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New film puts Brian Mulroney back on centre stage

Rick Miller's take on Canada's 18th prime minister combines what he calls "schmacting" with lip-syncing to bass baritone Daniel Okulitch.

Steve Wilkie/Steve Wilkie

A crowd of business types erupts in applause as spotlights illuminate a rubber-chicken fundraiser inside Toronto's One King West tower. From the back of the room, a blue-suited figure with a familiar face - and an unmistakable chin - bounds triumphantly up to the head table and sings, in operatic bass: "Tory friends, you supported me! I am in. I am in. … I owe it all to you!"

It's Brian Mulroney.

Well, sort of. This is actually Brian Mulroney the opera, one of the best-kept secrets in town.

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Rhombus Media, the film company behind such movies as The Red Violin and Passchendaele, has invested $3.75-million into creating a full-scale comedic opera based on Mulroney's life and turning it into a feature-length film. Niv Fichman is an executive producer; Larry Weinstein is producing and directing. The production begins with Mulroney's childhood in Baie-Comeau, Que., before covering his political career, and ending with the unveiling of his portrait on Parliament Hill in 2002.

A score by Canadian composer Alexina Louie is set to a libretto by former Kids in the Hall story editor Dan Redican, just two of the many artists and creators who have reunited for the project, having worked together on Rhombus's 2005 TV project, Burnt Toast, a series of operatic vignettes about modern relationships.

The tone of the opera, an obvious spoof, is deeply irreverent and deliberately over-the-top. But all involved are at pains to point out that it also tries paint a complex - and at times forgiving - portrait of Canada's 18th prime minister. Its working title, which is unlikely to stick, is Politics Is Cruel: An Opera.

One of the rockiest chapters of Mulroney's life - the public enquiry into the Karlheinz Schreiber/Airbus affair - is dealt with only in passing. Says Weinstein, "We were hoping that, in the end, the legacy of Brian Mulroney wouldn't be that. I think right now people see him through that prism, but I don't want him to be remembered for that alone."

The real Mulroney was notified of the opera's existence only this past week - cast and crew have been sworn to secrecy - and it remains to be seen how he will react, a prospect the producers admit has made them nervous. But those involved insist both Mulroney and his wife come off as attractive, and hope they can appreciate the humour in their work.

Mulroney is played by Rick Miller, known for such one-man stage shows as MacHomer and Hardsell, as well as his versatile appearance in Robert Lepage's nine-hour play, Lipsynch. In this production, he juggles Mulroney's mannerisms with tricky lip-syncing, matching his "schmacting," as he calls it, to the bass baritone of Canadian Daniel Okulitch (best known for his role in the David Cronenberg opera The Fly), who sings Mulroney's part.

As is often the case in his own shows, Miller's acting is exuberant and physical, adding a suitably grand theatricality to his Mulroney character. "Casting Rick sort of opened my eyes about what [the opera]could be," said Weinstein, on the film's set in Nobleton, Ont., north of Toronto. "It could be more fun, more athletic. It's not as dark or edgy [as we once envisioned it] This is a comedy."

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Says Miller, "I think this tragicomic opera is a perfect vehicle, not to make people necessarily love Mulroney again, but to see more nuance in a complicated story of power. I think everyone working on this likes him more than they did before."

The rest of the cast is an assortment of Canadian film, television and theatre mainstays. Colin Mochrie plays Jean Chrétien; Ted Dykstra is Ed Broadbent; Wayne Best takes on Pierre Trudeau; Joe Matheson channels Ronald Reagan; and Sean Cullen is one-time Mulroney cabinet minister Robert Coates. Mila Mulroney is played by Edmonton native Stephanie Anne Mills.

Rhombus began pondering the idea of an opera about Mulroney in 2005. Peter C. Newman's controversial biography, The Secret Mulroney Tapes: Unguarded Confessions of a Prime Minister, was just coming out, several months after the BBC had aired Jerry Springer: The Opera, which, despite its profanity, had garnered huge ratings.

Weinstein discussed the idea at a meeting with Richard Stursberg, then executive vice-president of the CBC, and although the public broadcaster ultimately has had no involvement in the production, Weinstein says the project "had momentum." After that, "it just evolved."

Canadians' first chance to see it will come next spring or summer, and Rhombus has cemented a deal with New York's Metropolitan Opera to follow its Met Live in HD season with a series of Canadian theatrical screenings at Cineplex theatres. Where else it might air remains to be seen, but Alliance Films holds distribution rights.

During the shoot, Miller went in at the crack of dawn each day to get made up as Mulroney, a process that took two hours when he was playing the younger politician, and close to three for the greying, later-life version. In off-camera moments, Miller, famous for his impersonations, would occasionally slip into Mulroney's deep, husky bass, sometimes only half-intentionally. " 'Why the long face?' I get that every day," Miller said during a break in filming, navigating morsels of a buffet lunch past his silicone chin.

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Some scenes are very lighthearted, for example when Mulroney first meets Mila at a country club in 1972. She notices her suitor's chin; he notices her "luscious bangs," as the libretto describes them, and the rest is history.

But this opera isn't all fun and games: there's a balancing act at work. The fundraiser scene shows a newly elected Mulroney being swarmed by supporters begging and grasping for patronage appointments; meanwhile, an angel and a devil flanking Mulroney give competing advice. It's a scene that pokes fun at the political machine, but also gets at the genuine pressures and loyalties tugging at a newly elected PM.

"It's good fun, it's good-natured. It's got a smile and a wink," says Weinstein. Then, with a figurative wink of his own, he adds, "It's not the sort of thing that you would, for instance, sue over."

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About the Author
Banking Reporter

James Bradshaw is banking reporter for the Report on Business. He covered media from 2014 to 2016, and higher education from 2010 to 2014. Prior to that, he worked as a cultural reporter for Globe Arts, and has written for both the Toronto section and the editorial page. More

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