Rose - A Name Means a Lot: (from left) Michelle Bouey, Raha Javanfar, Scott Hunter, Hailey Gillis, Nicole Bellamy, John Millard, Mike Ross and Frank Cox-O’Connell. Photo credit: Daniel Malavasi.In the new year, one of the most exciting shows coming up is the world premiere by Soulpepper Theatre Company of Rose, a new musical inspired by Gertrude Stein’s first children’s book, The World Is Round. Yes, that Gertrude Stein, who wrote “A Rose is a Rose is a Rose.” A real Rose, a little girl neighbour of Stein’s, had inspired her to write the story, and when author Margaret Wise Brown (Goodnight Moon) approached Stein on behalf of new publisher Young Scott Books in 1938 to see if she might be interested in writing a children’s book for them, she sent this manuscript. With clean-cut yet whimsical illustrations by Clement Hurd (also of Goodnight Moon) to give a tangible reality to the whimsical yet deeply philosophical story of a young girl trying to make sense of her world, the book became a classic that was reprinted several times, although it isn’t as well known today.

As soon as I heard about the project to turn this unique children’s story into a musical I wanted to know more and reached out to Soulpepper to get in touch with the creators, well-known composer and music director Mike Ross (music and book) and writer/actor Sarah Wilson (lyrics and book).

What follows is an absorbing conversation I had with Wilson, leaving me even more intrigued than before about the show itself.

WN: How or why did Gertrude Stein’s rare children’s book The World is Round become the inspiration or starting point for your new musical?

SW: Mike and I had talked about making something together, specifically adapting something for all ages, but we hadn’t found the right thing yet. We had a couple of false starts on other projects before I came across an excerpt from The World is Round online and was drawn enough to it that I ordered it. I thought it was weird and wonderful and musical and so I showed it to Mike, who agreed.

You have worked together before at Soulpepper, but what brought you together to create this piece? 

Yes, we were part of the first Academy, so we’ve known each other a long time now. A really great thing about Soulpepper is that you kind of swim around one another for years and get to know each other and find creative partnerships in a really organic way. So we’d acted in shows together and we’re good friends, but it wasn’t until years later that we started batting ideas around to create something.

Rose is listed on the Soulpepper website as a project ImagiNation commission.” Can you tell me about this program and how Rose will fit with its mandate?

It’s a commissioning project for new Canadian work. Practically, it means that we get resources (time, space, people, money) to create and workshop, and potentially a full production. The support let us do the concert two years ago, which was invaluable, and has let us be ambitious. We’re free to write a bigger show for more performers, hire a choreographer so we can have full production numbers, test material out both in-house and publicly…it gives you practical support to dream.

Have you stuck closely to the story of Rose in the book, and her journey to understand and feel comfortable in the world, or have you made changes/additions to make it more contemporary or Canadian? 

Anybody familiar with the book will certainly recognize it as the source, but we’ve created a more active, accessible narrative. It’s based on the book, but expanded. Rose is set in a little mountain town that’s familiar but not naturalistic, so it’s got that kind of fairy-tale quality. We don’t specifically reference Canada, but there’s a lot of maple flavour. Some loggers. Some plaid. A certain kind of small-town snow-globe feel that I associate with home.

The style of Gertrude Stein’s writing in the book can seem too adult as it is so abstract and without much punctuation, and yet it also sounds – when read aloud – very like the way a child tells stories to other children. Have you kept this style of the text in your book and lyrics? 

We’ve used Stein’s text in many ways in Rose. Some of the more typical Stein poetry – the stream of consciousness, fantastic rhythmic stuff is how Rose thinks to herself, her brain chatter when she’s all alone. She’s isn’t outgoing, she knows she’s different somehow from other kids, but she’s got an incredibly rich inner life and that kind of runaway-train kid-think is best expressed by Stein. Other characters express themselves differently. There’s a town full of people who love Rose, but don’t think like her or talk like her. Some are more straightforward, like Rose’s best friend Willie, so while his text and lyrics aren’t direct pulls from the book, they use bits of Stein, an idea or a phrase as a jumping-off point. Other characters have their own eccentricities and rhythms.

Lyrically, I’ve also used a pretty simple vocabulary. Stein has a famous quote where she says “I like words of one syllable” and although this wasn’t a conscious choice initially, I’ve found that what we’re trying to do is best served by simple language. Big ideas in little words, and sometimes arranged in unusual ways.

