Songs of a Lifetime: Leisa Way
In her new production, Across the Pond, singer Leisa Way steps up to the microphone to sing classics from The Beatles, Sting and Petula Clark.
On stage, the spotlight is on the microphone. In the background shadows, musicians play a big band sound as the singer – is it Peggy Lee? – begins “Why Don’t You Do Right?” But it’s not Benny Goodman or 1942. And it’s not Peggy Lee. It’s Leisa Way, the master of musical memoir, on a regular worknight. A few days later, on another stage, the curtain rises and Leisa channels Dolly Parton singing “Jolene,” or Dusty Springfield singing “Son of a Preacher Man,” or Shania Twain, Joni Mitchell, Patsy Cline …
But today, Leisa Way is playing herself, sitting at a table, preparing 468 promotional packages for theatre companies and organizations across Canada, setting up her 2019 tour. “It’s like what I did when I was assistant publicity director of Sudbury Theatre Centre years ago,” she laughs.
In fact, this Orangeville-based singer, musician, actor, writer and concert producer has rarely worked far from the limelight – and she started very young.
Now barely into her 50s, Leisa is celebrating the singers and songwriters she loves in productions that draw on performance experience covering nearly those five full decades. In her extraordinary career she has played a dazzling array of roles in plays and musicals on stages in Canada, the U.S. and some 60 other countries, as well as on the international waters between them. She’s petite, full of bright energy, and has a voice and presence that belie her size.
Ten years ago Leisa started her own company, now called Way-To-Go Productions. In February, Across the Pond: The British Invasion will come to Theatre Orangeville, the seventh Way-To-Go production Leisa has presented at the Opera House and one of ten she has written and produced so far. Across the Pond debuted last year and has since played in theatres across Quebec and Ontario, including an outdoor show in Grand Bend for an audience of more than 1,500.
Celebrating 50 years of British rock and roll in North America, Across the Pond features music from The Beatles to Sting, Petula Clark to Queen. Leisa has been singing some of the songs since she was a youngster growing up in Sudbury. “My sister’s 12 years older than I am and she used to carry me around the house, dancing and singing Beatles’ songs,” she remembers.
Not just her sister, but her whole family enjoyed music. “My mother was one of nine kids – all musical, playing and singing for their own enjoyment, so I always loved singing,” Leisa says. “Mom and Dad would ask me to perform when they had people over.” That created a dilemma. Leisa wanted to sing, but she was also shy. With a toddler’s logic, she would go into the kitchen, turn her back and belt out a song. “I’m still shy,” she says, “even today.” But that has never stopped her.
“I sang in most school concerts and assemblies right from kindergarten on,” she says. “Once I climbed a ladder behind a Christmas tree – a teacher was holding me – so my face appeared at the top of the tree when I sang.”
As her reputation grew, Leisa was in demand all over the city and was dubbed “Sudbury’s Sweetheart.” In addition to school concerts and music festivals, she sang at city events – when Queen Elizabeth visited Science North, for instance, and at dinners for Ted Kennedy and Terry Fox when they came through town. “At the 1983 Labatt Brier, I sang the national anthem three times a day for three days, with solos in the opening and closing ceremonies,” she recalls.
Leisa often sang with the Copper Cliff Highlanders pipes and drums. The cadet corps was once judged the best in Canada, taking several national and provincial championships. “Many people blame that for my big voice,” she says, laughing. Even with a microphone, it took power to be heard over pipes and drums. Leisa sang at weddings too, sometimes three a day. Along with her income from radio jingles and TV commercials, she was able to buy a car when she was 17. Until then her father had patiently driven her wherever she needed to go.
The move from singing to acting was a short step for Leisa. The Sudbury Theatre Centre was thriving and artistic director Tony Lloyd cast her as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz when she was 14. “My own dog played Toto,” she says. Over the next five years, she performed 10 musicals at STC. “I missed a lot of school, but Mom said it was okay as long as I kept my marks up.” (She did.)
Leisa recalls when Don Harron came to Sudbury for a Charlie Farquharson performance. “Tony introduced me to Don and said, ‘One day this little lady is going to be your Anne of Green Gables.’” Harron had written the libretto for Anne of Green Gables: The Musical and the show was already 20 years into its record-breaking run in Charlottetown.
