As the house lights rose for intermission after Act I of The Hockey Sweater in Montréal’s Segal Centre for Performing Arts, I overheard some light-hearted commentary a few rows behind me. A woman asked her friend, “How many times have you seen this so far?” A man, who appeared to be in his seventies, replied with enthusiasm: “This is my fourth time and I’ll probably see it two more times!” Another woman chimed in, “Yeah, I can’t see him ever getting tired of this show.”
Such was the attitude of many audience members who came to see The Hockey Sweater by Emil Sher (book and lyrics) and Jonathan Monro (music and lyrics). Some were drawn in by their love of musical theatre or their love of hockey, but there were many who came to relive the memories of their childhood: a time when ordering clothes from printed catalogues, listening to the hockey game on the radio, and cheering for Maurice “Rocket” Richard were a way of life.
I had the pleasure of corresponding with Jonathan Monro after The Hockey Sweater closed its extended run. Below, he shares his experiences of the writing process, the Segal Centre production, and offers advice for other musical theatre writers.
The Hockey Sweater
WUNSCH: Did "The Hockey Sweater" remind you of your family or of any memories from your own childhood?
MONRO: "The Hockey Sweater" was an important story in our house. The only childhood memory I have is that my entire family was fans of the story, and my dad was a die-hard Habs fan who grew up in the era of the Rocket Richard... I dedicated the musical to my mother because ultimately the story is about a mother who accepts her son for who he is, rather than what he wears.
WUNSCH: How did The Hockey Sweater musical come to be? Whose idea was it and how did you get involved?
MONRO: Emil Sher had obtained the rights to the short story [by Roch Carrier], and approached Lisa Rubin [Artistic & Executive Director] at the Segal Centre. Lisa, in turn, asked me if I would be interested. I jumped at the chance and wrote a couple of sample songs with Emil. It was a good fit and we decided to team up!
WUNSCH: What was the writing process like for you? How long did it take? Did the music and lyrics come easily?
MONRO: Having a deadline added some pressure, but it ultimately helped me and Emil focus our work sessions and set attainable goals. We had to work at a distance for the entire process. So, we spent almost the first four months figuring out the order of the scenes, developing the characters, and deciding how our hero's (Roch's) storyline could be expanded from a five-minute book into a two hour musical.
WUNSCH: Was there a moment in the rehearsal process that stood out to you as significantly memorable?
MONRO: There were so many! I had written a new Act 1 Finale “A Champion's Heart,” and I had NO IDEA if it worked or not. It starts off with a duet between Roch (played by Jesse Noah Gruman) and Gaetan (played by Scott Beaudin) moves into a solo sung by Gaetan, and then finishes off with the entire cast. The first time we sang it all together, Scott sang the heck out of the solo, and by the time cast joined in, the temperature in the room changed. Everyone was either crying or laughing. We all cheered at the end. It was very special.
WUNSCH: How did it feel to show your work to the original author of "The Hockey Sweater"? Did he have any insights that helped you musically?
MONRO: Roch Carrier is such a lovely, generous man. Though he's eighty-years-old, he has such a young spirit, and that's really what inspired the music. I wanted to capture his youthful, generous energy.
WUNSCH: In what ways did your original ideas change after casting and beginning rehearsals?
MONRO: Things changed––as they do with any original work––but after the first couple of days it all becomes one big mish mosh of ideas. I honestly can't remember what is different! Donna Feore [director, choreographer, dramaturg] was a key figure with so many of the fantastic changes the show underwent once we were cast. She is so much fun and so creative!
WUNSCH: In what ways has The Hockey Sweater affected audiences? Are there any comments or reactions you weren’t expecting?
MONRO: My biggest takeaway is that it really is a universal story for all ages. My agent (Jonathan Mills at Paradigm NYC) flew up to see it, and couldn't get enough of the story. The critic from La Presse stated clearly at the beginning of his glowing review that he hated both hockey and musical theatre! We had ninety-year-olds who told us they cried during "Bonsoir, Canada" (a number set around radios - the 1940s equivalent of "Hockey Night in Canada".), we had kids who became super fans of the phenomenal young actors in the show, parents who were shocked that their six-year-olds didn't fidget for the entire two hours, and folks of my age (who grew up on the short story) who were really satisfied by the nostalgia. Audiences were extremely enthusiastic. I honestly couldn't have been more delighted.
WUNSCH: Is there a song that you are most proud of?
MONRO: I really have affection for every song. They are so specific to the characters and to the moment that it's hard to pick a favourite. I love "What Would People Think" - it's set to a waltz in a minor key (fairly rare), and is an argument between mother and son where they're both kind of chasing their own tails, and are starting not to listen to each other. I love the underscore of the hockey game sequences, the momentum of "Bonsoir, Canada", the uplifting joy of "A Champion's Heart", the humour of the "Dear Mister Eaton Reprise", and the vulnerability of "Is It Me". But honestly they are all special to me.
WUNSCH: What is your favourite and least favourite part of the writing process?
MONRO: I really love tucking myself away in a coffee shop for hours doing research and writing lyrics. I was so lucky that last year, from January through March, I was an artist-in-residence in Venice, Italy. So I drank a LOT of coffee and prosecco, and I got to know my fair share of coffee shops. I also love when I hit on a really good melody and feel inspired. The worst part is cutting things you really like. There was a lyric that I wrote for The Hockey Sweater that got cut that I enjoyed, "Whether you're priests or scholars/When your heart hollers/Play like Montrealers". I was sad to lose that one.
WUNSCH: What advice would you give Canadian musical theatre writers who are just starting out?
MONRO: If you're not wealthy, make sure you have a job you enjoy that will support you through the lean times - the lean times being your entire life.
WUNSCH: What or who inspired you to become a musical theatre composer?
MONRO: I've been writing music and songs and poems since I was ten or eleven-years-old. I guess I never believed I could do it as a career, and to a degree, I still don't. I'm always applying to go to back to university, but I never follow through on choosing another career. So many people inspire me - my sister is a brilliant lyricist, I have been lucky enough to work with to lyric heroes of mine: Richard Maltby and Stephen Sondheim, and I studied composition with Adam Guettel in New York. Adam really challenged me to write better melodies and trust my instincts when it came to harmony.
WUNSCH: Anything else you want to add?
MONRO: I love that music can release dopamine, oxytocin, and prolactin. It means there's always the potential of giving the audience a natural high!
While that last comment may explain why audiences enjoyed The Hockey Sweater so much, it cannot be denied that Jonathan Monro is a talented lyricist and composer. It is far too easy to want to give him all of the credit for an amazing show, but he would have me mention that Lisa Rubin, Jon Rondeau [General Manager], Luciana Burchieri [Assistant to the General Manager], and Marc Laliberté [Director of Production] at the Segal Centre are an incredible team: “They supported me and Emil so fully through this entire process. It was a real privilege to work with them.”
Sara Wunsch is a regular contributor to the Musical Theatre Insider. She studied vocal performance at California State University, Fullerton and earned a Master of Music from The Boston Conservatory at Berklee College of Music. A lyricist, performer, and musical director, she lives in Montréal.