Can you tell me about the process of tackling this material and adapting it into a musical that could appeal to all ages and yet still have the flavour and philosophy of Gertrude Stein’s original story?

Flavour is a good word to describe it. I love the energy and strange sense of Stein’s work, but we didn’t want to make an avant-garde musical. Rose is different than anything I’ve seen, but it’s not abstract, it’s not remote. You don’t require knowledge of Stein or a degree in literature or anything like that to enjoy it.

We both really responded to this story of a nine-year-old girl trying to figure out who she is, asking big questions that sometimes she’s not even sure she understands. Nine is such an important age. It’s so young, but it’s also a time that your mind starts to really zoom in and out on the world. You’re grappling with everyday things, but underneath that there are much larger questions lurking. And they’re questions that can last a lifetime.

Our Rose is warm and big-hearted and really funny. I guess in writing it I check in a lot with my own taste and sensibilities. I love challenging, off-centre work, but not in a cerebral way. I respond to it viscerally – I find it exciting, and so it’s a process of trying to wrangle that energy and marry that to our own ideas and desires to create something new. When I see a show, I want heart and brains and humour. And I want to feel welcome. I want to feel people trying to express something that’s difficult to talk about. And I think that’s what we’ve done.

What sort of balance is there between spoken dialogue and song? Is there a special way words and music work together on this show that is different from or similar to other shows you have created or worked on? 

It’s not a sung-through show – there are spoken scenes as well as songs. There’s a ton of variety in Rose. In some ways it’s a very traditional story, beginning with “Once upon a time,” but then from there, we go everywhere.

Has the three-year development process, including the concert presentation in 2016 given you any surprises in rehearsal or in front of its first audiences? Has the show changed during the process from what you thought it would be? 

We started this process very open-minded. We didn’t have an end goal of what we thought it would or should be, but it’s been amazing to see it grow. Sometimes we find files of writing or MP3s from years ago and it’s so neat to see how it’s evolved.

The concert was especially useful. Since then, the major part of our process has been book work, which then necessitates a lot of song rewriting, so there’s a ton of new material since then. But it was very encouraging in that I could see that even though there was a lot of work to do, there was a strong heartbeat.

Will the designs by Lorenzo Savoini for the show be inspired or influenced by the book’s famous Clement Hurd illustrations? 

Yes! They’re such beautiful illustrations, so that influence is absolutely there. Lorenzo’s created a gorgeous container for our story to unfold, and that container is that terrific pink of the pages of The World Is Round. Both the illustrations and Lorenzo’s design live in that sweet spot between childlike and sophisticated. The first time I saw Hurd’s drawings they struck me as both unlike anything I’d ever seen and at the same time totally familiar. The design lives in that space, too.

Mike and I have handed Lorenzo, our costume designer Alexandra Lord and our director Gregory Prest a ton of challenges, and what I’ve seen so far has been so inventive and enchanting. I think it’ll be a real pleasure to spend time in the world they’re creating.

If you had to sum up the show in one sentence for prospective audience members what would you say? 

This is a grown-up show for kids and a kids show for grow-ups – it’s beautiful, funny and unusual and you’ll leave humming.

That’s kind of a cheat sentence, but there it is.

(For a first taste and glimpse of the musical go to the Soulpepper YouTube channel to hear the song A Name Means a Lot performed by Hailey Gillis. Rose opens at Soulpepper on January 17 and has already been extended to February 24.)

Looking Back (And Immediately Ahead)

Fantasticks: For one night only, on October 30, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s sweet-yet-tart chamber musical The Fantasticks came back to life in a delightful semi-staged concert at the Stratford Festival as part of the Forum series. I know the music well, but had never seen the show live – although it is famous as being the longest-ever running musical off-Broadway. It was fascinating to see this version which was true to the original but subtly revised for 21st-century sensibilities, including changing the two fathers of the original to two mothers. In the role of El Gallo, the mysterious character who acts as narrator and mastermind of the plot, TV star and former Stratford company member Eric McCormack led the cast with great warmth and style.

Red Sky: Another highlight of the season so far for me was Red Sky Performance’s most recent dance theatre creation, Trace, which premiered at Canadian Stage in early November sweeping audiences to their feet. A powerful and inspiring envisioning of Anishinaabe sky stories, this production is, in my opinion, the best yet from Red Sky. All the elements: Jera Wolfe’s athletic sculptural choreography, the atmospheric music of Eliot Britton and projections by Marcella Grimaux, are reaching for new heights and attaining new levels of artistry through their combination in the service of specific, yet universal, storytelling.

