Ten years ago, York alumnus Mike Leon (BA ’00) lost his 67-year-old father to a sudden heart attack. Leon struggled to cope with the loss, but in the time since, the emotions and grief he experienced blossomed into a project that celebrates life, death, and everything in between. After years of challenging work and collaboration with like-minded friends – both old and new – comes the release of his musical, League of the Damned, premiering Friday, July 15 at Toronto’s Spadina Theatre.
For Leon – a music and theatre lover with a career in marketing – the idea for League of the Damned came only a few weeks after his father died. “When he passed, my wife just happened to be four months pregnant with our first child, so he never got to meet his grandkids. My grandfather died at 66, also never meeting his. Shortly after that, I knew there was an idea there, whether a short story or script, but I had to deal with my own grief first. A friend and I discussed heart disease running in both our families, and we agreed that since we’re pretty much screwed anyway, we may as well do everything we wanted to do in life. This would become the central plot for the musical.”
The story centres around a character who copes with her terminal cancer diagnosis by starting a secret society of strangers who together do all the things in life they always wanted to, but were too afraid to on their own. But when a stunt goes wrong, a seemingly innocent group of “bucket listers” gets branded an unruly group of vigilantes who must decide who they want to be: reckless glory seekers or heroes.
Creating the League of the Damned represented a return to the theatre for Leon after almost a thirty-year hiatus. In partnership with Mike Albert, his best friend of over 40 years, the two wrote during the COVID-19 pandemic while on 10-minute breaks between meetings, on a subway commute, and well into the night, all to make their idea a reality.
Coming into the creative process “totally raw,” Leon and Albert put out a casting call in online communities, admitting to potential cast members that they had no experience and little credibility, but that, “we're doing this because we believe that it's going to be amazing.”
Even though the casting call went out during the pandemic, when most of the city’s theatre operations were shut down or postponed, they received interest from over 100 actors that they shortlisted to the five actors who will star in the production.
Leon credits a big part of the production’s process and success to the involvement and passion of the cast. “What's really cool is that the actors brought so much to the table. They've collaborated in so many ways, beyond learning the lines or the music, but also bringing in their own personalities that have shifted what we wrote to make it even better. There is something so incredible about that.”
With the show premiering this Friday, Leon recalls his conversations with his father when he was active in theatre in high school. “He would always equate what I did in theatre to what he did in business. He would compare the role I play in high school theatre to the role he played selling suits. So trying something like this is a total fish out of water experience for me. But I’m trying it with a bunch of people who are just as freaked out as I am, and somehow it’s going to work out. We’ve sort of come full circle. I think my dad would be excited about it.”
And even though Leon’s path to the theatre was unexpected, he credits his time at York with providing the foundation for his artistic pursuits.
“York’s approach to interdisciplinary education gave me the courage to not only pursue big ideas but recognize that every skill I learn builds onto the next. Sure, theatre's pretty new for me, but over 20 years in marketing has prepared me more for it more than I ever thought possible. I fully credit that kind of thinking to the grounding I got at York."
League of the Damned will run at the Spadina Theatre in Toronto July 15, 16, 17, 22, and 23. For more information, click here. Fifteen per cent of every ticket sold will be donated to Turning Point, a mental health charity empowering youth to make positive change.