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Saturday, May 28, 2011

Ford's Focus: Bob Bachelor

One Lucky Lyrical Music Man
If you have seen Montreal musical theatre, you have seen Bob Bachelor at work
by Barbara Ford
Bob Bachelor is one lucky man. Since he began his musical training in Toronto at a Catholic choir school, he has never had to support himself by taking work outside his chosen profession: musical theatre. 

He came to Montreal in 1971 to study music at McGill University and while there, he began working as a vocal rehearsal pianist for the well-known and extremely popular amateur group, The Arcadians. At the time, the dance pianist for them was Linda Laroche … to be continued.  

By the time he graduated with both a Bachelor degree in music as well as a teaching diploma, he was The Arcadians’ Musical Director and remained so until 1980, managing to make ends meet with small musical jobs in between their massive productions. “I never wanted to have a day job, work in a bank or something to support my music. I told myself early on that I only wanted to make a living with music and, I can hardly believe it myself, amazingly, it’s worked out that way.”
Bachelor took off a year without pay to find a work more with students who were genuinely interested in pursuing musical theatre

Between 1984 and ’89, Bachelor kept busy with the latest rage: dinner theatre. La Diligence, at the unlikely corner of Decarie and Jean-Talon, had opened one up and Anglo, based on Josh Freed’s book The Anglo Guide to Survival in Quebec, was an instant hit there under Bachelor’s musical direction. It was so popular that it moved to a second venue called Puzzles in the Hotel du Parc and between both locations ran a total of eighteen months to sold-out houses. 

Music Man
Other establishments were popping up all over town and Bachelor made the rounds working at Elite Productions’ venue housed inside the disco at the Regency Hyatt Hotel, The Edge Dinner Theatre and several others in downtown hotels such as The Meridien.

At about the same time, Bachelor also began to teach at St. George’s private school where he has been for the last twenty-one years, retiring this year. Though always considered part-time, by the end he was teaching up to eighty percent of a full-time schedule. Half way through his St. George’s span, Bachelor took off a year without pay to find a way to continue teaching at the school but to work more with students who were genuinely interested in pursuing musical theatre. 

A a result, for the next twelve years he ran an extracurricular program that produced an annual spring show. Bachelor’s farewell production this past spring was the Kander and Ebb murder-mystery musical, Curtains. “It’s hard to leave after being at the school for so many years, but it’s time. I don’t want to stay until I get grouchy and I need to be challenged by other things now. I like teaching and love musical theatre so maybe something at the CEGEP level. I filled in for Trevor Payne a few years ago in the music department at John Abbott College and quite liked it so who knows? I’m keeping my options open.” 

"We keep the program going by covering our costs with ticket sales..."

Guys and Dolls
Of the St. George’s productions, Bachelor said, “I’ve loved doing these shows for the last twelve years. It’s [St. George’s auditorium] a terrific little black box theatre, about one hundred and forty seats, with great technical equipment and staff. We keep the program going by covering our costs with ticket sales, which average nine thousand dollars per show.”

Not one to shy from long-term commitments, he got involved with Lyric Theatre in the early eighties and has been with them ever since. The amateur company founded in 1965 presented all of its big book shows in the West Island until 1986 when they moved to Old Montreal’s Centaur Theatre, thereby broadening their audience and notoriety. This was the company’s heyday, flourishing to the point that in 1990 they expanded to form The Lyric Theatre Singers, a second arm of performers who wanted to sing, but not act in, Broadway musicals.

From 1990 to ’97, Bachelor donned roller skates to keep up with the busy rehearsal schedules of the two Lyric factions as well as his St. George’s obligations, but by 1997, audience interest in big musicals was waning and the company was losing too much on the book shows. Stephen Sondheim’s Company was Lyric Theatre’s last production. 

"I really miss those big book shows, but it takes a special person with a lot of time and several skills to run that machine."

