were published in Local Boy Makes Good: Three Musicals by John Gray (Vancouver 1987).

Gray also wrote the children's musicals Bongo from the Congo and Balthazaar and the Mojo Star (1982, commissioned by the Vancouver International Children's Festival) as well as The B.C. Review (1986, 18 short musicals about British Columbia history for the province's pavillion at Expo 86).

Gray's Other Activities
From 1988 to 1992 John Gray wrote and performed in satiric music videos for CBC-TV's The Journal. He returned to writing for stage with the 1993 musical Amelia!, about the pilot Amelia Earhart; it premiered at the National Arts Centre, directed by Gray.

CBC Radio commissioned the 1995 biblical rock opera TheTree.TheTower.TheFlood. Gray's Rock and Roll, and revised versions of Billy Bishop (in which Gray reprised his role) and 18 Wheels, enjoyed revivals in several Canadian cities in the 1990s.

Gray's other writings include plays (eg, Better Watch Out, Better Not Die, 1981); film scripts (eg, The Legend of Kootenai Brown); and several novels and works of non-fiction. He has been a columnist for such newspapers as the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun.

Awards and Recognition
John Gray's musicals have reaped the Dora Mavor Moore Award (for Rock and Roll), the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award, the Chalmers Award and other prizes (for Billy Bishop Goes to War). For his other writing, he has won a National Magazine Award and several Western Magazine awards. Gray was created an officer in the Order of Canada in 2000.


The Canadian Encyclopedia © 2007 Historica Foundation of Canada. All rights reserved. 

Betty Nygaard King
c. 2007
CANADA Atlantic Provinces, Atlantic Provinces, CANADA
© 2007, Historica Foundation of Canada. All Rights Reserved.

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