Coming up in December: All the usual seasonal favourites including Ross Petty’s annual panto (this year The Wizard of Oz), the National Ballet’s Nutcracker, and many versions of A Christmas Carol are on tap. On December 8, there is also a first public workshop of a new family-oriented musical version of Jack & the Beanstalk by classically trained Canadian composer William Lavigne. Inspired by the traditional musicals of Gershwin, Bernstein and Rogers and Hammerstein, Lavigne says that he really wants to “present a new theatre piece that is musically accessible and suitable for all ages to enjoy, based on a story that is relatable to everyone.” Benoit Boutet, Gabrielle Prata, and Adi Braun lead the cast in this first public outing of the in-development Jack & the Beanstalk at the Royal Conservatory’s Temerty Theatre. 

Vanessa Sears is YPT’s Mary Poppins

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

DEC 1 TO JAN 6: Young People’s Theatre. Mary Poppins.

DEC 7, 7PM: Brampton Music Theatre. Mary Poppins (full-length version). As the sequel to the original movie takes over cinemas, two productions of the recent stage version of Mary Poppins (book revised by Julian Fellows) are playing in time for the holidays. YPT’s shortened version, ideal for young children, this year directed by well-known performer Thom Allison, has excellent word of mouth

DEC 1, ONWARDS: Mirvish Productions. Come from Away. If you haven’t seen it yet, treat yourself and loved ones to this ridiculously good and truly heartwarming Canadian musical soon transferring from the Royal Alex to the Elgin Theatre and with a run extended to at least June 2019

DEC 5 TO 16: Civic Light Opera Company. Scrooge, the Musical. Music, lyrics and book by Leslie Bricusse. As a longtime fan of Leslie Bricusse’s lyrics for Victor/Victoria I am very intrigued by this version of A Christmas Carol.

DEC 8 TO 30: National Ballet of Canada. The Nutcracker. One of the best introductions to the ballet for children, and for many families an annual outing; possibly more popular than ever now that a new film version has just appeared.

JAN 4 TO 27: Tarragon Theatre. Kiviuq Returns: An Inuit Epic. Music, drumming, dance and storytelling combine in a new modern evocation of the legendary figure of Kiviuq: hero, seeker, wanderer by the Qaggiq Collective; all in Inuktitut.

JAN 17 TO 27: Mirvish. The Simon and Garfunkel Story. This immersive concert-style presentation of a biographical walk-through of the musical partnership, with large-scale screen projections and a full band, is said to be a must-see for fans and should be a good fit for the intimate CAA Theatre.

JAN 29 TO FEB 9: Tapestry Opera. Hook Up. Another exciting world premiere from Tapestry, this time dealing with the very current issue of consent in a university setting. With a young cast of classically trained singer/actors, a contemporary book by Julie Tepperman and score by Chris Thornborrow, word is that Hook Up is part opera/part musical.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

Before getting down to sampling November's wares, a couple of highlights from October are still reverberating in my thoughts. Djanet Sear’s searing and award-winning play Harlem Duet, while not really music theatre, is yet described by the playwright as a “rhapsodic blues tragedy.” As seen in the powerful production recently at Tarragon Theatre directed by the playwright, and with subtle live instrumental music accompanying and underscoring the action, it uses the form and structure of the blues to give shape and resonance to a reworking of Shakespeare’s Othello from the point of view of his first love, Billie, exploring the emotional and social politics of race and gender over three time periods.

Unequivocally grounded in the music theatre scene, the Canadian Musical Theatre Project’s Festival of New Musicals at Toronto’s CAA Theatre (as well as at Sheridan College where it is based) gave audiences the fun and excitement of being witness to the first public steps being taken by four new musicals currently in progress, promising great things to come both in terms of top-notch new musical shows and a whole new generation of excellent musical theatre performers.

November runs the gamut of riches of what we refer to as “Music Theatre,” offering an interesting chance to compare the recipes of its various subgenres. Music is always the essential ingredient in the recipe however much it may vary in style, tone, period or character. Story is also essential but after that the proportion of the other ingredients can vary extremely. Beyond the words of a libretto or book of a musical, how much will spoken dialogue, soliloquy, bridging-text or song lyrics be used in each creation? How much movement will a director decide on, or a project dictate, from simple or stylized staging to complex detailed choreography?

