Billy Bishop Goes to War

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Billy Bishop Goes to War
Music John MacLachlan Gray
Lyrics John MacLachlan Gray
Eric Peterson
Book John MacLachlan Gray
Eric Peterson
Basis Life of Billy Bishop
Productions 1978 Vancouver
1978 Canadian tour
1988 Canadian tour
1980 Broadway and Off Broadway
2009 Toronto production
2010 Saskatoon

Billy Bishop Goes to War is a Canadian musical, written by John MacLachlan Gray in collaboration with the actor Eric Peterson. One of the most famous and widely-produced plays in Canadian theatre, it dramatizes the life of Canadian World War I fighter pilot Billy Bishop. The collaborative rehearsals took place in stage designer Paul Williams' studio in Toronto.


The play premiered at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in Vancouver, British Columbia on November 3, 1978. Peterson played 18 different characters, and Gray accompanied on piano and vocals. The original production toured across Canada, and also was staged in Washington, DC, both on Broadway and off-Broadway in New York City, at the Edinburgh Festival, in Los Angeles and at the Comedy Theatre in London. During the international tour, a second production, starring Cedric Smith with musical accompaniment by Ross Douglas, continued touring across Canada.

The libretto was published in 1981 by Talonbooks.

The show was produced on Broadway at the Morosco Theatre from May 29, 1980 to June 7, 1980, closing after 12 performances and 7 previews.[1] It then moved to Off-Broadway at the Lucille Lortel Theatre from June 17, 1980 to August 24, 1980. [2]

In 1998, Gray and Peterson revised the show, adding one new song and presenting events through the eyes of a much older Bishop recalling his wartime exploits. They again toured the new production across Canada.

The show was produced at the Soulpepper Theatre in August 2009.[3] In 2010, a second revision was made and was performed, with the original actors, at the Soulpepper Theatre [4] in Toronto from January 22 to February 27, 2010. In an interview prior to that production, Eric Peterson stated:

"We've gone through radical recasting! From a 32 year old to a 62 year old as the actor who's going to be narrating the show. In a two man play like this, it has incredibly different resonance depending on who's telling that story. In many cases, we've taken some minor rewriting for the production we did when we were 52 and updated them and changed the ending. Now at 62 we're older than Bishop ever was in the play before."


In 2011 the show was performed as part of the repertory summer season at Frinton-on-Sea. The production was directed by Tom Littler.

Many Canadian theatre companies have also staged productions of Billy Bishop with other actors, and the show has received hundreds of productions in the United States. The Persephone Theatre, Saskatoon, performed the show March 3–17, 2010.[6] In the fall of 2010, the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton produced a revival. For his performance as Billy Bishop, John Ullyatt was awarded an Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Award.


The play won the Los Angeles Drama Critics' Award in 1981, the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award in 1982 and the Governor General's Award for English Drama in 1983.

Recordings and other media[edit]

A cast recording starring Peterson and Gray was released in 1979. A recording of the revised play was released in 1999.

CBC Television and the BBC also coproduced a television adaptation. The production was reproduced for WDR Television in Germany, starring Hans Peter Korf, with Gray on piano and vocals.

A second adaption of the most recent production, directed by Barbara Willis-Sweete, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010.

Excerpts from the play also appear in the National Film Board of Canada documentary, The Kid Who Couldn't Miss.


  1. ^ Internet Broadway Database listing, retrieved March 12, 2010
  2. ^ "'Billy Bishop Goes to War' Internet Off-Broadway listing" Internet Off Broadway Database listing, retrieved March 12, 2010
  3. ^ Berketo, Steven."Review, Soulpepper Theatre", August 14, 2009
  4. ^ "'Billy Bishop Goes to War' listing, January-February 2010", retrieved March 12, 2010
  5. ^ Eric Peterson and John Gray interview, retrieved March 12, 2010
  6. ^ "'Billy Bishop Goes to War' listing, March 2010"

External links[edit]