Denise Norman as Mary Pickford in Sweetheart: The Mary Pickford Story.
Hot on the heels of the TIFF exhibition on the life of the woman often dubbed Hollywood’s first movie star is Dean Burry’s Pickford-inspired musical, Sweetheart: The Mary Pickford Story. Pickford began life as Gladys Smith right here in Toronto. From poverty to the height of Hollywood success, this one-woman show takes the audience through the star’s successes, disappointments, marriage, wealth, divorce, and scandal.
Originally titled, I Was Loved, Burry has sat on the play since 1998, when it was first composed. Back then, Burry was a fresh faced University of Toronto graduate with a master’s degree in composition, working the box office at the Canadian Opera Company (COC). For inspiration, he read biographies authored by, and about, theatre people. In the process, he became intrigued by Pickford.
The real-life Pickford, with husband Douglas Fairbanks, date unknown. Photo courtesy of the United States Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons.
When we contacted him by email, Burry sheepishly admitted that back then, he’d heard of Pickford but knew very little about this fellow Canadian. The more he delved into her life, the more enamored Burry became with the idea of writing a musical biography: Pickford appealed to Burry because the female actor, writer, director, and producer, “pushed into every dark corner of the new medium [of film].”
Inspired by the music of Tin Pan Alley and the ragtime era, he made good on his ambition and composed a script. I Was Loved was workshopped throughout Ontario, as well as in the East Coast. Meanwhile, Burry’s career took a substantial leap forward. Pulled out of the box office, he was commissioned by the COC to write its production of The Brothers Grimm. Gaining recognition on the national stage, Burry’s life went in a new direction, away from the genre of musicals and into the world of opera. The Pickford composition was placed in a drawer and all but forgotten.
In 2010, Burry returned to Pickford, telling us that “[i]t is a thorn in a writer’s side to have a big work written and left un-produced.” Toronto-based theatre company Lunabridge Production—whose mandate is to put on works by Canadian writers and composers—agreed to stage the work.
Before it could be staged, however, the play needed retooling. With more than a decade of theatre experience now under his cap, plus sixteen productions to his name, Burry came to the realization that I Was Loved read more like a documentary and less like the musical he had envisioned. Cuts were made, the script was tidied, and the title changed. Sweetheart: The Mary Pickford Story was ready for its close-up.
Singer and stage actor Denise Norman, who plays Pickford (as well as twelve other characters), is described by Burry as, “an incredibly flexible, honest, and jubilant actor.” She even resembles Pickford.
As the audience will come to see, Norman is also versatile. Torontoist took in a fundraising performance of Sweetheart a few months back. During the show Norman transitioned with ease from a juvenile Gladys Smith into a Hollywood star and power broker negotiating a million dollar contract while courting a married Douglas Fairbanks.
Between Burry’s skillful writing and Norman’s warm stage presence, rather than focusing on stardom Sweetheart emphasizes Pickford’s humanity. Highlighting this separation of star and person is director Mimi Mekler’s use of projected images: as we see Pickford dealing with personal, professional, and creative struggles on stage, classic images of Pickford captured on silent film reels are projected above it.
The two act musical is performed in the drawing room of Spadina Museum, which was originally a nineteenth century mansion. By chance, while thumbing through a local publication, Burry came upon an article on a recent renovation carried out there. Considering the time period of the musical and the splendor of the restored house with its yesteryear charm, it turned out to be an ideal fit.
In an industry built on a here today, gone tomorrow ethos, it’s comforting that Mary Pickford is still captivating—Dean Burry has written a musical proving it.
Sweetheart: The Mary Pickford Story runs February 10–27. Contact Spadina Museum (285 Spadina Road) for ticket information: 416-392-6910.
Photo by Dean Burry.