Poppins: Starting with established recipes this coming month, Young People’s Theatre is presenting the Broadway hit Mary Poppins (November 5 to January 6) which uses the traditional Broadway musical recipe of spoken dialogue, melodic show tunes and theatrical choreography to tell a beloved children’s story in a version shortened to appeal to families and younger children. An annual tradition, and always well received, the show this year will be directed by Thom Allison and choreographed by Kerry Gage.

Ain’t Too Proud: Over at the Princess of Wales Theatre until November 17, Des McAnuff’s new “jukebox musical” Ain’t Too Proud has taken up residence for a while on the long out-of-town road to Broadway. A thrilling recreation of the life story of “Motown’s greatest group” the Temptations – with superb singing and dancing – the book and structure are still undergoing changes. This gives us a fascinating glimpse into the development of what may become another monster hit for the director following his other award-winning jukebox smash, Jersey Boys. This musical format has an obvious appeal for fans but also unique obstacles to overcome: how do you package all the biographical information in a way that is interesting for an audience without it becoming just a linear storyline peppered with songs? How can you best interweave the songs into the story so that they are more than just stepping stones along the way? The secret seems to be identifying an underlying theme that can dictate an arc for the show that can include all the top hits and at the same time provide a satisfying journey for the audience to share. From the performance I saw, Ain’t Too Proud is close, with an unstoppable cast and a thrilling first act. If the second act can be given a tighter, bolder shape and the hinted-at themes strengthened, this could turn into not just a fun show but a powerful one, as well.

Maev Beaty. Photo by Jim Ryce.Uncovered: At the Musical Stage Company it is time for the annual Uncovered concert series, this year focusing on the songs of Joni Mitchell and Carole King – at Koerner Hall November 13 to 15 and at the George Weston Recital Hall November 21. While at first glance this might seem to be a straightforward jukebox event, it is anything but. What fascinated me about the Uncovered series when I first came across it was finding out from artistic director Mitchell Cushman that the impetus for the series was to explore the stories inherent in popular songs. From an in-studio exploration involving himself, the singers and music director Reza Jacobs, the goal is to come up with a new arrangement for each song that will enhance the story and perhaps recast it slightly to give the audience a new experience of an old favourite. These newly arranged songs are then built into a storytelling structure for the evening that encompasses the individual stories in an overall biographical arc. This year, headlining the experienced musical theatre cast are Maev Beaty (who played David Bowie for Uncovered 2016) as Joni Mitchell and Linda Kash as Carole King.

Dance: Over on the dance side of the music theatre spectrum, three events stand out, evidencing very different mixes of story, movement and music, even though, obviously, words apart from those in the libretti are absent from the stage.

Frederick Ashton’s The Dream, a long-beloved ballet version of one of Shakespeare’s greatest plays A Midsummer Night’s Dream, appears as part of the National Ballet of Canada’s fall season mixed program, November 21 to 25.

I am always fascinated to see how well Shakespeare’s plays – which are, of course, made up of some of the most beautifully crafted words in the English language – will work when translated into pure movement, and this is one of the best. Mendelssohn’s music which forms the score is also much beloved and long associated with the play as well as the ballet.

Also at the NBoC from November 10 to 18, is the North American premiere of a much more experimental story ballet, Anna Karenina, choreographed by one of the modern masters of the story ballet, John Neumeier. While based on Tolstoy’s famous 19th-century novel of the tragic romance between Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky, this is apparently not a straightforward telling of that story but rather a reflection on the original. Interestingly, the choreographer made the decision to bring the story into the modern day to unearth more contemporary nuances. I am a longtime fan of Neumeier’s Don Juan but I am intrigued to see how he will maintain the power of the specific historic context of this novel – particularly the suffocating rules and mores of the society that trap Anna in an increasingly desperate and unhappy path to the final tragic decision to end her life by famously stepping in front of a train. How much will the choreography be literal storytelling and how much more abstract movement exploring the emotional content of the story’s highlights and themes? Musically it will also be interesting with the score combining the classical dramatic power of Tchaikovsky with the more modern eclectic sounds of Alfred Schnittke and Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam.

