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November 1, 2020Jason Emerson - Managing Editor, International Musician
When composer Danny Schur started the research to compose his 2005 musical—a love story within and around the events of the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike—he realized immediately it was a story that was made for him to tell. It was redolent of his aunt and uncle’s Christian-Jewish intermarriage, it took place in the city he loves, and it presented a view of people fighting for justice and workers’ rights.
“It became clear to me that the story of my ancestors was a complete metaphor for what was going on then [in 2005],” says Schur, a member of Local 190 (Winnipeg, MB). “Now, those themes are even more relevant: discrimination against immigrants, discrimination against people of color, abuse of government authority. In 2017, after the director of the movie read the script, he asked me, ‘Did you write this yesterday?’”
That 2005 musical, titled Strike!, went on to immense popularity and critical acclaim in Canada, but the planned Broadway run died in 2008 with the global financial collapse. Now, 15 years later, the movie version, retitled Stand!, is about to open in movie theaters throughout the US.
“This is a union movie about a union story,” Schur says. “It is solidarity that has driven this project from the start.” Both the musical and the movie were done under union contracts, with the same AFM-member musicians in the 2005 pit as in the 2019 film orchestra; and one-third of the film’s funding came from unions across North America. “As I went all over the US and met with every union, I traveled with the gospel, ‘Help us make the new Norma Rae meets Hamilton.’”
The film follows Stefan Sokolowski and his father Mike, who fled Ukraine for the New World, where they struggle to earn enough to reunite the family. Stefan is instantly smitten with his Jewish suffragette neighbor, Rebecca, but Rebecca’s brother Moishe and Stefan’s father Mike both oppose the would-be Romeo and Juliet. Returned soldiers, angry at the lack of jobs after the war, violently threaten the city’s immigrants, including Emma, a Black refugee from racist violence in Oklahoma. When a movement develops for workers across the city to leave their jobs in protest, AJ Anderson, a wealthy lawyer, pits all against each other in a dramatic and inspirational final stand.
“This is not a labor propaganda movie—it’s a story rooted in working-class culture with complete relevance to today,” Schur says. “The natural audience is of course labor, but it’s way bigger than that. I think as we see during these times—whether it’s specifically COVID in the last six months or something else—I think the power of solidarity is being made incredibly evident to us. It’s a story for our times, even though it’s set in 1919.”
Schur comes from a Ukrainian-Catholic background in small-town Manitoba, Canada. His first musical influences came from Ukrainian choral music, and by the 1980s he was hooked on Top 40 pop music. By age 10 he developed an interest in composition, and by age 12 he knew he wanted to write musical theater. After two years studying at the University of Manitoba School of Music, he dropped out to pursue his music career as a freelancer. He started in production and from the 1990s through the early 2000s he found success writing pop and country songs.
After writing and producing a classical choral work, the strength of that piece got him a commission to write a musical in 2000. “Then I was totally hooked,” he says. “Musical theater became my raison d’etre.” His second musical came in 2003, and Strike! came out in 2005.
Now, 15 years later, with the movie version about to open across the US on December 1, Schur likes to recount the first inkling that his story could actually be a Hollywood movie. It was the second night for Strike! at the original Winnipeg production on the Rainbow Stage, and Schur was sitting next to the female lead’s boyfriend, actor Jeff Goldblum. “He was taken with it,” Schur remembers. “After the show he said to me, ‘It’s a big story with big ideas; that would make a great movie.’ So I thought, if Jeff Goldblum thinks it’s good, it must be!”
Films are a different animal than musicals, however, and the project had to change to work onscreen. Schur wrote the lyrics, music, and score; co-wrote the movie script; and co-produced the film. The major difference between the stage play and the film was one of musical condensation, he says—less songs but more story.
“The stage show had 18 of the best songs I ever wrote—and fully one-third of them got left on the cutting room floor,” Schur says with both a laugh and a sigh. “Let me remove the dagger from my heart!” The movie ended up being limited to 10 songs, due to both budget constraints and movie runtime. Many of the songs that remained from the musical version had to have their arrangements changed to be less “old timey” and more modern and hip hop, “more radio cool,” Schur says.
Some musical aspects of the show remained in the film, such as the use of the sopilka, a traditional Ukrainian wooden flute that was used to represent the Old Country in the score. “The sopilka represented the Ukrainian aspect, and the sadness and loneliness of this man and his son who were in Winnipeg but his wife and children were in Ukraine … Danny wrote such a beautiful melody,” says Julie Husband, a freelance woodwind doubler and member of Local 190, who learned and then performed the sopilka for both the stage production and the film (she also played the piccolo, clarinet, and Irish tin whistle). “I’ve always admired Danny’s compositions—he’s very passionate, and a really good composer. Who knew the General Strike, or just something about a strike, could be turned into a musical and a movie?”