Tony’s words were prophetic, but not without Leisa’s determination and a dose of grit. She didn’t have an agent and was not a member of the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association at the time, so she couldn’t get an audition. “I decided to crash the auditions anyway,” she says, “and was put at the bottom of the list.” She sat on the floor and was continually bumped down the list as other unscheduled actors with agents and Equity memberships were let in ahead of her. She was still waiting when Don Harron and others were about to leave for the day, but they gave her an opportunity. She got the part and stayed with the show for six years, including a two-month, eight-city tour of Japan in 1991.
In 1987, when she first left Sudbury for Charlottetown to play Anne, there was a crowd at the airport to bid goodbye to their “Sweetheart” and the Copper Cliff band played her a send-off. When she returned a year later, the crowd that gathered again to welcome her home included the loyal Copper Cliff band and, this time, Sudbury’s mayor.
Five years into her Anne run, Leisa thought she’d had enough. So when her mentor Tony Lloyd, who was at the Huron Country Playhouse in Grand Bend for the summer, offered her starring roles in Camelot and The Sound of Music, she seized the opportunity. It proved to be a life-changing decision.
Fittingly, it was in Camelot that Leisa met David Nairn, who is now artistic director of Theatre Orangeville. Although their paths had briefly crossed before, that summer in Grand Bend was the first time they worked together. Already cast as Guinevere, Leisa was in the theatre when auditions took place for King Arthur and Lancelot. “When I saw David, I knew I was in trouble,” she laughs. “He played King Arthur and Lancelot didn’t stand a chance.”
David was invited to meet Leisa’s family at the Ways’ wilderness camp on Madawanson Lake, northwest of Sudbury. “David was a city boy, so I figured he wouldn’t be much of an outdoorsman,” says Leisa. “He showed up that first time with a brand-new fishing vest and tackle box. Dad figured he’d never set foot in the outdoors, but he loved it! He and Dad became great friends.” David and Leisa have been together now for 26 years, and still share a passion for fishing.
After that fateful summer David secured the narrator’s role in The Shooting of Dan McGrew – in Charlottetown. And Leisa was suddenly only too happy to return for another year as Anne.
When the lakes were frozen here and the summer theatres dark, Leisa would spend as many as three months at sea, performing cabaret shows on board cruise ships. “I’d pick the ships and cruises by the destination, so I got to some really interesting places.” She also took lessons to become a certified scuba diver. David would fly down and join her when he could. On two cruises, he had a part in the show, once on an extended trip to South America where the couple performed seven different programs in seven weeks.
When David accepted the job as artistic director at Theatre Orangeville in 1999, Leisa’s life changed again. David quickly became a fixture in the local arts community and beyond, but with Leisa’s unpredictable work and travel itinerary, it was harder for her to integrate into the life of her new community. It was partly to gain control of her own schedule that within a few years she began to consider producing her own shows.
Sweet Dreams: A Tribute to Patsy Cline was her first – the prototype performed before Orangeville audiences before she took it on the road. That success was soon followed by Rhinestone Cowgirl: The Legend of Dolly Parton. These two productions have now played at more than 80 theatres in Canada.
In all her shows, Leisa dresses to look like the stars she celebrates (in fact, Dolly Parton’s retired costume designer helped put the costumes and wigs together for that show) and she works to embody their style of singing, their vocal quirks and intonation, but her goal is not to impersonate them. She weaves a story around the songs, describing what was happening when they were written, what inspired them and why they are important to the artist. Then she sings them in her own voice.
When a show calls for male vocals, by the likes of Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash or Sting, for example, singers from The Wayward Wind Band step up to the microphones, giving Leisa a chance to slip into the wings for a quick costume change. “One time I tried to change without help and almost had to come on stage and ask one of the guys to do up the dress,” she says. “Never again.” She has trunks full of costumes and hat boxes full of wigs. She notes the bouffant styles for Across the Pond require particular care.