Red Sky: The third dance theatre piece is more modern and yet more primal: the world premiere of Trace, the latest creation conceived and directed by Sandra Laronde for Red Sky Performance with choreography by her usual collaborator (and lead dancer) Jera Wolfe at the Berkeley Street Theatre from October 30 to November 11.

Continuing a theme of exploring the traditional legends and beliefs of the Anishnaabe people, Trace aims to map the Anishinaabe sky and star stories offering a glimpse at our origins and looking ahead to our possible evolution.

In the second year of a residency at Canadian Stage, where their Dora award-winning show Backbone debuted last fall, Red Sky have an increasingly strong presence on both the national and international scene. What gives their best pieces power is a unique combination of elements: the rich traditional stories and legends of the Anishinaabe people, the physically powerful and yet flexible dance vocabulary inspired by both modern and Indigenous dance forms, a mix of music that evokes a traditional First Nations atmosphere – which can then expand beyond evincing a mix of influences – and an increasingly sophisticated use of moving imagery with the use of video projections to echo and enhance the live work onstage.

Projections are being used far more frequently by almost every type of theatrical endeavour and really fall more under the category of design rather than the list of recipe ingredients I have been talking about, and yet for Red Sky they have become an increasingly important element of the creation of each project, although in the case of Miigis, it was the living backdrop of historic Fort York against the living urban landscape of Toronto that set the scene.

An interesting debate could be had about the impact of design on the success of theatrical works and how much they contribute to each piece’s intrinsic value, particularly as the barriers between genres are increasingly being bent and broken down.

All in all, November will be an exciting month with a music theatre menu to suit all tastes. 

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

The 2018/19 season has started off with a bang with an exciting mix of risk-taking experimental music theatre alongside the traditional musicals continuing on many stages large and small. Over the course of just one week in September I saw three world premieres in a row that were entirely different from each other; unique in atmosphere and style, yet alike in a desire to explore and push the boundaries of what music theatre is capable of.

Opera Briefs: The first of these, Tapestry Opera’s Opera Briefs: Tasting Shorts is always one of my favourite fall shows, the chance to see a smorgasbord of bite-sized brand new operas created in Tapestry’s annual summer composer librettist laboratory, the Liblab. This year’s edition of sophisticated operatic speed-dating was no exception, with 11 mini-operas on a variety of themes. One of the necessities of successful bare-bones staging is good direction - this time by artistic director Michael Mori assisted by Jessica Derventzis. Another is having a company of singers who are equally good as actors, able to intuitively convey complexities of character and story as well as to master new and widely varied music scores very quickly. Anchored by the veteran brilliance of tenor Keith Klassen and baritone Peter McGillivray (who were joined by newcomers soprano Teiya Kasahara and mezzo Stephanie Tritchew) this company shone throughout the evening with each “brief” a tiny complete world of its own, set apart by story and music style. Jennifer Tung’s music direction and playing was also subtle and effective throughout. As always there were strong “real life” musical stories most notably the funny but heartbreaking The Farewell Poo by Rene Orth and Daniel Solon, and the more stylized and politically apposite Bring Me the Head of Our President by August Murphy-King and Colleen Murphy. Taking the program even beyond this usual excellence was a new experiment: writing for Virtual Reality settings. Of the Sea created the VR experience of meeting African slaves thrown overboard on their way to the new world who have made new lives below the ocean, and was surprisingly powerful although fantastical. Even more experimental was sci-fi thriller Hydrophis Expedition designed as a purely aural experience. Eerie and fascinating, as we listened with our eyes closed, the sung music as well as the underwater soundscape made it easier to succumb to the experience and believe in the underwater world and its lurking dangers.

Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, with Edge of the Sky Young Company. Photo credit DAHLIA KATZDr. Silver: In contrast to the multiple worlds of Tapestry’s Briefs, the latest creation of the uber-talented Stratford-born and raised sisters Anika and Britta Johnson: Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life is a fully realized, intensely cohesive, almost claustrophobic, single immersive world.

At Toronto’s historic Heliconian Hall in the heart of Yorkville the audience arrives at the door to be greeted by young members of the “congregation” welcoming us to the funeral of Dr. Silver who – we find out quite soon – was the leader of a cult. As the congregation we sit around three sides of the room with an altar and multimedia screen at one end, and with space in the middle for the cult’s youth chorus (the incredibly polished Edge of the Sky Young Company) to sing and perform.

