Peter Jennings was nervous. Inside the rehearsal hall of Ottawa's National Arts Centre, the famed newsman was pacing as he waited to run through his lines as narrator of a special Feb. 21 benefit performance of the opera The Merry Widow. The anchor of ABC's World News Tonight may make a reported $10 million a year, but here he was just another performer courting approval from the only person who really counts - Brian Macdonald, the director. It made no difference that Macdonald sat in a wheelchair, his right leg shattered in three places by a fall in Montreal during the January ice storm. The director stroked the air with a pencil as he counted off the score, wheeled over to show the Danilo character the correct way to embrace Hanna, the Merry Widow, then half-stood in his chair to demonstrate how they should link hands and circle each other as the music builds. "There," he said, his long, thin face splitting into a smile. "Beautiful." Whispered Jennings, who knows authority when he sees it: "Brian is the boss."
After nearly half a century, the mantle suits him. A month from his 70th birthday, Macdonald is not one to bask in the autumnal twilight. Forget that at his age, he might interpret a broken femur as a hint of mortality. Lying in his Montreal hospital bed, Macdonald saw it as exactly the opposite: an incentive to get back to work while he still could. "Fortunately, the phone rings a lot," he points out. In February, he was onstage in Sweden with the Goteborg Opera House, waving his crutch after a triumphant performance of his newly choreographed version of Stravinsky's Petrushka. This week, he remounts his production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly for the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, and on July 17 in Ottawa he relaunches his acclaimed version of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado (it will also travel to Victoria and Toronto). Later this year, it's back to Ottawa and the National Arts Centre, where he is senior artistic adviser, to choreograph and direct a tribute to MGM musicals starring veteran hoofer Ann Miller. And he is in the early stages of planning a big touring revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein favorite South Pacific. "What makes him unique is his diversity," says Herbert Whittaker, the renowned Canadian theatre critic, now retired. "He is that rare thing: a success as a choreographer in the classical field and also in the commercial field."
Exactly the sort of expansive career Macdonald - whose hero is Jerome Robbins, the versatile American choreographer and director - mapped out for himself at an early age. "I have always felt that there are many things inside you," explains Macdonald, who is six feet, two inches tall, rake-thin and favors huge black-rimmed glasses. That attitude has led to some surprising gigs: he has choreographed half-time Grey Cup shows and even orchestrated the controversial finale to the 1985 Canada-United States Shamrock Summit, which saw Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan warbling When Irish Eyes Are Smiling on the world stage.
At home in Canada, he is best known for reviving musical theatre at the Stratford Festival during his 16 years there. Outside the country, he has made his mark as a bold and innovative choreographer and director of ballet and opera. "Brian's genius is his adroitness in creating stage pictures - in imbuing static scenes with life," declares Elizabeth Bradley, general manager and chief executive officer of Toronto's Hummingbird Centre for the Performing Arts, who has worked on various projects with him since 1980.
Consider Petrushka, which opened in February in Goteborg. Stravinsky set the action, which revolves around a puppet master and a trio of puppets who come to life, in turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg. Macdonald has changed the setting to modern gangster-ridden Russia and transformed the central characters into shell-shocked soldiers returning from the war in Chechnya. A critic for Radio Goteborg enthused: "Clear in its action, rich in color, strong emotions and harsh sudden death, the ballet unfolds in front of me as wonderfully as if I am reading a Russian novel."
Petrushka has special resonance for the Montreal-born Macdonald. On Sept. 28, 1944, he took his mother to a production of the ballet at the St. Denis Theatre as a birthday present. "I was just 16," he recalls, "and life was never the same after that night." So much for expectations that he would become a lawyer, a solid profession befitting the son of a Lowland Scottish father who was a sales manager of the Dominion Glass Co. and an Irish mother who had survived the Great Depression.
Stagestruck, Macdonald enrolled in dance classes - a bold act for a boy in 1940s Montreal - but grew too tall and started too late to make it as a great dancer. Yet he still managed to become one of the founding members of the National Ballet of Canada in 1951. Two years later, he tripped while performing in a Montreal night club, an accident that shattered his left arm and left him permanently disabled. It also ended his dance career. "I am a Taurus," Macdonald says. "We are extremely strong-willed. And I am a firm believer that you have to make things, even a broken arm, work for you."
Making his mark in the dance world now meant moving behind the scenes. So he headed back to McGill University in Montreal, where he studied voice and scored his first stage hit with a 1957 musical revue called My Fur Lady, in which he collaborated with his first wife, the Canadian ballerina Olivia Wyatt. By then, Montreal was a dance and theatre hotbed, enabling Macdonald to make a living choreographing ballets and variety shows for CBC television. When his wife died in a 1959 car crash, he took their young son, Wyatt, now 43 and a computer programmer in Orangeville, Ont., and headed for Europe to study on a Canada Council grant.
There, he hit his stride. Macdonald studied at the Kirov Ballet, where he became a friend of Rudolf Nureyev. Then, in 1964, he became artistic director of the Royal Swedish Ballet, and met his second wife, ballerina Annette av Paul. Eight years later, after a stint as the artistic director of the Batsheva Ballet of Israel, he returned to Canada as resident choreographer, and later artistic director, of Les Grands Ballets Canadiens in Montreal, where his wife became principal dancer. Back in his home town, he championed Canadian composers, performing works by everyone from R. Murray Schafer to Harry Freedman - and earned a reputation as a demanding taskmaster. "The cast thought I was tough; I thought I was a pussycat," he recalls. "But you don't get things done without pushing."
Nowadays, everyone who knows him says Macdonald has mellowed. Home for him and his wife - now a teacher of classical dance - is a tidy Victorian riverfront house in Stratford, Ont., where he likes to putter in the terraced garden and hang out with the town's theatre crowd. He could be content with his Order of Canada, his Dora Awards for The Mikado and Dames at Sea, his Tony Award nominations for Mikado. But Macdonald does not want the curtain to fall on his career just yet. Two years ago, pleading boredom, he directed The Music Man, his 19th Stratford Festival musical. Then he applied for the post of director of the National Arts Centre. And when he lost out to theatre impresario John Cripton, he came aboard anyway as a special artistic adviser to help Cripton in his bid to lead a creative renaissance at the centre.
Now, he wants to start a long-planned memoir. As for new commissions, he is trying to be more selective than ever about the projects he takes on. "I am always trying to dig in to myself to see what's there, to see if I can find something new in a piece," he reflects. That, ultimately, is the artist's challenge. For Macdonald - who was on an airplane to Sweden three days after shattering his leg - it is more like an obsession. One that age, or accident, just cannot dampen.
Maclean's April 13, 1998