In March of the following year, the Lyric Theatre Singers, numbering seventy-five and comprised of both Lyric Singers and alumni plus Lyric book-show performers, returned to the Centaur to do a five-night benefit in an attempt to recoup the deficit which, miraculously, they were able to do but they could see the writing on the wall. For the time being, the company must give up the expensive book shows in favour of the choir 
performances, focus on building a nest egg and finding the right person to produce. Now they produce two shows a year: one at Christmas and another every spring.
“The Lyric Singers are putting money back into the coffers. I really miss those big book shows, but it takes a special person with a lot of time and several skills to run that machine. People are so much busier these days; Board members just don’t have the time they used to be able to donate. Our Board President, Louise Dorais, is more than capable of becoming a producer but she knows it would be all-consuming. She prefers to keep working with the group in her present capacity and we’d be lost without her. We’ve started to get some corporate sponsors (BLG, BMO Harris Private Banking and VIA Rail) but until we find that one person who could take on producing, we’re sticking to what works.” When I asked Bachelor why he, with all his experience, didn’t want to wear that hat himself he said, “I’m not the one for that. I’m best where I am.”

The King and I
Over the last ten years, there has been a lot of coming and going within the company. “It’s not like before,” Bachelor explained, “when people joined the company and stayed for at least ten years. Now it’s a real challenge to get the sound I want because one year the group is soprano heavy and the next it’s all altos. And of course we always need more men. But I’m happy to report there are more young people. We’re a strange mix of younger voices from eighteen into the twenties and then we skip a generation until the mid-forties and older.” 

"We’re not Glee, but that show seems to be having a great effect."

Bachelor does most of the staging and blocking and does his best not to overburden the members with movement so they’re comfortable and can enjoy the singing but he said, “some numbers just scream for choreography. For those we hire a professional to create two or three show-stoppers. We rent a backdrop to inject a few well-timed lighting effects for atmosphere and use various risers to break up the stage. Sometimes we even do a scene, full out, leading into a song.” Trained dancer and alumnus, Mary Sarli, has been choreographing for the choir most recently, between her own professional gigs. 

“We’re not Glee, but that show seems to be having a great effect. I think that’s why we’re getting younger people interested in joining. Lyric Singers isn’t a show choir, [a term used for choirs singing pop music]. We are definitely Broadway all the way. We’re not trying to change the world; more than anything, it’s about the music.” 

The Lyric Singers

Bachelor admits that he’s strict when it comes to discipline but by setting the bar high, members begin to see just what they are capable of achieving and are usually pleasantly surprised. However no one forgets that it’s an ensemble- no one individual is more important than the group. Bachelor laughed as he confided, “that’s my socialist side coming out.”

Towards the end of the 1990’s, Bachelor devised a brilliant plan to foster group solidarity. Twice a year, those who wanted to, could participate in a weekend retreat at the CAMMAC (Canadian Amateur Musicans/Musicens Amateurs du Canada) camp grounds in the Laurentians, where Bachelor works one week every summer. During the day it’s all musical drills and practice but the highlight activity is a Saturday night Broadway musical. The script is distributed only a week prior to the retreat with the participants randomly pulling their roles from a hat. Each has to prepare their number in private; no one sees anything until the show. Bachelor chuckled deviously, “I sit and watch and laugh … it’s great fun. That first year we did The Sound of Music … there were a lot of crazy bearded nuns in that show!”

...fifty percent of the group showed up, year two ninety-five percent showed up.

When Bachelor introduced the initiative, about fifty percent of the group showed up, but they had so much fun that by year two ninety-five percent showed up. “It’s a great way for new members to feel at home in the group and we work much better as a group in rehearsals afterwards.

The Lyric Theatre Singers marked their twentieth anniversary last year and to commemorate, they assembled a choir of one hundred and twenty voices made up of forty present members and eighty alumni. “It took us a while to track everyone down; more than three hundred people have sung in the choir.” With only four musicians- Dave Clark (reeds), Claude Lavergne (percussion), Éric Lagacé (bass) and Linda Laroche (still on piano with Bachelor after all these years)- the colossal ensemble shook the Oscar Peterson Hall. “The sound was just extraordinary. It blew everyone away, including me,” said Bachelor. “I was in heaven.”  Watch a West Side Story medley below. 

