Spirit of the West's John Mann shares story of cancer battle in new play

Vancouver musician John Mann has fought cancer, written a solo album about it, and was in the process of turning that experience into a musical when he was blindsided by another health condition.

Mann's early onset Alzheimer's disease prevented him from playing himself in the musical

John Mann, the frontman of Spirit of the West, was slated to the lead character in the production, but because was unable to because of his early onset Alzheimer's disease. (Emily Cooper)

Vancouver musician John Mann has fought cancer, written a solo album about it, and was in the process of turning that experience into a musical when he was blindsided by another health condition.

The Spirit of the West frontman was working on the project with his old friend and director Morris Panych, who noticed the singer was becoming increasingly forgetful and scatterbrained during their early planning sessions.

At first Panych didn't know what was affecting the Vancouver rocker. Then finally he found out, through Mann's wife, actor Jill Daum.

"Jill called me from Vancouver and said, in tears, that John had early onset Alzheimer's," Panych said.

Now, four years after it was first commissioned, their production The Waiting Room is playing at the Arts Club's Granville Island Stage, from Oct. 1 to Oct. 31

A moving story of healing

The musical tells the story of a man named J, as he navigates life before and after a cancer diagnosis, and is interspersed with Mann's songs.

Vancouver actor and director Jonathon Young plays the character J, and the nine-year-old ghost who guides him throughout the story is played by Matreya Scarrwener.

Matreya Scarrwener and Jonathan Young star in 'The Waiting Room'. (Emily Cooper)

Even though the subject of colorectal cancer is rather "dire", veteran playwright Panych said he quickly adjusted to the difficult subject matter.

"The minute the words 'colorectal cancer' come out of your mouth you think, 'Oh dear'. But it's actually incredibly charming," Panych said.

"What attracted me to the project from that point of view was that John's music was so charming, and surprising, and funny, and witty. It's something else completely," he said.

"Jill and John are approaching this with such honesty, and even a sense of humour, that we're trying to turn this into a positive."

"I know it's hard to imagine turning early onset Alzheimer's into a positive, but we're doing the best we can, and part of that is making this show."

Mann performs the songs live

Though Mann doesn't play the lead, he is still onstage, playing his songs live for the performances.

Baum said her husband was determined that the play would reach the stage, and is now excited to be able to "sing his heart out".

"It's been a real driving force for him — eating healthy, running, exercising, working on the songs...he's been wanting this for a long time."

Mann agrees that it's been a "huge goal" for him.

"I've been waiting for it.... It's harder for me now, it really is, but I'm still just doing it," said Mann.

"I just want to be on stage. The musicians here are really great, and I think it's going to be quite fun."


To hear the full interview listen to the audio labelled: The Waiting Room starring John Mann

With files from Margaret Gallagher