One of the major changes from stage to screen was the main song. The musical’s main theme, “Strike!” had been cut from the film because it would have been too expensive to shoot a 500-person march through Winnipeg. And there was no closing credit song. At about this time in 2017, the Black Lives Matter movement and other socio-political events in 2017 were weighing on Schur’s mind. “We needed a song for the film’s closing credits that encompassed all those things happening in the world, so someone feeling dispossessed could relate to the song,” he says. So he set his synthesizer to the acoustic guitar setting and started composing, and the song came very quickly:
Stand! director Robert Adetuyi also knew he wanted more diversity in the movie, including a Black person to sing the new song and the addition of a new Black character in the film. That new character became a Black maid whose family had emigrated to Canada from Oklahoma as refugees. “This was February first, 2017, the start of Black History Month,” Schur recalls. “So I do a Google search and type in ‘Black History Canada,’ and up comes this story of the Oklahoma refugees—and my jaw is just hitting the ground; and in talking about it the hair on my arms goes up. This is a story that I never knew: there were Oklahomans from 1907 on … that were escaping persecution there and coming not just to the northern United States, but to Winnipeg, to Regina, to Calgary, to Edmonton. … And the deeper we dug we found out that one-third of the ‘help’ in Winnipeg was Black. The women were housemaids and the men could only become railway porters; and that’s when I found out that one of the first unions to sign up for the General Strike in 1919 was the all-Black railway porter union.”
After incorporating this into the thoughts and ideas he already had ruminating in his mind and completing the song, Schur knew they had to write a new scene into the film that incorporated the Black maid character and created the context for singing “Stand!” It turned out so well that Schur and Adetuyi immediately knew the movie had to be re-titled Stand!
“The movie is not as much about the strike as it is about standing for what you believe in,” Schur says. “It is absolutely about the power of solidarity—solidarity both in terms of the labor union movement and in terms of society and social cohesion.”
Husband agrees. “With COVID, and live shows canceled, and trying to make sure we’re all working together, that solidarity is truly important. I’ve had a very successful career, but it seems to me it’s still a fight; people are still fighting for better wages. I’m a big union person, and the AFM has always looked out for us, which is awesome. This movie is important for people to see because it shows what set the stage for what our unions fight for today. These people risked their lives, walked out of their jobs, all for the union and the solidarity of it all.”
Once the script, score, and songs were finalized in 2017, that’s when Schur traveled across North America to seek union support for the film. “I have a profound appreciation for what the labor movement did for us,” he says. “This movie would not have existed without them.” The AFM leadership in both the US and Canada were “highly supportive morally,” Schur says, as were numerous other unions throughout North America, including the AFL-CIO whose president, Richard Trumka, connected Schur with other labor leaders.
Alan Willaert, AFM Vice President from Canada, saw a special preview of the film in 2019 at the Canadian Labor Conference and was impressed. “Before experiencing the preview of the movie Stand!, I was not very familiar with the events surrounding the Winnipeg Strike in 1919,” he says. “What I saw was a scenario that is very relatable to today: hard-working immigrants settled in Canada to escape the carnage of Europe, and took low-wage jobs to steady the economy and keep their families fed. When Canadian soldiers returned, unscrupulous employers gleefully pitted them against the new Canadians, forcing them to compete for those ridiculously low-paying jobs. It’s a story of union activism, of course, but also of social awakening and, yes, a love story in the ilk of another great movie—Titanic.”
For Schur, one of the impressive aspects of the story was its inclusion. “What I think is important for the union movement in this movie is that non-union workers [in 1919] recognized the strike was in everyone’s best interests, and it brought non-union workers a greater appreciation for the union workforce, to the point where they started saying, ‘We want what the unions are selling,’” he says. And while Stand! is certainly marketing the labor movement, it is not propaganda, Schur says. It simply conveys the message that society needs to care for each other, that the bonds of social cohesion form when everyone stands together for the greater good. Making the musical all those years ago also gave him a greater appreciation for the AFM and what it means.
“When I first joined in the 1990s, for a starting musician it was for the insurance—my whole life was my keyboard. If it had been stolen, I don’t know what I would have done.” Schur let his membership lapse for a couple of years when he focused on producing rather than composing music, but he came back to the union again after his research into the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike gave him a new awareness of the importance of the labor movement, he says. It gave him a completely different lens from which to view the world. Even watching movies, he says, he now watches The Deerhunter from the point of view of the unionized steel workers; he watches Norma Rae and marvels at the main character’s bravery in a right-to-work state. “I have become a student of labor history because of it,” he says.
“I guess you just mature in later life and learn what you don’t know in your 20s and 30s,” he continues. “I am now of an age where not only is the showing of solidarity important to me, but so is knowing there are real benefits from having a pension and everyone contributing. It’s an incredible benefit and more people should be members—only if more people are members can the benefits grow.”
Stand! opens in US theaters on December 1, 2020. For information, trailers, and tickets, visit www.stand-movie.com.
The Winnipeg General Strike was the largest strike in Canadian history. The year 1919 saw soldiers returning home after World War I to find high unemployment rates and inflation. They couldn’t get their jobs back and social tension was high. Between May 15 and June 25, 1919, more than 30,000 workers—both unionized and non-unionized—left their jobs to protest their low pay and poor working conditions as well as their employers’ refusal to negotiate any of these issues. Strikers included private and public sectors employees, and ranged from garment workers to telephone operators, to machinists and metal workers, to police officers. Factories, shops, transit and city services shut down. The strike resulted in arrests, injuries, and the deaths of two protestors, but laid a foundation for future labor reforms.
Computer: MacBook Pro running MOTU Digital Performer
Controller Keyboard: Yamaha MOX8 (I love how the feel is like a Yamaha grand piano)
Sound library: East West Sound’s Composers Cloud
Monitor Speakers (because, as a producer, I do lots of mixing): Yamaha HS80M (The “Goldilocks” monitors: big enough to have decent bass and small enough for my space. I can mix anything on them, even movies, and they’ll never let me down.)
Microphone of choice: Aston Martin Stealth