Last year, Leisa and The Wayward Wind Band took on a 44-city tour, performing Oh, Canada, We Sing for Thee across the country. Inspired by Canada’s sesquicentennial, it’s a “patriotic musical” that celebrates the music of more than 20 Canadian artists and groups, from Rita MacNeil to Steppenwolf and BTO, and from The Nylons to Leonard Cohen and Ian and Sylvia.
The Wayward Wind Band members play several instruments each, sing harmonies and duets with Leisa, and will often take the lead. Members of the band occasionally swap out, depending on the needs of the show and the availability of the musicians. (In Across the Pond, the group will be restyled as The Lonely Hearts Club Band.) There were five on the Oh, Canada tour: Bruce Ley from Mulmur on piano and guitar; Fred Smith from Kitchener on guitar and banjo; Bobby Prochaska from Toronto on bass; Nathan Smith from Barrie on fiddle, guitar and mandolin; and Sam Cino from Guelph on drums, percussion and harmonica. Three of them – Fred, Bobby and Nathan – are also lead singers.
The troupe started with 16 performances in Ontario, followed by a daunting series of 28 one-night stands from coast to coast. They’d fly to the nearest city, then drive to the various locations. There were no roadies, just Leisa, the band and a sound man. “We’d arrive in town, set up, do the show, then take down and pack up,” says Leisa.
They travelled in two vans with seven trunks for costumes and several Sonotubes packed with painted backdrops for the set, along with their musical instruments and sound equipment. It took some doing, but the first time they finally figured out how to fit everything into the van, they all cheered. Except for a two-week break, they were on the road for three months.
In her spare time Leisa has become a certified yoga instructor. She took up yoga more than 20 years ago as a hedge against the inevitable physical strains and accidents of performing. In particular she describes it as a “life saver” when she developed back and shoulder problems after performing in an aerial harness as Wendy in Peter Pan during an extended tour across the States. For the first few weeks, in each new city, inexperienced crew fumbled to learn to operate the harness, repeatedly crashing the actors into the set as they did. Finally, Leisa says, “the cast members banded together and forced the producers to pay to fly the same crew with us.” (Long John Baldry played Captain Hook on that tour. A few years later, Leisa played the role of Peter Pan at the Huron Country Playhouse, with David Nairn as Hook.)
Now Leisa volunteers as a yoga instructor at Family Transition Place in Orangeville. It’s one of the ways she is giving back to the community that has supported her art. “I love to work with the people at TOEP as well. I learn so much from them.” Initiated under David’s leadership, Theatre Orangeville Exceptional Players is a program for youth and adults with developmental disabilities. With theatre games, music and performances it helps build confidence, develop teamwork and new ways of self-expression.
Now, instead of cruising, Leisa and David often take a month in the winter and head for Bequia, an island in the Grenadines. There they found more kids they could help. “One day we walked up the hill to a bright yellow building called the Sunshine School,” Leisa says. “It’s for youngsters five to 16 with different challenges and abilities.” The couple conduct a program there much like the one at TOEP, with dancing, role playing, charades and word games. “Helping those kids is the highlight of our trip,” she says.
Giving back is important to Leisa. Inspired by Dolly Parton, for instance, she has supported the Imagination Library for the last six years. “Just this year Dolly gave away her 100-millionth free book to children through her Imagination Library Program, and at every concert I tell audiences about it,” she says. Thirty per cent of the sales from Leisa’s CD of her Rhinestone Cowgirl show go to the Imagination Library here in Canada. “And when I actually pay off the cost of making the CD, I will donate all the proceeds,” she says.
Now, as she works on next year’s schedule – emails followed by personal letters, followed by more emails and then telephone calls – Leisa is already planning and writing two more concerts. In 2019, she will debut Leisa Way’s Rock ’n’ Roll Is Here to Stay, and the year after that, Early Morning Rain, a celebration of Gordon Lightfoot’s music. There’s enough music out there to last a lifetime, and for the irrepressible Leisa Way, there’s still no end in sight.
Across the Pond: The British Invasion
Across the Pond: The British Invasion will be at Orangeville Town Hall Opera House from February 14 to March 3. See theatreorangeville.ca for details.