Playwright explored moral quandaries with a Broadway touch
Prolific playwright John Lee planned a series of uplifting, life-affirming, accessible and entertaining musicals that would investigate some of the moral quandaries of the human condition.
Even on his final, full day of life, through pitching waves of pain and joy, John Lee kept turning his mind to a school hall not 500 metres from where he sat – a hall in which a committed but distracted cast rehearsed his latest musical production. Later that day, performers dropped in and John’s eyes shone and his ever-expressive gestures danced in the air.
The aggressive thyroid cancer had robbed him of speech but not of enthusiasm. Although John had refused radiation and chemotherapy treatment since his diagnosis in March, he hoped and prayed that he would live long enough to sit front row for the October premiere of his Mary Magdalene: Wanton Saint.
He had high hopes for Magdalene and thought it had all the elements that could attract a commercial production – a Jesus Christ Superstar from a female perspective.
It is the latest in a series of richly imaginative, modest-scale musicals he produced in the past 20 years, all of which had a religio-centric context but were deeply humanist in content. Call of Guadalupe, Man of Assisi, Saul Saul Paul Paul, Amazing Augustine and last year’s John Paul II were among his works that received several revivals and tours both interstate and overseas.
They comprised a glorious third act to a career spent in the arts and education across four continents.
John Lee was born Lee Joo For in Penang, Malaysia, on August 25, 1929, the fourth of 11 children. Initially quite comfortable, his family suffered a reversal of fortune in the 1930s Depression. Later, Malaysia was subject to brutal Japanese occupation – John took his share of beatings from soldiers – and the patronising neglect of British colonialism before its independence in 1957.
John, who had trained and then taught art at Penang’s St Xavier College, won a scholarship to study in Britain, which culminated in two years of postgraduate work at the Royal College of Art.
He also began to write, sing and act – including a stint as a weird Mongolian in episodes of Doctor Who. He returned to Malaysia in 1964 and quickly built a reputation as a prolific – if sometimes provocative – artistic dynamo.
There were solo and group shows, acting and playwright awards, commissions and honours. One play, Son of Zen, worked itself all the way to an off-off-Broadway season.
John married Teresa Lean Voon Oye in 1951 and by 1966 they had had five children – three of whom were born with muscular dystrophy. In 1973, John decided to migrate to Australia, where the children could receive better care.
This also meant that he had to rebuild his career, so he threw himself into Melbourne’s burgeoning arts scene. Playbox Theatre produced The Propitious Kidnapping of the Cultured Daughter (a riff on the Patty Hearst affair), which then Age critic Neil Jillett praised at its original National Playwright Conference reading as “genuinely evocative, especially welcome at a time when so many theatre people are obsessed with the fake sensationalism of let-it-all-hang-out self-indulgence … drama with restraint and compression”.
John continued to paint and began to write poetry and novels. He also got serious about education, teaching art and drama at PLC and Caulfield Institute; he spent 15 years as a lecturer at the Institute for Catholic Education (now ACU).
Already committed Catholics, in 1976 John and Teresa embraced the Charismatic movement, centred at St Benedict’s Parish in Burwood. Eventually – but perhaps inevitably – this led to John’s master plan: a series of uplifting, life-affirming, accessible and entertaining musicals that would investigate some of the moral quandaries of the human condition. With a Broadway touch.
The first, Call of Guadalupe, was set in the Mexico of Montezuma’s Aztecs and Cortes’ Conquistadors – complete with battle scenes, human sacrifice, peon revolts, apparitions and miracles, bookended by a contemporary story about ambition, abortion and family.
John had to be talked out of booking the Tennis Centre for the $60,000 production but it played for nine successful shows at the Besen Centre in 2005 and has been seen by 25,000 people across a dozen revivals since.
Thus was founded the Call of Guadalupe Theatre Company (COG) and John began a race with himself to complete as many scripts as were dreamt of in his imagination. He was blessed to find inspired on-stage and behind-the-scenes collaborators, including composers such as Peter Foster and David Lemewu (the latter having now made the leap of faith from aerospace engineer to priest).
His musical partner on this year’s Magdalene was Antonio Rullez, who is more than 50 years John’s junior.
John could go outdoors on a grand scale for the much-loved annual Passion Playat Doncaster’s Ruffey Lake Park or dark and intimate for Destroy Solzhenitzyn! – staged by Nice Productions for the 2015 Melbourne Fringe.
John loved to inspire and entertain. He loved to see his work come to life on stage – and was not beyond jumping up, in his patented red beret, to “demonstrate” during workshops and rehearsals. He loved his food, especially laska – the spicier the better – and he loved his family: so proud that in March this year he could attend his granddaughter’s wedding.
COG has the momentum to endure. But it is John’s art that will continue to astound, particularly the large canvases: bold, wild, expressionistic and psychoanalytic, surreal and symbolic, strikingly modern but with a structure and form he liked to call “oriento-byzantine”.
Art was a struggle, he wrote: “a struggle to [capture] in visual form my response to the joy-pain pressures of the world around me.”
When John turned 80, the Penang State Art Gallery held a retrospective exhibition of his work and published a 300-page hardcover large-format tome in celebration.
“True art is brave,” wrote Lee Joo For. “It sacrifices much to keep that precious little which is art. It tests the boundaries of human capacity for beauty, it defies conventions that cripple the human spirit, it challenges man’s inhumanity to man.”
John Lee Joo For died at peace, in the early hours of June 11. Teresa died in 2003. John is survived by his children Francesca, Geraldine, Jude, Micheline and Jeanette and grandchildren Nicole, Jeremy, Douglas and Mark.
By G.J. Burchall
The Sydney Morning Herald
Updated July 11, 2017 — 12.09pm, first published at 11.55am