Leslie Arden Finds 'Joy' at a Mystery Resort

Leslie Arden Finds 'Joy' at a Mystery Resort Want to have some fun? The Last Resort promises much delight.

Want to have some fun? The Last Resort promises much delight.

Norm Foster and Leslie Arden gave Theatre News and Playbill On-Line some of their time during a break from rehearsals to talk about fun together. Leslie is a performer, director, teacher, pianist, writer, composer and lyricist. She wrote the score for Harvest Moon Rising, (book by Peggy Sample); co-wrote the Dora Mavor Moore Award winning The Prince and The Pauper with Joey Miller, and premiered the adult fairy tale, The Greatest Gift at the Lighthouse Theatre Festival.

Arden also has written a half dozen musicals for young audiences, produced for stage and radio. But Arden is now best known for The House of Martin Guerre,, which premiered in at Theatre Plus Toronto before Boublil & Schonberg's musicalization of the same material, Martin Guerre, opened in London.

Arden's version made her a a finalist for the Chalmer's Award and won the 1994 Dora Mavor Moore Award for best new musical. The House of Martin Guerre has since been produced at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago in 1996, where it won the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best Musical. The House of Martin Guerre comes back to Canada to open the 1997/98 season for the Canadian Stage Company.

Leslie has fond memories of playing clarinet for Stage Centre Productions (L. Garth Allen, director), in A Little Night Music. "Trying to develop musical theatre in Canada is difficult, as there aren't very many musical theatre writers here. Very few shows originate here." Arden came from a theatrical family. Her step-dad is Don Parish who developed the radio series, Candlelight and Wine. Leslie spent her summers at the Charlottetown Theatre. Her parents wanted her to learn the sciences and stay away from the uncertainty of a theatrical career. She took physics and genetics at university. But she returned to theatre in the end.

"Writing a musical theatre piece does include a formula of sorts. Starting with an emotional inspiration, you take your craft and hone the idea. I approach a lot in my life mathematically, with structure, and musical theatre writing is no different. This is a wonderful process. Working with Norm Foster is as good as it gets."

As luck would have it, while Arden was vocal-coaching in Les Miserables, Cameron Mackintosh showed up one evening and was given one of her musical tapes. The next morning Mackintosh had telephoned her to come to Oxford, England, to join a master class. She found herself two weeks later as one of 13 writers working with Stephen Sondheim. "This was like telling a Christian you have been invited to meet Jesus Christ."

What did she learn from Sondheim? "Lots. Never look down to your audience. Be specific with your songs. Pick an action part and put the song there. Move it along musically, driving the action. Push harder on the song. The lyrics must rhyme perfectly. When you think you have a good song, work on it until it is a great song."

"Joy drives most of my writing. I love gardening, horseback riding, my dog. My life is full of joy. Sometimes I write from anger or pain. I think I always bring a sense of wonder from my life to my work."

Arden has achieved new fame for writing music and lyrics for The House of Martin Guerre, and her career is being watched closely by Cameron Mackintosh, David Mirvish and Garth Drabinsky.

"The Last Resort is a 180-degree stretch from Martin Guerre, which is a big dark piece," she said. "Making it fun is our first priority. The story is pastiche, a patchwork of different styles. There is something unique about Norm's sense of humour. When I first read the script, my partner would come in and find me laughing out loud!"

Both Norm and Leslie believe The Last Resort has been blessed with a multi-talented cast. It is hard to find a group of eight people who all have a sense of comedy and timing -- so critical -- as well as strong voices.

The Last Resort had its world premiere at Thousand Islands Playhouse on May 17, 1997. Theatre Orangeville will open its 1997 season June 18 with the musical as well.

Jim Betts, artistic director of Theatre Orangeville says: "Norm Foster's plays are always incredibly popular, probably due to Foster's talent for creating wonderfully familiar characters, and putting them in the most absurd situations."

Such is the case with The Last Resort. In this madcap comedy, eight bizarre guests book into a run-down resort in Saskatchewan -- and before long one of the guests is found dead...or murdered? Arden's music tangles with mystery and everyone becomes a suspect.

Foster is one of the most produced and prolific playwrights in Canada. He is also affectionately known as the tallest free-standing playwright. One of the reasons his plays are produced so often because they are about ordinary people in extra-ordinary situations. Foster recalls how The Melville Boys, (winner of the Los Angeles Critics Drama-League Award) grew from a song he heard on the car radio one day. He considers writing fun. When he gets an idea, he likes to get it written and finished.

Norm Foster did not start writing until 1980. He was born in Newmarket and grew up in Scarborough, attending West Hill Collegiate and then went to Centennial College for Radio and Television Arts. While at Confederation College in Thunder Bay, he wrote two plays, Sinners and The Melville Boys for Malcolm Black, then artistic director of Theatre New Brunswick. Both plays were very successful for Theatre New Brunswick, and have since been translated into French.

Ten years ago, Foster moved to Fredericton, New Brunswick. He was glad to get away from the Toronto city influences that were impacting his writing. His family loves the rural lifestyle too. "My driving force is to provide a happy environment for Janet (Monid) my wife and my family, and to express myself though writing. I am delighted to be able to do that. Janet is currently running a program with Theatre New Brunswick for new playwrights, so the children get lots of exposure to theatre." Foster also acts as a DJ for a local Fredericton radio station, and has quite a following. This interaction with people on a regular basis gives him lots of writing ideas.

Some people tell Foster he looks as if he is a bit somber or aloof. "That's not how I mean to come across. I am not such a serious guy. In my writing I try to move the audience as much as I can -- from laughter to tears and back -- throughout the piece. It feels good to make people laugh."

Favourite people? "One of my favourite authors is W. P. Kinsella, who writes books about baseball and native people, and lives in B.C. It was his work the movie Field of Dreams was based on. The funniest person I ever have met is Don Percy. When Don left for Winnipeg, he got me a job there. Don even did the morning show at CHUM AM. I admire him a lot. I also like Seinfeld's brand of humour."

Writing two plays last year was a pleasure for him. He is author of Sinners, Wrong For Each Other, The Affections of May, The Motor Trade, Opening Night, The Long Weekend, and his two latest plays, Office Hours which opened the Theatre New Brunswick season and Jupiter in July which was performed at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton in January.

Theatre Orangeville is located at the Orangeville Town Hall Opera House, and tickets ($21 adults, $19 members, and $10 for children under 18) are available by calling (519) 942-3423.