A Life's Story
April 15, 2023
A Schur thing: ‘no never meant no to Danny’
Relentless, indefatigable composer, producer a proud Winnipegger who refused to abandon dream of getting his 1919 General Strike musical on stage, screen
By: Kevin Prokosh
Irrepressible showman Danny Schur made his final public appearance on an overcast Saturday afternoon last February.
Although his home was less than a block away, he needed to be driven to the Riverview Community Club to watch his son Stefan as well as his beloved Caribou team, play in the annual four-on-four outdoor tournament. He had backstopped the Caribou to many victories, but brain cancer forced him to hang up his goalie pads last fall.
As the 56-year-old tentatively got out of the car, he clutched the arms of his walker. Inside he was greeted by several of his delighted teammates who had not seen him since his initial seizure in September. He was subdued and spoke only a few words.
Schur, who for more than 20 years had vigorously chased his dream of bringing the story of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike to a Broadway stage and a Hollywood movie screen, soon got tired and had to leave.
“ ‘That almost killed me,’ ” his wife, Juliane Schaible, says he told her when they got home from the rink. “It was the last time he went out. It was the last energy he could muster to go and be with the community he so appreciated.”
The fears that were left unspoken by friends that day became reality Monday when he died at the Riverview Health Centre.
After undergoing two CT scans and an MRI, the father of two learned in November his brain tumour was inoperable. The grade 4 glioblastoma had infiltrated the part of the brain that controls speech and motor function. It was particularly cruel for a pianist who wrote crowd-pleasing songs, composed catchy melodies and stopped pucks, all with equal joy.
“Brain cancer is such a f—-ing terrible disease,” actor Catherine Wreford Ledlow says after hearing of Schur’s passing. “This one is particularly bad.”
The former Broadway actress knows all about it. In June 2013, she was told she had a malignant brain tumour. She was given two to six years to live. Last year, she and her pal Craig Ramsay won TV’s Amazing Race Canada. The cancer cure activist visited Schur in the fall and read his pathology report and knew his time was short.
“He said, ‘I got the movie made and I’ve had a good life,’” says Wreford Ledlow, who appeared in both Strike! and Stand!
Strike! The Musical and its re-titled big screen adaptation, Stand!, will be Schur’s legacy, not only for the work presented but for how he overcame the odds to do it. When others would have given up, Schur typically redoubled his efforts to prove that Winnipeg stories were as compelling as those from more celebrated places.
When no local theatre company would produce his Romeo and Juliet story set during a seminal moment in Winnipeg history, he forced Rainbow Stage to rent out its facility in Kildonan Park.
“Creating a musical is hard enough,” Richard Ouzounian, the former Manitoba Theatre Centre artistic director and Toronto Star drama critic, said in 2005. “Mounting it is just as hard. Producing and financing it is nearly impossible. Doing it all yourself is pretty close to a suicide mission.”
Schur proud to be a Winnipegger and proud of his Ukrainian heritage, the dual power sources fuelling his can-do approach. He loved telling stories about the Ukrainian community.
The University of Manitoba School of Music student’s first work in 1989 was an oratorio called Vlad of Kiev, which was created to commemorate the millennium of Ukrainian Christianity. He helped local teenage singer Chantal Kreviazuk land a $1 million record deal. He and his wife penned the 1999 Pan Am Games theme song Americas, Come and Play.
Schur often said Winnipeg was the reason he did what he did. In 2015 he shot a documentary about the late, legendary Ukrainian National Hockey League goalie Terry Sawchuk, for which he penned the song Made in Winnipeg.
“I kind of envisioned the lyrics as if Terry Sawchuk was talking to us about what made him,” he said. “What made him was growing up in Winnipeg.
“Let’s not pretend that Winnipeg is a perfect place. But it’s a place where you can have a shot. Even if you are a poor kid from the North End, you can dream and succeed and I want to try and make that happen.”
He and co-writer Rick Chafe fashioned a story about a cross-cultural romance between a Ukrainian worker and a Jewish suffragette, inspired by the marriage of Schur’s aunt, who was shunned by her family after marrying a Jewish man. Schur slipped in tributes to his children by naming the romantic lead after his son and producing a song called Dearest Anna for his daughter.
It was a personal triumph when Strike! opened in May 2005 at Rainbow Stage. Despite the generally positive reception, he continued to run into resistance. Some local bigwigs regarded the 1919 strike of 30,000 workers as a civic black eye that should not be celebrated. However, some of them cut him cheques after seeing the rousing production.
“I believe that Danny has reframed the legacy of the strike in Winnipeg,” Chafe says. “He saw it as a coming together of diverse people on the side of labour and it was a big historic moment.”
Current Rainbow Stage artistic director Carson Nattrass was convinced and programmed a revival of Strike! The Musical for the company’s 2019 season. It was the first full-scale homegrown musical to grace its stage. Quite a turnaround for an organization that worried presenting it in 2005 would sully its reputation. Nattrass was part of that original cast.
“It changed my life,” says Nattrass, who said he was heartbroken by the news of Schur’s passing. “It was the first time that someone wrote a song (O’Reilly’s Song) for me. Danny was a gift.”
Schur donned many hats beyond serving as co-writer, composer, lyricist and producer. He conceived the business plan, created a limited partnership and raised $350,000 from investors.
One of his first calls was to prominent arts booster Gail Asper, who estimates Schur came knocking for financial support 40 times over the years. She never turned down any request for support of Strike! or Stand!.
“He was wonderfully relentless,” Asper says with a laugh before her voice cracks with emotion. “He pitched a who’s who of Winnipeggers and you couldn’t help but be impressed by his passion.
“This is such a huge loss… Danny was one of a kind. I will miss him terribly.”
About 15,000 people took in Strike!, including movie star Jeff Goldblum who, at the time, was Wreford’s boyfriend. Schur was sitting beside him when Goldblum piped up that Strike! was a big story with big ideas worthy of a movie. The remark changed Schur’s career. After the door closed for runs of Strike! The Musical in theatre capitals, he saw a window open to even bigger audiences as a feature film.
“No never meant no to Danny,” Nattrass says.
All the rejections and setbacks never dented his optimism and faith. He credited his sunny nature to growing up on a grain and cattle farm near Ethelbert, where hope went into the ground with the seed every year.
“It was so personal for him it might as well have been a one-man show,” Nattress says. “He took the show on his shoulders. He never stopped.”
Schur discovered the challenges of creating a musical were multiplied 100 times when shooting a film. He had watched the Manitoba Theatre Centre enlist screen star Keanu Reeves to play Hamlet in 1995 and fill its coffers. He, too, would find a star.
He began cold-calling dozens of agents representing Hollywood A-listers such as Anne Hathaway, Kevin Spacey, Warren Beatty and Elliot Page. All passed on his revamped musical.
Schur raised $7 million over five gruelling years, criss-crossing the continent, hunting for money from labour unions. The cameras finally rolled in July and August 2018. The stress finally caught up to Schur as the pressure mounted from overseeing 150 employees and a $600,000 weekly payroll. He turned to one of his oldest friends for a significant cash injection.
“It was the closest I ever saw him to giving up,” says Terry Cholka, who grew up with Schur. “I believed in the story, but it was more about me helping a good friend.”
After a black-tie gala screening — with perogies on the menu, of course — in September 2019, Stand! opened Nov. 29, at more than 24 Cineplex screens across Canada.
A public service to honour Schur is planned at St. Nicholas Ukrainian Catholic Church, 737 Bannerman Ave., at 7 p.m. Friday.
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