WATERLOO, Ont. - In the three decades since Terry Fox's death, the amputee athlete's legacy has endured through the fundraising run bearing his name and a steady stream of films, books and stories chronicling the late Canadian icon.
Yet as the curtain rises on "Marathon of Hope: The Musical," the creative team behind the new show promises to offer audiences fresh insight into Fox's story.
"Most people don't know that he trained for 14 months before doing the run. People thought that he just got the idea and he ran," said actor Nathan Carroll, who was cast to portray Fox following a nationwide search.
"He ran the distance across Canada in training in B.C. He worked himself up from short distances a day to long distances. He was running up and down big mountains, big hiking trails."
Fox was only 18 when he was diagnosed with bone cancer, and was forced to have his right leg amputated. In 1980, at the age of 21, he embarked on a cross-Canada run setting off from St John's, N.L., to raise money and awareness for cancer research.
"Marathon of Hope: The Musical" will have its world premiere on Wednesday at the St. Jacobs Country Playhouse in Waterloo, Ont. The production was developed in consultation with Fox's family and charts his legendary journey covering 5,373 kilometres in 143 days — equal to 128 marathons. Fox died in 1981.
"The first half-marathon I ran, I felt like I couldn't walk for three weeks. And this guy was running on one leg a full marathon a day for 140-plus days," said the Toronto-based Carroll, 27, who was born in Elliot Lake, Ont. and grew up in Simcoe, Ont.
"When you really think about the feat and really dig into what the physical feat was that he accomplished, it's staggering."
The musical will feature about 20 songs from composer and lyricist John Connolly, who said the show serves as a "new telling" in exploring facets of Fox's life. The production sees the different groups of Canadians Fox encountered, from Newfoundland and Labrador through to Thunder Bay, Ont., and back to Vancouver, he noted.
"It's helpful that a lot of people know the story, but what's interesting is a lot of people don't know much about the story," said the Charlottetown native.
"If you ask the average Canadian what they know about Terry, they're going to give you four or five points — but there's so many details."
Connolly said the songs are very much rooted in Canadian folk music, in the vein of iconic homegrown singer-songwriters Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.
"Terry loved old-time country music, so I've tried to respect that. He also loved to speak directly and from the heart, so I've tried to do that in the lyrics. So, I would say the whole thing is rootsy."
To inhabit the role, Carroll grew out his naturally curly locks to bear a closer resemblance to Fox. He examined the runner's vocal patterns and physicality in an effort to strike a balance between the real-life figure and his own artistic interpretation.
Carroll also has been practising Fox's famed hop-stepping gait, and spoke of the multiple ways he will convey motion onstage — including running on the spot.
Another facet of Fox's life will feature in the musical: the Econoline camper van that served as his home.
Driven by Fox's brother, Darrell, and his friend Doug Alward, the beige van was restored in 2008 by the Ford Motor Co. to make it appear as it did during the run.
"Everybody that comes to see it here has an emotional moment about it because it's living history. It's such an iconic part of Canadian history," said Drayton Entertainment artistic director Alex Mustakas.
"When we do reveal it, that's exactly what I want the audience to feel."
Despite the subject matter, Mustakas said the musical offers themes that are universal.
"It's been a challenge for us to get the word out that this isn't two hours of doom and gloom. This is an inspirational story.
"For me, it's Rocky Balboa training and training, and then running up those stairs in Philadelphia like: 'I made it.' And I want people leaving the theatre at the end of it to think: 'I've got to do something.'"
"Marathon of Hope: The Musical" runs until Oct. 30.
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