Our reviewer, John Robson, caps his acid pen after discovering that a musical version of “The Hockey Sweater” scores where Roch Carrier’s original short story whiffed worse than the Leafs trying to make the playoffs.
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Frankly I wasn’t keen on the assignment when my editor first handed it to me. Write a review of the musical adaptation of Roch Carrier’s beloved “The Hockey Sweater” at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. Great. A boring Canadian classic of Quebec tribalism overlaid with political correctness. But I ended up very glad moths did not eat my ticket.
Carrier’s story is one of those embarrassing Canadian icons, even quoted on a $5 bill, about how the Quebecois hate Anglos. As with O Canada, our affection for it is a tribute either to our generosity or to obtuseness on par with the kid who doesn’t notice that the “best friend” he clings to at school mocks him constantly.
It’s also one of those “famous” things I’d never actually read. And when I finally did, I found it a parade of clichés. The status anxiety of his parents, refusing to shop at the local store or let him wear a worn-out jersey. The excessive and heartless influence of the Church. The arrogant intolerance of the Anglos.
Also, it ends so badly it frightens the children. The story is set in a grand noirceur St.-Reculé-par-la-Tonnerre-style remote, unilingual Quebec town where every kid wears Maurice Richard’s Number 9. And, as you know, or will by the end of this sentence, it ends with the ostracized narrator in church bitterly praying for God to send 100 million moths to eat the shameful Maple Leafs sweater his mother accidentally ordered from Eaton’s because she can’t fill out an English form and doesn’t dare exchange lest it offend their distant haughty anglophone masters.
What? No redemption? No character development? Everybody hates everybody? Boo! I couldn’t imagine how anyone could turn this into a musical you’d want to watch even if you like musicals, or indeed into a musical at all since it’s barely three pages long.
Things rapidly didn’t improve when we arrived at the NAC and discovered that they’d made more than half his teammates girls with feminist leanings, were scrupulously multicultural, and put helmets on everyone. I foresaw a long night and began mentally dipping my pen in acid to dissolve the bubble-wrap and everything else.
I was immediately disappointed. The cast were engaging as well as technically superb. And while I don’t care for show tunes, and the music was not the sort you’d come out of the theatre humming, the lyrics were so consistently clever I can’t remember any of them.
I don’t just mean verbally clever. I mean the entire play had far more emotional and moral intelligence than the original. For starters, Roch’s mother is much more three-dimensional, witty, wise, struggling with parenthood, and confessing early on to the audience that she hates hockey and doesn’t dare tell anyone.
The priest is also a far more sympathetic and complete character. And his shameful secret – I won’t plot-spoil – isn’t some tawdry stereotype as you might assume. Instead it’s part of the redemption in Act 2 that is only possible because, you might as well know now, they fixed the major structural defect in Carrier’s plot by writing a whole new ending. Indeed, a whole new second half. In which people overcome their prejudices, romance blossoms, the hero is redeemed and so is his mother. Yay!
So, it’s a happy ending and yes, I’m a sucker for those. Provided they’re morally intelligent like this one.
For starters, too much modern diversity training pretends real differences don’t exist or matter. But here the kids realize a blue sweater is a superficial difference and their friend is still the same inside. And to a lesser extent, they grasp that even Torontonians are like them in cheering for their home team.
The musical, unlike the short story, speaks to a universal human aspiration for redemption that modernity generally ignores or scorns, but cannot suppress. Virtually everybody is a better person in the end. Possibly even Mr. Eaton himself, who turns out to speak French and talks to young Roch about the mix-up by phone after an increasingly histrionic schoolteacher persuades a hilariously bored and indifferent switchboard operator to put her through to the great man.
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I’ve seen more than a few film adaptations of novels that seemed to me to miss the point. Especially The Lord of the Rings, a visually dazzling triumph of film-making ingenuity that cheapens virtually every major character from Elrond to Denethor by missing Tolkien’s deeper message. Here instead the writers, deliberately or by inspired intuition, supplied everything missing in the original.
We see that the tribalism of the kids is driven by insecurity about their own place in the world and we see them start to move beyond it. We see young Roch struggling with anger and bitterness and with the help of wise adults and a supportive teammate finding his better self. We see a mother willing to embrace hockey for the sake of her kid despite the prospect of clutching cold coffee while incomprehensible action ends, very possibly, with him getting clobbered by a puck.
We see a coach supportive, not scornful, of the guy with the doofus sweater. We see a priest stepping away from the pulpit in order to draw a child closer to virtue and God. We even get a sympathetically funny portrayal of both sides of the teacher’s struggle to get the students to pay attention to history lessons during hockey season.
In short, such a delightfully scripted, superbly performed morality play from what seemed unpromising material that even I wound up less grouchy. You don’t see that every day.
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