Is it pop music or stage songs? Should it be relegated to one or the other? When we first met singer and songwriter, Will Gillespie, we documented his move from South Porcupine to Hamilton to find more welcoming climbs for his art. Offbeat, quizzical and quirky, Gillespie felt his original music found a home in Hamilton. But while he gave up on musical theatre studies in Windsor to pursue life as a singing troubadour, theatre life would again capture Gillespie’s muse and he’s run with it. Two years ago, Gillespie’s fantasies ran rampant. Gillespie asked why not have an Elvis type movie in a Canadian port and Swinging in St. John’s the musical was born. Gillespie’s pop chops and unabashed love of strange stories blossomed into a full strange stage production that debut at the Fringe Festival that year... and a resultant vinyl soundtrack of the music was released. Chuffed by his muse coming to such welcoming arms, Gillespie is back with a new fantasmamusical... What if Neil Diamond ended up in Hamilton but wasn't recognized?
“Swingin’ in St. John’s was such a success we're going to be mounting it for a third time this year in Burlington with the same cast we have for Diamond in the Rough,” says Gillespie. “The first full length musical of my own writing seems to have legs so we’ll be doing it for the third year in a row.
“I had left musical theatre to be a singer songwriter but thanks to the folks at the Artword Artbar I got invited into the local scene and once I got in, there was a lot of opportunity,” adds Gillespie. “My songwriting, the eclectic songwriting that I do in sound and lyrics — the theatre audience demands that kind of thing so I asked myself why haven't I been doing this the whole time?”
While Gillespie remains a singer songwriter releasing a collection of songs that continue to explore elements of folk, rock and cabaret last year, this year seems him focusing on a production inspired by a similar childhood hero.
Gillespie doesn’t want to let the whole story out of the bag but the program synopsis reads that Diamond in the Rough is “A heartfelt, feel-good musical featuring 15 new, original songs. Through a twist of fate, Neil Diamond performs, unrecognized, in a local neighbourhood bar in Hamilton. The regulars learn of the impending closure of their beloved hangout. Facing an uncertain future, can they find a place to belong?”
“It’s like a two act or two sided concept album where you flip the record is where the intermission would go,” smiles Gillespie. “At times it’s just exaggerated caricatures of myself that ends up in my music and so with the play in mind I just took that aspect a bit further. Even though it’s about Neil Diamond, it’s fairly autobiographical, too. The story and the fun moments are based on my experiences as a solo musical troubadour travelling across Ontario in venues some that have come and gone — it’s also a tribute to some of those places. This is just fan fiction through the lense of Neil Diamond.”
Fantasmamusicals are all the rage with Abba, Queen and more — the recently released Yesterday film asks what if nobody new the Beatles existed? Gillespie taps into a similar mindset.
“I grew up listening to my parents music so that was Elvis and Neil Diamond and I have more than a passing resemblance to Diamond — he’s become one of my ‘go to’ karaoke choices,” says Gillespie. “It was a challenge paying homage to his songwriting style but Neil comes in as an emotional narrator and the other characters are the driving force of the plot. Neil introduces the story and the venue and throughout it he echoes the feelings of the characters.”
With a cast including Michelle La Haise, Chris Cracknell, Leonard Cain Susan Robinson, Gillespie is writer, director and Neil Diamond for this production, Gillespie could easily be considered Hamilton's alternative Andrew Lloyd Webber but it'll be a while before he hits Broadway.
“The cast are a great group of musicians and actors and I’m really enjoying how this is going right now,” says Gillespie. “I’ve already got ideas for another show next year and I’m hoping maybe other companies will do productions of these shows. We might take it on the road ourselves but I don't know if there are dreams of off Broadway.
“We will be releasing a cast soundtrack album as well and I’m really pleased with the recordings and audiences were happy to take that home,” adds Gillespie. “You don’t have to be an expert on Neil Diamond or anything like that. I’d hope anyone interested in musicals comes out. It’s a light hearted, universal comedy with some pretty good songs in my opinion.”
Will Gillespie's "Diamond in the Rough" runs from July 17-28 at the Players Guild (80 Queen Street South). Tickets are $12 with a Fringe Backer Button, Click on hamiltonfringe.ca/shows/diamond-in-the-rough or willgillespie.bandcamp.com