Once the show begins we are completely immersed in the funeral and music, and then the history of the family at the centre of the cult. It is this mix of family history and the formal dynamics of the funeral ritual that gives interest and depth to what might otherwise be just a clever concept. As idiosyncratic moments occur (as at any real funeral) they sometimes trigger flashbacks and we get to know the various members of the family (mother, two daughters, estranged son, and son’s friend/devoted acolyte): suffice it to say, all is not as perfect as one might think from surface appearances.

The excellent cast (Donna Garner, Bruce Dow, Kira Guloien, Rielle Braid, Peter Deiwick) sing and act so well and truthfully that we don’t just watch, we come to really care about them and what is going to happen. The sung-through nature of most of the show seems natural, particularly because the cult worships music as divine (a clever concept). The direction by Mitchell Cushman is seamless and the choreography by Barbara Johnston for the young chorus is dramatic and effective. The use of character quirks and comedic moments in the writing lightens the tension and darker side of the material and the electro-pop music works for all the characters (though I found myself wishing for a bit more musical variety). Currently a co-production between Outside the March and The Musical Stage Company this show will likely continue to develop and be seen again. Please see my upcoming interview with the Johnson sisters on our online blog at thewholenote.com for a much more in-depth look at the show and its creation.

I Call myself Princess: Now, from the multiple individual worlds of Tapestry’s Briefs and the immersive single world of Dr. Silver, to Jani Lauzon’s I Call myself Princess where two worlds 100 years apart not only exist side by side but intersect and influence each other. Excitingly ambitious in scope Lauzon’s “play with opera” is rich in rediscovered historical fact and imaginative in how it combines this history with present-day reality. From the beginning, the two worlds seem to be overlapping, with Indigenous singing like a magical chant opening the doors between the two. Music interweaves the 2018 world of young gay Métis opera student Will with the world, 100 years earlier; which gave rise to the classically oriented “Indianist” music of Charles Wakefield Cadman. Cadman was a composer of many songs but also of the first opera with an Indigenous story to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera: Tsanewis or The Robin Woman. When Will is given an aria from this opera to learn he becomes obsessed with learning more about its creation. As he does, the walls between the worlds become increasingly thin, allowing him to meet and even interact with the woman who inspired Tsanewis – Tsianina Redfeather, a classically trained Creek Cherokee singer who, as Will eventually realizes, is experiencing many of the same trials that he himself is facing as a lone Indigenous artist trying to navigate a primarily non-Indigenous world. The power of the play comes from this intersection and interaction, as both characters find comfort and strength in the other’s understanding and through a sharing of the music. While the acting and singing of some of the company are not as smoothly integrated as they could be, I found myself caught up in both stories and fascinated by the reality of the proto-feminist ground-breaking opera of 100 years ago

I Call myself Princess continues at the Aki Studio until October 6 and Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life at Heliconian Hall until October 14.

Upcoming: October 17 and 18, another risk-taking musical, and a longtime cult favourite of musical theatre fans, Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along is being revisited in a semi-staged concert format by Toronto Musical Concerts at the Al Green Theatre.

Based on Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman’s 1934 play of the same name, which begins at the end of the story and goes back in time to the beginning, Merrily We Roll Along has had a problematic production history beginning with its less-than-fully-successful premiere in 1981, but as TMC’s Artistic producer Christopher Wilson says “Yet it is one of Sondheim’s finest, most complex, and diverse scores, and the thematic material of choosing success over artistry is age-old and one worth exploring through a contemporary lens.” In fact, as time goes by, audiences and critics seem to have found a new appreciation for the show, in part, perhaps, because the original production’s decision to cast very young adults who would have to play “forty-somethings” at the beginning before reverting to their own ages, was flipped to having performers roughly the right age at the beginning, who would then play younger selves as the play went on – a concept that Wilson has followed for this version. The wonderful 2016 documentary about the original production, The Best Worst Thing That Could Have Happened, has certainly whetted a lot of appetites to see and hear this musical live once again,

Speaking of revivals, on the second last day of October, the Stratford Festival is presenting, for one day only, Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt’s beloved chamber musical, The Fantasticks, in concert at the Avon Theatre starring Eric McCormack. Yes, Eric McCormack from TV’s Will and Grace. McCormack’s ties to Stratford go back 30 years to when he was a young actor in the company appearing, for example, in Measure for Measure, Murder in the Cathedral and A Midsummer Night’s Dream; last year he was awarded the Festival’s Legacy Award. It is also a homecoming in another sense, McCormack being Toronto-born, raised, and trained (Ryerson Theatre School) and having cut his early professional teeth in outdoor park performances at Skylight Theatre in North York’s Earl Bales Park. He also has musical theatre credentials having made his Broadway debut as Harold Hill in The Music Man in 2001. In The Fantasticks he is aptly cast in the wonderfully swashbuckling role of the “kidnapper” El Gallo. Richard Ouzounian will direct, and Franklin Brasz, is in charge of the music.

