Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
By sheer accident, I’ve got the chance to speak with Juno-Award winning composer Danny Schur about STAND!, a film adaptation of his and Rick Chafe’s hit musical Strike!, which is set against the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. The publicist suggested the conversation, but I was hesitant. In addition to co-writing the screenplay, and writing the movie’s lyrics, music and score, Schur is also a co-producer. As a proponent of social activism and an adorer of musicals, I demurred. I feared the opportunity to profile a principal of STAND! might challenge my ability to limit my questions in respect of Schur’s schedule. At the time of the interview, he was busy promoting the nationwide release of the film . . . but it seems some things are meant to be. The person who was then tapped to do the Q&A… didn’t, and Schur gladly pinch-hit (or whatever is the hockey equivalent. More on Schur’s love of rec hockey later…).
So, yes, by happy accident, I bring my curiosity about STAND! to the person who knows it best, after all.
STAND! is written by Schur and Rick Chafe, directed by Robert Adetuyi, with cinematography by the two-time-Emmy-Award winning Roy Wagner. At its core, STAND! is a love story set 100 years ago against the backdrop of civil unrest and a violent general strike that changed Canada’s history. The film features Marshall Williams (Glee), Laura Wiggins (Shameless), Gregg Henry (Guardians of the Galaxy) and newcomer Lisa Bell. The story follows an unlikely immigrant “Romeo and Juliet” who fight for love and search for a better life on the streets of Winnipeg, amidst mounting political and social turmoil. Stefan (Williams) and his father Mike (Henry) have fled Ukraine for the New World of Canada, where they are struggling to earn enough money to bring the rest of their family to Canada. On meeting his Jewish suffragette neighbour, Rebecca (Wiggins), Stefan is instantly smitten. However, Rebecca’s brother Moishe and Stefan’s father Mike oppose the romance. Meanwhile, soldiers returning from WWI rage against the lack of jobs and threaten all of the city’s immigrants, including Emma (Bell), a refugee from racial strife in Oklahoma. When a movement develops for workers to leave their jobs in protest, a wealthy lawyer pits people against one other in a dramatic and inspirational final stand.
This project started as something of an “ethnic thing”. Schur has made a career of telling the stories of the Ukrainian community, and the fact that the historical character of Mike Sokolowski (as Ukrainian/Polish a name is it comes) figured so centrally in the narrative was the initial hook for the creation of the stage musical. “But it was the film’s director, Robert Adetuyi, himself a man of colour, who opened me up to how much bigger the story I thought I knew actually is: the demonization of immigrants is the big metaphor that connects 1919 to today.”
Though Schur was not a labour historian when he came to this story, “I could be now!” he laughs, before soberly countering that “you don’t have to be a labour activist or historian to know that working people had and continue to have a rough time of it. Just the current use of the phrase used in 1919 (which I thought so archaic when I first heard it) – ‘a living wage’ – is proof that too many labour issues are still unresolved” 100 years after the Winnipeg General Strike, “most prevalently the gender wage gap.” Likewise, the scapegoating of immigrants resonates with him as another inexcusably persistent problem, as evidenced by a “certain broadcaster’s” recent on-air statements and the resulting termination of his employment: “That brought the issue of our society’s perception of immigrants to the fore, and . . . showed how easy it is for a public figure to throw immigrants under the bus. This is just the most recent example of our tendency to ‘other-ise’ our fellow citizens. I always say, ‘Times change, but people don’t.’ In this regard, 1919 is very alive in 2019.”
Schur makes no secret of the fact that, as a producer, he had no idea how taxing the financial side of the movie’s production would be. This aspect was “quite simply the hardest thing I have ever done, involving the last decade of my life and untold hours. We literally travelled the world to make it happen. But in true Canuck style, we ‘got ‘er done’,” he chuckles, declaring STAND!’s existence to be a “large miracle”. The film opened across Canada on November 29, and Schur marvels at the “rarity” of a Canadian indie getting the kind of national release that the movie was afforded. “I love that we got a Winnipeg story into the national consciousness. And I’m really proud (as a lover of musicals), that this musical has been the conduit to the story. As a composer, that just feels good.”
It might surprise some that Schur’s stamina and talents extend beyond the arts – all the way to, yes, hockey. He is a longtime rec league hockey goalie, likening himself to “that guy” in the Canadian Tire Commercial (“to all those goalies who show up to play for teams they don’t even know”). Embracing the perpetual need of rec league teams for a goalie – any goalie – he enthuses: “I love the challenge, I love the anonymity of playing in goal (you’re part of the team but yet able to be on your own) and I’ll admit, I love the glory!”
But on the subject of STAND! – at this time when stands abound, from Ontario teachers defending public education to Greta Thunberg castigating governments for the climate crisis – Schur asserts the critical importance of using art as a means of education. “I don’t mean that in a ‘you should watch this movie; it will be good for you’ kind of way. But the truth is: this generation consumes media so voraciously, if one wants to reach them, a movie is the way to do it. (And, I argue, a movie musical is an even better way.)”
Schur is proud that this film exists, and that it tells this important and under-appreciated Canadian story from a century ago. But he’s also got his eye on the next century. The movie’s producers have partnered with the labour movement in Canada and the U.S., and the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, in a program to provide digital downloads to hundreds of thousands of students in North America. “I am very proud of that achievement.”
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya/SesayArts Magazine, 2019