By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
In her TV address of April, when Queen Elizabeth encouraged the British people to be strong and stay resolute in a new kind of Blitz, she was invoking the spirit of the wartime 40s — and its most famous song.
“We will meet again,” declared the Queen, an allusion to Vera Lynn’s biggest hit in a 93-year career. “We’ll meet again/ don’t know where/ don’t know when….”
“Even Vera Lynn couldn’t make it through 2020 unscathed,” as Melanie Gall notes. The iconic English singer died, at 103, in June.
Her most galvanizing song has a particular resonance during these virus-battered, isolating times. After five months hiatus, Gall, the Edmonton-based much-travelled star of such solo Fringe hits as Edith Piaf: The Sparrow and the Mouse and Red Hot Mama: A Sophie Tucker Cabaret, is back live and singing (outdoors and at a safe distance) this very weekend. Her award-winning tribute show We’ll Meet Again: Vera Lynn, the Forces’ Sweetheart comes to the outdoor parking lot of the Jasper Place Curling Club Sunday, 2 p.m.
Gall’s startlingly far-reaching international touring schedule (Europe, Africa, Australia, South America) has long been set in motion by annual appearances at the Edinburgh Fringe. After a sold-out run of Ingenue: Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, and the Golden Age of Hollywood at the Adelaide Fringe in March (it won the Best Musical award there), it’s been a whole season of tour cancellations for Gall. If times had been different, audiences in Durbin’s home town of Winnipeg would have seen the show at the Fringe there in July, before a run at the Edmonton Fringe earlier this month.
Gall, who grew up in St. Albert, is as funny and engaging in conversation as she is onstage. A classical opera singer by training, she graduated from the U of A, then moved to Toronto and then New York. It was in the Metropolitan Opera training program she started fretting at the constraints. “In opera,” she said, you didn’t get to make your own artistic choices,” she says. “It’s strictly music-mandated; I loved the music but (opera) didn’t make me happy, and everyone was mean.” She laughs.
She made money in New York doing stints in Law and Order, “as a body double for someone pregnant.” And then she met Kirk Fitzpatrick, “a meta-clown with a weird act, who suggested doing the Fringe.” And that decision has been her bread-and-butter, Gall says. “I use the Fringes to sell to theatres.” In Edinburgh, a magnet for agents and festival and theatre managers, Gall is a rare example of a performer who not only gets gigs, but actually makes money. “I have an agent there, I got my Australia tour there, and I even got an Off-Broadway run through Edinburgh….”
“I learned as I went,” she says of a musical theatre path that began a decade ago. “And some shows were better than others.” Her Irving Berlin show, for example, that focussed on his early “quasi-naughty” songbook were out of copyright restrictions in the States, but not in Canada. Who knew? A cease-and-desist order ensued.
Since Gall writes the text that glues the songs of her hour-long shows together (“40 minutes of singing, 15 minutes of writing”), she gradually developed an appetite for historical research. Her go-to libraries are the New York Performing Arts Library and the British Museum in London. “You’re living the research while you’re doing it,” she says of the experience of handling old programs, diaries, newspaper articles.
The leading expert on wartime knitting songs, Gall has fashioned not one but two shows — Stitch in Time: A Knitting Cabaret and More Power to Your Knitting, Nell! — from “the lost knitting songs of World Wars I and II.”
“I tell stories and sing,” says Gall, who now has two CDs of knitting songs (mostly British, with one French and one Czech song). She knits onstage, and invites audiences to bring their own knitting to the show. “In Winnipeg, someone stopped the show” and rushed onstage to help, insisting that she’d dropped a stitch. “What do you do?” Needless to say there is nothing in the operatic handbook to cover the exigency of re-claiming your needles.
This summer’s premiere would have been The Lost Songs of Prohibition. As she points out, drinking songs would be a natural for cabarets in licensed venues. Next year’s show is an homage to Noel Coward.
Gall loves the Fringe tour. “It’s really fun, and it’s a level playing field! You get to play with the cool kids — and be one!”
Gall’s Vera Lynn show, which premiered in 2017 when the singer was a sprightly 99, was inspired by her grandfather’s love of the repertoire. “The BBC data base is full of great personal stories of World War II…. She didn’t walk away from the fans. She was there for them.”
“Vera Lynn,” incidentally, is Cockney rhyming slang for gin. And the singer had to take a spirits company, Halewood International, to court when they tried to use her name on the label.
At Sunday’s show you can expect to her a dozen or more songs from the 90-song Vera Lynn archive (including, of course, White Cliffs of Dover), “depending on the timing.” A parking lot venue doesn’t faze Gall in the least. “In Milan, I pretended to be American for a July 4 show.” In Chad she played outdoor at an international francophonie festival. “I’m willing to go anywhere!”
The Queen and Vera Lynn were right. We’ll meet again.
We’ll Meet Again: Vera Lynn, the Forces’ Sweetheart
Created by and starring: Melanie Gall
Where: parking lot, Jasper Place Curling Club, 16521 107 Ave. (free parking, “lots of room to socially distance”).
Running: Sunday, 2 p.m.
Tickets: suggested price $20