This should be a fun revisiting of an old favourite musical and also raises the tantalizing question of whether we might see a longer run of The Fantasticks, or McCormack himself, in a full Stratford Festival season in the near future.

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

OCT 2 TO 20: Oraltorio, A Theatrical Mixtape, Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Soulpepper joins with Obsidian for the first time to present this intriguing coming-of-age story through movement and music described as “part poetry slam, part house party.”

OCT 18 TO 21: Xenos, Bluma Appel Theatre. Canadian Stage presents Akram Khan’s highly acclaimed last solo dance creation (with a book by Jordan Tannahill) exploring and commemorating Indian soldiers’ experience in World War I. Khan’s fiercely dramatic Until the Lions was a highlight of the 2017 Luminato Festival.

OCT 24 TO 28, 7pm: Dancyn Productions present Billy Bishop Goes to War at RCAC Oshawa. A fun chance to see John Gray’s Canadian classic musical about Canada’s great pilot in an appropriate military setting.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

The September 2018/19 music theatre season starts off with the exciting world premiere of a new piece by Jani Lauzon, which will be presented in a three-way co-production by Paper Canoe Projects, Cahoots Theatre Projects and Native Earth Performing Arts at Native Earth’s Aki Studio. I Call myself Princess (the lowercase of the “m” in “myself” is intentional) is a fascinating new “play with opera” that uses an interdisciplinary approach to delve into the past, making new discoveries about both the past and the present by relating it to today.

Jani Lauzon. Photo courtesy of Jani LauzonA hundred years ago in 1918, an opera titled Shanewis (The Robin Woman) with music by Charles Wakefield Cadman and libretto by Nelle Richmond Eberhart made its debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, as part of a three-part program about American life. It was such a success that it returned the next season and continued to tour and be revived around the United States for years afterwards.

This was the second opera by Cadman and Eberhart on an “American Indian” theme, but their first to be accepted for production. What seemed to make the difference with Shanewis was the contribution to the story and libretto by Cadman’s musical touring partner the Creek/Cherokee singer Tsianina Redfeather, who, although never officially credited, provided ideas from her own life and experiences – resulting in an opera that resonated with both producers and audiences.

A hundred years later, playwright Jani Lauzon’s I Call myself Princess is about to bring this story back to life for us in a modern context. The first seeds of inspiration for the play came when the playwright was working with the Turtle Gals Performance Ensemble, the acclaimed Native Women’s collective that she co-founded with Michelle St. John and Monique Mojica. While working on a new project, Lauzon came across the 1972 book The Only Good Indian: The Hollywood Gospel. It was full of critical viewpoints on the inclusion, or lack thereof, of Indigenous performers in opera, jazz, silent film, the talkies and vaudeville, starting at the turn of the 20th century.

“At first we were surprised by how many Indigenous performers there were. Then we were upset with ourselves that we were surprised,” Lauzon tells me. “We had bought into the narrative that we weren’t there. But we were there. We were producers, writers, performers.” The story of Tsianina and the opera Shanewis in particular stood out as something to be explored further. “What struck me about Tsianina Redfeather was her working relationship with Charles Wakefield Cadman,” she says, “and the complexities of how they were both navigating the industry and expectations of the audience.”

Cadman was already well known at the time as a composer and expert in “American Indian Music” and for composing his own pieces in a style that became known as “Indianist.” He gave lecture tours around the United States and Europe, joined from 1908 by Redfeather, who dressed for the concerts in beaded traditional costumes, her hair in braids, and was credited as “Princess Tsianina.”

In I Call myself Princess, we meet Tsianina and Cadman as they and their opera are discovered by William, a young Métis opera singer in the course of his studies. As he learns more and deals with the difficulties of finding his own identity as a young Indigenous performer in the world of opera and today’s political climate, music and theatre become intertwined. “I was conscious of the need to seamlessly integrate the libretto and music that was Charles Wakefield Cadman’s and Nelle Eberharts’ within the context of my story,” says Lauzon. “In many ways the writing process was a constant reminder that the very act of reconciliation is a delicate balance that takes work, thought and negotiation.”

