John MacLachlan Gray (born John Howard Gray), OC, playwright, composer, writer, actor, pianist, broadcaster (born 26 September 1946 in Ottawa, ON). John MacLachlan Gray is a multi-talented artist across many media. As a playwright, composer and theatre director, he is best known for Billy Bishop Goes to War (1978), one of the most popular and successful works in the Canadian theatre canon, which he created in collaboration with Eric Peterson. Gray’s work as a broadcaster, magazine writer and newspaper columnist also established him as a respected commentator on Canadian cultural issues. An Officer of the Order of Canada, he has won numerous awards and accolades, including two Dora Awards and the Governor General’s Literary Award.
Early Years and Education
Gray was raised in Truro, Nova Scotia, where his father worked in insurance and his mother was a biologist. His father, Howard Gray, a war veteran with the Royal Canadian Air Force, named him John in memory of a friend, a Spitfire pilot who was shot down during the Battle of Britain. (Gray formally changed his middle name to MacLachlan, his mother’s maiden name, in the 1980s to avoid being confused with relationship-advice writer John Gray, author of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus.)
Gray’s artistic ability first found an outlet in music. He took piano lessons from a Second World War refugee who had studied with Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. While earning his BA in English at Mount Allison University (1964–68), Gray played Hammond organ and trumpet with The Lincolns, a popular R&B band in Nova Scotia. He went to Vancouver in 1968 to study directing at the University of British Columbia, and graduated in 1971 with a master’s degree in Theatre.
In 1972, Gray was a founding member of Vancouver’s Tamahnous Theatre, which specialized in avant-garde works, including one of Gray’s early efforts, Salty Tears (libretto by Jeremy Long). He directed plays at Tamahnous until 1975, when he moved to Toronto and joined the innovative Theatre Passe Muraille as a composer and occasional director. From 1975 to 1977, he wrote music for eight of the company’s shows, including the collectively conceived play, 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt.
His first major musical, the witty 18 Wheels, about Canadian truck drivers, was introduced in 1977 at Theatre Passe Muraille and later toured nationally. Gray’s second musical, Billy Bishop Goes to War, was a collaboration with actor, and Tamahnous co-founder, Eric Peterson. Starring Peterson in 18 roles and featuring Gray as pianist and narrator, Billy Bishop was an instant hit after opening at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on 3 November 1978. It toured Canada for 16 months and played in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, London’s West End, the Edinburgh Festival Mainstage, and both on Broadway (at the Morosco Theatre, produced by Mike Nichols) and off Broadway (at the De Lys Theatre). It won several major awards in Canada and abroad, and for a four-year period in the 1980s was the most-produced play in the United States. It was revised and remounted in 1998, 2009 and 2011, and released as a feature film by Rhombus Media in 2011.
Gray’s next musical, the bittersweet Rock and Roll (1979), was based on his experience with The Lincolns and premiered on 16 March 1981 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. It toured in Canada in 1983 and was adapted by Gray as The King of Friday Night for a CBC telecast in April 1985. Gray's other musicals include Don Messer's Jubilee (1984), an homage to the popular CBC music variety show (see Don Messer), which premiered on 4 January 1985 at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre before touring nationally. Health, the Musical premiered on 24 February 1989 at the Vancouver Playhouse.
Gray also wrote the children's musicals Bongo from the Congo (1982) 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 made for the province's pavilion at Expo 86. The scripts for 18 Wheels, Rock and Roll and Don Messer's Jubilee were published in the anthology Local Boy Makes Good: Three Musicals by John Gray in 1987. His musical, Amelia, based on the life of Amelia Earhart, premiered at the National Arts Centre, directed by Gray, in 1993. In 1995, CBC Radio commissioned his biblical rock opera The Tree. The Tower. The Flood., based on the story of Genesis.
Writing and Cultural Commentary
Gray published his first novel, Dazzled, in 1984. Between 1989 and 1992, he wrote and performed in 65 satirical segments for CBC TV's The Journal, and worked as a weekly columnist for the Vancouver Sun from the late 1980s to 2000. I Love Mom: An Irreverent History of the Tattoo was published in 1994, as was his serious collection of nationalist cultural commentary, Lost in North America: The Imaginary Canadian in the American Dream.
He is a prolific and award-winning magazine contributor, and Gray’s Anatomy, his weekly column for the Globe and Mail, ran in the early 2000s. His novel A Gift for the Little Master (2000), a thriller about a serial killer in contemporary Vancouver, was followed by a series of mystery-thrillers set in Victorian-era London: The Fiend in Human (2004), White Stone Day (2005) and Not Quite Dead (2007).
Gray’s work is often characterized by a mix of irreverent wit and dark existentialism. 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. As a commentator and columnist, Gray has proven to be an outspoken nationalist on cultural matters and a keen observer of the Canadian national character.
Gray has two younger brothers who are both successful musicians: Charlie Gray is a Toronto-based trumpet player; and Phil Gray is a trombonist who has played with Maynard Ferguson and Buddy Rich. Gray’s two sons are also in the arts: Zachary Gray is the lead singer and guitarist for the Vancouver-based indie-rock band The Zolas; while Ezra Gray is a noted visual artist.
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.
Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award — Billy Bishop Goes to War (1980)
Los Angeles Drama Critics Award — Billy Bishop Goes to War (1981)
Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama — Billy Bishop Goes to War (1982)
Outstanding New Revue or Musical (Rock and Roll), Dora Mavor Moore Awards (1982)
Outstanding Direction (Rock and Roll), Dora Mavor Moore Awards (1982)
Canadian Authors Association Award — Local Boy Makes Good (1988)
Honorary Doctorate of Laws, Mount Allison University (1989)
Best Arts Commentary (“The Unkindest *** Of All”), Western Magazine Awards (1991)
Best Commentary (“Desperate Measures and the Emperors New Suit”), Western Magazine Awards (1991)
Best Arts Commentary (“The Showboat Must Go On”), Western Magazine Awards (1993)
Honorary Doctorate of Laws, Dalhousie University (1996)
Jessie Richardson Readers’ Choice Award (Billy Bishop Goes to War), Vancouver Sun (1999)
Officer, Order of Canada (2000)
- 18 Wheels (1976)
- Billy Bishop Goes to War (1978)
- Rock and Roll (1979)
- Better Watch Out, You Better Not Die (1983)
- Don Messer's Jubilee (1984)
- Health, the Musical (1989)
- Bongo from the Congo (1982)
- Balthazaar and the Mojo Star (1982)
- The B.C. Review (1986)
- Amelia! (1993)
- TheTree. TheTower. TheFlood (1995)
- Local Boy Makes Good (Talonbooks, 1987)
- Dazzled: A Novel (Irwin Publishers, 1984)
- A Gift for the Little Master (Random House Canada, 2000)
- The Fiend in Human: A Victorian Thriller (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004)
- White Stone Day (Minotaur Books, 2005)
- Not Quite Dead (Minotaur Books, 2007)
- I Love Mom: An Irreverent History of the Tattoo (Key Porter Books, 1994)
- Lost in North America: The Imaginary Canadian in the American Dream (Talonbooks, 1994)