Pre-performance warm-up: “Okay, everybody. Let’s take it from the War Measures Act.” The cast of six aligns, choreographer Ken Walsh retreats, music director Joe Sealy poises his hands above ivory keys, and with a crash of piano, the Spring Thaw '80 chorus takes off. Spring Thaw, that legendary satirical revue, that Canada goose, is back. Launched on a five-month coast-to-coast tour two weeks ago in the St. John’s Arts and Cultural Centre, Thaw appeared for the first time since 1971, armed with a decadeful of material, from War Measures to Montreal Olympics to multinationals. With the show’s return, one could divide Canada into two solitudes: those who’ve never heard of it and could care less and those nostalgic, middle-aged anglo Canadians for whom the very name, Spring Thaw,
once meant warming to a winterbound land, cracking up and chuckling like an ice-free stream.
The big questions facing Thaw 80’s backers and performers are: have Canadians outgrown the taste for its brand of humor-of-recognition? And can those who loved the old Thaw welcome a new incarnation of the legend? Its popularity has always been based on the charm of the shared experience. Barbara Ann Scott jokes in 1950; Maggie T. cracks in 1980. Thaw never broke new ice; it was just another child of this country’s romance with topical humor—a tradition that stretches back through the First World War’s Dumbells act to the pithy pronouncements, pre-Confederation, of pedlar Sam Slick. Why topical humor (as opposed to, say, Swiftean fable or tragicomic slapstick) is Canada’s preferred mode is unclear; perhaps before a culture can comment with wit on its val-
ues and pains, it first must establish its props and characters.Though Spring Thaw regularly drew critical pans for its immaturity—“adolescent,” “collegiate,” “a grisly experience”—it seems that any kidding around, no matter how childish, confirmed that Canadians had something in common; in Thaw’s heyday, it drew annual audiences 100,000 strong and broke box-office records.
There’s also something archetypally Canadian about Thaw’s birth. Back in 1948, two weeks before opening night, Toronto’s New Play Society adaptation of Two Solitudes fell through. A clique of thespians, including Mavor Moore, the 29-year-old son of the New Play Society’s founder, hastily filled the gap with topical songs and their own collectively written monologues. On opening night, the audience was shocked, then delighted to hear its snobberies, its scandals, even its street names being satirized on stage. Thaw promised the audiences that flocked on following nights that it would return, and for 22 years thereafter the show provided anglo Canadian culture with a credo for its own existence: “I laugh at myself, therefore I am.”
As well as providing anglo Canada with its giggles Thaw also generated a comic establishment—Wayne and
Shuster, Barbara Hamilton, Dave Broadfoot, Don Harron—but by the mid-1960s the original and early contributors had gone on to better things: Robert Goulet and Rich Little went south; Pierre Berton moved to books; Mavor Moore, now chairman of the Canada Council, left for cultural administration. And Spring Thaw went to the dogs. Its last incarnation, a bizarre rock ’n’ roll happening, was so far from the show’s original genteel and rather gentile Toronto the Good inspiration that Moore, who owned rights to the name, decided to put Thaw in the deep freeze. Four years ago Moore’s daughter, actress Tedde Moore, tried to resurrect
the show. She approached Alan Gordon, a young comedy writer for Shhh! It ’s the News (a TV revue with Don Harron), to write material for a Thaw that never broke. What was needed was funding— and someone to assume Mavor Moore’s organizational mantle. That same Alan Gordon, now a saturnine, sardonic 36year-old, has done it, producing, directing and contributing to Thaw ’80. Mavor Moore has played no part but to wish his “young friend” luck.
He’ll need it. In the intervening decade, regional satire such as Newfoundland’s Codeo and big-city comedy cabarets have flourished. At the same time Canadians have come to regard National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live as their own, as National Humor League expansion teams manned by expatriates who learned to schtick-handle here. In other words, the competition has become more sophisticated. “Cana-
dian humor has gotten harder,” affirms Gordon. “We’re no longer so easily astonished.” Yet to spring his Thaw on prospective backers, Gordon had to convince them it would still be funny. Soliciting the establishment’s contributions, he gathered names like Wayne and Shuster, Ben Wicks and Ma Thaw herself, Barbara Hamilton (who later backed off over the rigors of a fivemonth tour). These were the names that helped win the corporate patronage of Northern Telecom, which footed an undisclosed share of the show’s $400,000 budget.
In the main, however, Thaw 80 is the work of a new generation. Of its 37 skits, the majority were written by unknowns, including a former Prairie civil servant, a Toronto alternative magazine editor and a dour TV news anchor-
man.The cast is fresh too: average age under 30, and only one, the daft,
Brillohaired Rosemary Radcliffe, is a veteran of a previous Thaw (’70).Radcliffe is relatively familiar—she played Larry King’s girl-friend in the late, great King of Kensington. Also wellknown is Mary Ann McDonald, whose strong voice and snowy Canadian Shield of a smile opens the show. (McDonald’s talents may provide the most powerful memories Thaw 80 audiences carry away; for a decade, since she starred in Hair, critics have been urging her imminent stardom.) Audiences may even recognize, from Canadian Pacific TV commercials, the remarkable, amphibian face of Paul Brown: “Every time I
see that face,” giggled one openingnight patron, “I want to pee.” But the other three members of the cast, Brenda Bradley, Marvin Karon and Patrick Young, are brand-new talents. Gordon, pleased with their chemistry, wisecracks à la Groucho, “This cast! A real Canadian mosaic. Four blondes, five WASPs, all white bread.” They’ve all helped shape the show, adding their own muggings and mad lines, and censoring too. Out went a skit about VD and Indians (punch line: “You got it, Pontiac!”). Paul Brown sniffs, “We may not know much about humor but we know what we like.”
Inevitably, so young and new a group of performers and contributors have produced a show of uneven quality— which is only in faithful keeping with the Thaw tradition: “At its best,” recalls Mavor Moore, “it had sharp teeth; at its worst it gnashed its gums.” Much of this show’s humor is predictable and, well, adolescent: are grown-ups supposed to guffaw at self-conscious gags like the first Canadian on Mars driving a golf ball through a Martian livingroom window? Yet there are genuinely inspired moments too: a lilting ballad, Walkin ’ in the Acid Rain (“A smile’s all that’s left of my face”), and Rosemary Radcliffe’s truly evil impersonation of a Canada Immigration official—“I like to sit at the front desk where I can watch the clock and smell the foreigners.” Bouquets and brickbats for this show should land squarely on Alan Gordon. “I’m not into satire as a political tool,” he admits. “The whole joke of this is that Canadians arc silly.” Consequently Thaw '80 itself is often merely silly. Yet he has also created the show’s youthful charm, its esprit, by being there in the wings, hunched up in one of the bulky, shapeless preppie pullovers he favors, still yukking at material he rewrote and rehearsed a hundred times. Throughout production, he has cheered the cast with fast repartee: in one
revealing but not atypical exchange, after Rosemary Radcliffe refused to repeat a rude gesture she had accidentally made while being borne, hip-height, round the stage, Gordon pleaded tearfully, "Aw come on, do it again, Rosemary. I need all the cheap laughs I can get.” If Spring Thaw '80, snowed out for a decade, does stage a successful return, it may be precisely because of the high-school humor established by Gordon’s cheerleading. It may not be so funny, but it’s still an in-joke that all can understand, fp
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