Anyone with the good fortune to attend a Trevor Barrette musical walks away knowing that Montreal houses a great talent. Catchy tunes, great characters, and fun stories in a polished production make his work stand out. Making a musical, though, is a process, and Barrette is giving us a glimpse into his latest, A Curious Life about Montreal neuropsychologist Dr. Brenda Milner with a workshop presentation of the show at the Segal Centre and a live stream for the public.
Dr. Brenda Milner is perhaps best known for working with Patient HM, Henry Molaison. Molaison’s hippocampus was removed to treat his debilitating epilepsy, but he was left without the ability to form new memories. However, Milner’s research revealed that there are different types of memory managed by different parts of the brain. Beyond that, she worked at the McGill neuro on memory, language, and learning since the 1940s, and worked into her early 100s.
Barrette offers a “science musical” that covers her life from age 8 to 105. “It’s a retrospective that celebrates her work and Canadian sciences, which is very exciting,” says Barrette. “We’re dealing with a real person and the focus is between her life and the science she did. We’re honouring her story and telling the audience how she came to this place in the sciences.”
Of course, condensing a life into 2 1/2 hours of musical requires a lot of editing. “There’s an element of creative liberty that we’ve taken that doesn’t affect the account that much,” says Barrette. “It is honouring her life and her life’s work and I have left out the parts she doesn’t talk about. It’s done in a respectful and contained way.”
When asked as an example of a liberty taken, Barrette says, “Brenda Milner is famously non-musical. Her parents were musicians. Her dad was a critic at the Guaridan, so it’s a stretch to have her sing and dance. Even though we have permission to write this musical, she’d find it inaccurate how much singing and dancing she does in this show.”
Typical of a Barrette show, there’s a large cast – 8 actors take on 50-60 different characters. “Most of them are historical figures,” says Barrette. “If you’re coming from the neuro community, you’ll spot Easter eggs through the different characters.” Musical direction is by Eric Elliot Lee, while arrangements and orchestrations are by Beth McKenna.
Barrette explains that during peak COVID in 2021, he was learning about key women figures in the city of Montreal. He came upon Dr. Brenda Milner’s profile in a listicle and was “smitten.” “I was so drawn to her,” he says. “Immediately I started writing and researching and got immersed in her world. The more I looked up her story, the more these songs started to emerge. She lived a very inspirational life for writing music.”
“She was born into a family of artists and musicians, which plants a seed right off the bat,” explains Barrette. “The irony is so delectable to me, the connection between memory and music, and how music can bring us back to a place. Her work on memory, her family background in music, I got to put all those elements together. And yeah, the pace that I wanted has a documentary theatre flavour, but also a golden age of musicals flavour. It’s like Funny Girl if Fanny Brice was a neuropsychologist.”
Barrette says he had to learn a lot about neuropsychology for the show and consulted with many to ensure he got the science correct. “I’m working with Nour Malek who has a degree in neuropsychology and is a musical theatre fanatic to tell the story. I’ve also been in touch with folks from the neuroscientific community.” Barrette points out that part of the reason for the workshop is partially to allow members of the neuro community to see the play and provide feedback. “If there’s an opportunity to make sure my science is not wrong before it goes out, it would be useful. It’s important to establish trust with that community and they’re protective of Brenda. I’m doing my due diligence,” he says.
Barrett also spoke to Wilder Penfield’s granddaughter. Dr. Penfield (yes, the guy who the street is named for) supervised Milner during part of her studies including her work with Henry Molaison, and served as the first director of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital. Barrette sees his casting of the play and its creation having some alignment with Penfield’s vision of the international nature of the Neuro. “I’m communicating with people around the world. Malek is in California. My dramaturg is in Amsterdam. I’m bringing in anglophone and francophone actors, actors from other parts of Canada. It’s an exchange of ideas in the room. I’m inspired by that and it’s wonderful working with everybody.”
At the end of the day, everyone is coming together to highlight Milner’s achievements. Barrette says, “There’s an element of popularizing, mainstreaming it, but being true to the science.”
A Curious Life streams live from the Segal Centre on January 7 at 2 p.m. Link for form to attend free live stream can be found HERE.