If you’re doing a stage show about a highly-admired guitarist, being able to render the music is
a big help. Fortunately, Whitehorse musician Nicholas Mah has been playing the music of his dramatic subject, the late Lenny Breau, for decades.
Mah was 12 when he first encountered Breau at a guitar society meeting in his hometown of Ottawa.
“This guy was sitting next to me, and he sort of got up and started to play. Wow. I thought, ‘Does everyone play like that?’ I was blown away, completely,” he recalls.
“He made it look so easy. He was very nonchalant. This was probably 1969, so he was kind of super-cool. He was just so there, so everything you could imagine. But so impressive as a musician. It was remarkable.”
Lenny Breau was born in Maine, but moved to Winnipeg at the age of 16 with his Acadian parents, who were already well-established country musicians on the Canadian scene.
His mastery of musical genres as diverse as country, jazz, blues, rock and even flamenco, soon earned him a reputation as superb session player, teacher and television performer. Among his admirers were Randy Bachman of The Guess Who and the legendary musician and producer, Chet Atkins.
But there was a dark side to Breau, as well. Throughout his life, he struggled with serious drug addiction, although he reportedly kicked his heroin habit in the two years before his death in 1984 at the age of 43.
Mah first conceived the idea of putting together a tribute when a friend who had studied with Breau told him the guitarist had been found dead in a Los Angeles swimming pool, the victim of a still-unsolved murder.
“I immediately thought, ‘Well, I have to do some sort of tribute to him, because he was so completely remarkable’. That’s kind of where the idea came from, and I’ve always wanted to put something on,” he says.
“I have a theatre background, so I thought I thought it would be really cool, as a character actor, to adopt Lenny’s persona. And then I thought, ‘OK, I can make use of myself, my own playing and my own transcriptions, things that no one else does, as part of the show.'”
While there have been other theatre presentations about Breau’s life, Mah says his is the first to be done by a guitarist/actor.
“I’m pretty sure he would have been interested in some of the things I do, because he was really big on something we call counterpoint, which is simultaneous, independent lines of music happening at the same time on one guitar, which most guitarists have great difficulty with.”
Mah admits his challenges in putting together a tribute show were more theatrical than musical.
” I haven’t been an actor since I was in my 20s, so the challenges were more trying to develop the character, and to come up with a script that is cohesive and reasonable,” he says.
“Frankly, most of the stories that my show’s based upon are not true. If you ever read any of the interviews that Lenny gave, he says, ‘Oh, yeah. I’ve heard that story, and it’s not true.’ That’s what he says about most of them,” Mah adds.
“Stories like the one about how Chet Atkins used to multi-track his playing, and Lenny learned how to play all that on one guitar. It’s not really true.”
Mah’s tribute has gone through various iterations, including two earlier versions at Nakai Theatre’s Homegrown Festival. The addition of multimedia elements allowed the playwright to add various others, including “completely mythical, fictional characters”, to his cast.
“There’s video, and Lenny is reincarnated. He comes in and takes over my body,” he says.
“So we have things like that, combined with one of Lenny’s famous stories, where he says his hands are bewitched and they’re playing by themselves and he can’t stop. So someone has to go over and slap him around the head a few times so he will stop.”
At a compact 45 minutes in length, Mah acknowledges that the play, simply titled Lenny, is an ideal length for possible touring on Canada’s fringe theatre circuit, which he hopes to explore next year.
Meanwhile, Whitehorse audiences can see it at the Old Fire Hall on Thursday, October 6, as part of Jazz Yukon’s Jazz in the Hall series.
The performance starts at 7:00 p.m. sharp, preceded by the customary educational vignette by jazz commentator Steve Gedrose. Tickets are $7 at the door, with free admission to patrons under the age of 19.