John Gray

Composer of MusicalsLiving 1975-82 in Toronto before returning to Vancouver, Gray worked initially as a composer and director at Theatre Passe Muraille, contributing songs to various productions, including the collectively conceived play 1837: The Farmer's Revolt.

John Gray, playwright
Gray's most celebrated play is the one-man tour de force Billy Bishop Goes to War.

Gray, John

 John MacLachlan (Howard) Gray. Playwright, composer, pianist, actor, writer, b Ottawa 26 Sep 1946; BA (Mount Allison) 1968, MA (British Columbia) 1972, honorary LLD (Mount Allison) 1989. Raised in Truro, NS, John Gray played Hammond organ and trumpet ca 1964-8 with the Lincolns, an R&B band popular in Nova Scotia. He later drew on the experience for his musical Rock and Roll. Gray went to Vancouver in 1968 to study theatre at the University of British Columbia. He was a founder (1972) of the Tamahnous Theatre, which produced an early Gray effort, Salty Tears (libretto by Jeremy Long), at the City Lights Theatre.

Composer of Musicals
Living 1975-82 in Toronto before returning to Vancouver, Gray worked initially as a composer and director at Theatre Passe Muraille, contributing songs to various productions, including the collectively conceived play 1837: The Farmer's Revolt. His first major musical, 18 Wheels (1976), was introduced in 1977 at Passe Muraille and later toured nationally. It was followed by Billy Bishop Goes to War (1978, a collaboration with Eric Peterson) and Rock and Roll (1979). The latter was premiered 16 Mar 1981 at the National Arts Centre, toured in Canada in 1983 and was adapted for a CBC telecast 20 Apr 1985 as The King of Friday Night. Gray appeared at various times in productions of all three works.

Gray's other musicals included Don Messer's Jubilee (1984, premiered 4 Jan 1985 at the Neptune Theatre, Halifax, and toured nationally) and Health, the Musical (1989, premiered 24 Feb 1989 at the Vancouver Playhouse). Thematically, many of his musicals explore the internal and external pressures that have shaped Canada's self-image; stylistically they draw on the energy and structure of the travelling vaudeville and concert troupes that were his introduction to the performing arts in Truro. The librettos for 18 Wheels, Rock and Roll and Don Messer's Jubilee were published in Local Boy Makes Good: Three Musicals by John Gray (Vancouver 1987).

Gray also wrote the children's musicals Bongo from the Congo and Balthazaar and the Mojo Star (1982, commissioned by the Vancouver International Children's Festival) as well as The B.C. Review (1986, 18 short musicals about British Columbia history for the province's pavillion at Expo 86).

Gray's Other Activities
From 1988 to 1992 John Gray wrote and performed in satiric music videos for CBC-TV's The Journal. He returned to writing for stage with the 1993 musical Amelia!, about the pilot Amelia Earhart; it premiered at the National Arts Centre, directed by Gray.

CBC Radio commissioned the 1995 biblical rock opera TheTree.TheTower.TheFlood. Gray's Rock and Roll, and revised versions of Billy Bishop (in which Gray reprised his role) and 18 Wheels, enjoyed revivals in several Canadian cities in the 1990s.

Gray's other writings include plays (eg, Better Watch Out, Better Not Die, 1981); film scripts (eg, The Legend of Kootenai Brown); and several novels and works of non-fiction. He has been a columnist for such newspapers as the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun.

Awards and Recognition
John Gray's musicals have reaped the Dora Mavor Moore Award (for Rock and Roll), the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award, the Chalmers Award and other prizes (for Billy Bishop Goes to War). For his other writing, he has won a National Magazine Award and several Western Magazine awards. Gray was created an officer in the Order of Canada in 2000.

The Gray Family

Gray's younger brothers Charlie (b Truro 12 Jul 1952) and Phil (b Truro 30 Nov 1955) are musicians, the former a trumpeter as of 1974 in Toronto studio, jazz and theatre orchestras, and the latter lead trombonist in the US 1978-80 with Maynard Ferguson and in 1985 with Buddy Rich.


Dazzled (Toronto 1984)

I Love Mom: An Irreverent History of the Tattoo (Toronto 1994)

Lost in North America: The Imaginary Canadian in the American Dream (Vancouver 1994)

A Gift for the Little Master (Toronto 2000)

The Fiend in Human (Toronto 2003)

Further Reading

  • Wyman, Max. 'Musical about truckers "theatre for people,"' Vancouver Sun, 23 Jun 1977

    Allen, Bob. 'Gray cued to play,' Vancouver Province, 30 Apr 1981

    Blackadar, Bruce. 'Rock and Roll writer's runs race against time,' Toronto Star, 1 Nov 1981

    Conlogue, Ray. 'John Gray: more than just another storyteller,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 4 Nov 1981

    Ashwell, Keith. 'John Gray: Ace of theatre wars,' Edmonton Journal, 28 Jun 1982

    Lekich, John. 'The co-pilot brings Bishop in smoothly,' Toronto Globe and Mail, 13 Nov 1982

    Godfrey, Stephen. 'Author churns out the hits with "controlled dreaming,"' Toronto Globe and Mail, 7 Sep 1985

    Portman, Jamie. 'Different shades of Gray in his new musical, Health,' Toronto Star, 25 Feb 1989

    Bessai, Diane. "Playwrights of collective creation," University of Toronto Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 1, Fall 1993

    Dafoe, Chris. "I'm having a wonderful time," Toronto Globe and Mail, 23 Feb 1993

    Conlogue, Ray. "Bringing Billy to a new generation: Once more with feeling," Toronto Globe and Mail, 26 Sept 1998

    "Billy soars again," Maclean's, 28 Sept 1998