This week, 14 ambitious students from Vanier Catholic Secondary School will be belting out a raft of hit tunes their parents or grandparents probably danced or cuddled to decades ago.
Under the direction of English teacher Marcia Lalonde and musical director Kim Hart, they will present two public performances of the “jukebox musical” Leader of the Pack.
The show, which was savaged by critics but earned a Tony nomination in 19__, tells the real-life story of Ellie Greenwich, one of the most prolific songwriters and producers of her generation.
“She wrote an enormous number of hits, including “Leader of the Pack”, “Da Doo Ron Ron”, “Be My Baby” and “Do Wah Diddy” and “Hanky Panky”,” says Lalonde.
Not to mention “Chapel of Love”, “Baby I Love You” and the Tina Turner smash, “River Deep, Mountain High,” plus dozens of others recorded by top stars of her day.
“In one year alone, she had 17 songs that she had written on the Billboard Top 100,” says Lalonde. “She actually discovered Neil Diamond.”
Lalonde describes the show as “a modern love story” where after boy and girl meet, fall in love and marry, then “boy and girl have different dreams, boy and girl get divorced and live happily ever after. Separately.”
When she introduced the play, that take on things didn’t exactly sit well with the cast, Lalonde laughs.
“The kids keep asking me to re-write the ending. They want the happy ending.”
This is the sixth musical Lalonde has directed at Vanier. After a colleague in British Columbia recommended it to her, she liked it, but put it on a back burner for a number of years.
“It has a heavily female cast, and I think I wanted a bit more of a balanced cast in the past,” she explains.
Casting 10 females and four males for a high school musical seemed like a tall order, but things changed last December, when Lalonde attended the school’s annual pre-Christmas talent show.
“We had some amazingly talented female singers in that show, so I though this time maybe I would try Leader of the Pack.”
Unlike a more traditional musical comedy, the show consists primarily of songs which don’t necessarily help propel the narrative. That task is left to the “liner notes” written by Anne Beatts.
“There’s a huge number of songs and short bursts of dialogue to link them all,” Lalonde says. “Often they are thematically related, but they don’t tell the story as such.”
In the original Broadway production, Greenwich played herself, with Patrick Cassidy as Jeff Barry, her songwriting partner and – for awhile – her husband.
Several of the artists who had recorded Greenwich songs, including Darlene Love, Annie Golden and Pattie Darcy also appeared as themselves.
In the Vanier production, Sarah Ott plays Ellie, while Cody Cashin plays Jeff. Both leads were in the Music, Drama and Art (MAD) program at Wood Street School last year.
For Ott, who made her musical theatre debut as the Narrator in the Guild Theatre production of Into the Woods, getting to play Ellie Greenwich has been an eye-opener.
“I had never heard of her before this, but I had heard of her songs, like “Chapel of Love”, and all those kind of timeless classics,” she says.
“What was cool was that there were these songs I had known my entire life, and I didn’t even know that she was the one who had written them.”
The hardest part, she says, was trying to encompass the character of the real Ellie Greenwich.
“She was such a strong person, and throughout her character it’s like she’s got this ultimatum; it’s either him, Jeff Barry, or it’s music. She’s had to struggle with it her whole life, because she loved music so much that she loved it more than she could love a man,” Ott says.
“So it’s a tough role to wrap your head around, and it’s taught me to be much more confident and strong in myself, so that’s pretty cool.”
With choreography by MAD student Kevin McLaughlin and a pit band assembled and directed by Hart, Leader of the Pack will play Friday May 8 and Saturday May 9 in the small gym at Vanier.
Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for students and children. Curtain time both nights is 7:00 p.m.