  • With so many performances under his belt, it’s difficult to single out the highlights but when I asked Bachelor if he could, right away The Music Man popped out. The 1991 production starred Alain Vandecruys and all Bachelor could say was, “It was magical.” 
  • In the early 1990’s, Bachelor entered the Lyric Theatre Singers into a competition with other Montreal choirs. “The second year we won against some hefty competition!” said Bachelor, sounding more like a kid on Christmas morning than a choir master.  
  • Almost a decade later, the choir went up to Trois-Rivières to compete in a festival that featured all types of music and they won there too. “That was a real coup,” beamed Bachelor. “This was a completely foreign audience that didn’t know us at all and they picked us as the winners.  It really validated our work.”   Not at all one to take sole credit for the ensemble’s triumphs, Bachelor is more like the silent father figure bursting with pride in the background as he watches his progeny go forth to conquer the world. 
...we Anglos are overlooking a huge boon right on our doorstep.

The Lyric Singers
I asked Bachelor what he foresaw for the future of musical theatre, especially here in Montreal. He’s very pleased to see places like the Segal Centre offering courses in the genre, doing their part to rejuvenate the original American art form in young, developing artists. Le Spotlight competition also pumps new blood into the local scene with its annual competition, for which Bachelor was a judge one year. However, according to Bachelor we Anglos are overlooking a huge boon right on our doorstep.

“There is a rich Francophone musical theatre community here in Quebec. I audited a master class in Montreal with Stephen Schwartz [creator of Godspell, Pippin and Wicked] and was astonished at the number of French students that attended.” Master Class à Montréal, founded by Jack Latulippe and Elizabeth Cordeau Rancourt, offers workshops and boot camps with such seasoned musical theatre performers and directors as Robert Marien, (Jean Valjean in Les Miserables in Montreal, New York, Paris and London), Austin Miller (Hairspray lead in both the national tour and Vegas production), and Sergine Dumais (played Frenchy in first official French version of Grease and was the assistant director to M. Marien for Starmania). “This organization is brilliant and exactly the kind of thing that’s needed to keep musical theatre alive. I think we [Anglophones] haven’t tapped into the French market and there is an interest there, not to mention a glut of talent.”

This particular music man sees no reason to stop pouring his expertise and energy into what he loves most...

The Lyric Singers
There is only a handful like Bob Bachelor left in the city, those still devoted to and working in musical theatre who remember the days when Montreal audiences showed up in droves. This particular music man sees no reason to stop pouring his expertise and energy into what he loves most, longing for the day when concert halls fill up again and he can once again pick up his baton for the likes of Eliza Doolittle, Oliver, the opera’s phantom or the enchanting albeit ambitious, Roxie Hart. Musical theatre may not tickle everyone’s fancy but remove it from the theatre lexicon and there would be a rather large, gaping hole: our lives would feel just a tad drearier and who needs that?

Dreary is certainly not the mot du jour for Bob Bachelor.  “I’m usually so busy with one thing or another, just doing the work ... sometimes I forget. I stand back and look at all the shows and I can’t believe I’ve done all that. And never once did I work in a bank! I really am a lucky guy.”
The Lyric Theatre Singers are presenting only four performances of Broadway Rhythm at Oscar Peterson Hall June 9 through 11. The full menu is sure to satisfy everyone’s taste including fans of Rogers and Hart, Cole Porter, Sondheim and new, contemporary work. For tickets, call (514) 363-3382 or go to their web site.

Stay tuned next week as I stray from the usual format to speak with three young Montreal actors who may just be on the brink of rocking the comedy world.

1 comment:

  1. Great article on a great talent. I have know Bob for too many years! I have worked with him as a producer, actor, lighting designer, and have always had nothing but admiration and respect for his talent and drive. We had many goodtimes with Lyric Theatre in the 80's and 90's heydays. Good to see he continues.

    He actually got me to do some passable singing in The Music Man. Thankfully he is nowhere near ready to retire and leave a void in the Montreal music scene.


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