Marjorie Chan. Photo courtesy of Marjorie ChanThis intertwining of story, genre, time and theme is exciting and ambitious. Joining Lauzon to undertake the challenge of bringing it all to life is director and dramaturge Marjorie Chan, also artistic director of Cahoots, a theatre company dedicated to working with diverse artistic voices. Many things, Chan says, drew her to the project: knowing Jani Lauzon and her work with the Turtle Gals, the chance to tell a story that has thus far had little opportunity to be heard, but also the combination of theatre with opera. Chan herself is well known as an opera librettist. “When we started to work on this project,” she says, “I often felt like my worlds were starting to come together.”

When I asked Chan about the intermixture of play and opera, she said that to her it is like an opera within a play. “In terms of the actual opera that was performed on the Met stage in 1918, we are, in the play, looking at its creation from both the time when it was created and from our modern perspective in 2018,” she explains. “We are poking at it from all different sides and different times so that pieces of the opera are consistently being performed throughout the entire evening.”

Marion NewmanOne of the challenges of getting this right is casting, particularly with the very specific demands for each character. Acclaimed for her warm strong mezzo-soprano voice and experience in contemporary opera, Marion Newman, of Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations as well as English, Irish and Scottish heritage, was an obvious choice for Tsianina, Chan says. Newman has been an integral part of the project since the workshop in 2014. Opposite her, as the composer Charles Wakefield Cadman, is versatile performer and director Richard Greenblatt, known, perhaps most famously, for his two-man show with Ted Dykstra, Two Pianos Four Hands. As Cadman he not only has an acting role but a musician’s role: playing the piano – in character – throughout the piece.

Playing William, the Métis opera student, is Aaron M. Wells (of Ehattesaht and Lax Kwalaams First Nations) from the west coast, who, Chan says, is not only a terrific singer but also “understands on a really intuitive level William’s position as an Indigenous person in a program that was not specifically designed with his culture in mind.”

Leading the musical side of the production is music director Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate whose background, classical training and compositional experience make him – as Lauzon says – a perfect fit for the show. A Chikasaw classical composer and pianist whose own works are inspired by Indigenous history and culture, Impichchaachaaha’ Tate met Jani Lauzon when he came to Toronto in 1994 to compose the music for Native Earth’s production of Diva Ojibway. While “blown away by his talent and experience as a composer,” Lauzon says, “it is also a blessing that Jerod is well versed in Cadman’s music, the Indianist music and Tsianina. He gets the way Indigenous people work and think because he is one, and he understands the circumstances that Tsianina faces because as an Indigenous artist he lives it every day.”

The music he will be directing is made up of key moments from the opera, from a beautiful aria about love to an idealized version of an Ojibwe song that Cadman included not only in the opera but also in the “Indian Lecture” tour that he and Tisanina took all over the world. As well, Lauzon says, “Jerod is composing a traditional Ojibwe melody that grows as a musical theme throughout, and Marion Newman has been hard at work practising the slide guitar, which Tsianina played for the troops overseas during World War One.”

As Chan says, since in the play William is discovering the opera Shanewis, “We have to dive in. We have to hear enough of the original to understand and ask, ‘How do I feel about that?’”

The company is also spending time exploring what might have been the original performance style for opera in 1918, adds Chan: “How well that (might) hold in our contemporary space and seeing where we should offer something more naturalistic that we might be more accustomed to, and to be more truthful to the piece.” The opera was daring for its time, as Chan emphasizes. “It has a female protagonist who is very strong, very forthright. Furthermore, she is a female protagonist who is an Indian who speaks quite truthfully about her experience as a colonized person. She is the love interest of a white man and rejects him in favour of honouring her people. So we think about how that would have landed on an audience of 1918.”

As Lauzon mentioned, the opera – though highly successful in its time – contains images and concepts that today would be recognized as problematic. A challenge for the creative team and company will be balancing this intriguing and daring 1918 world with the more familiar world of 2018, and focusing the play in performance so that the audience will receive it in the way the playwright intends.

Chan says that Lauzon is “gifted in layering all these complex ideas in a really articulated, clear way.” According to Chan, the play is about Tsianina Redfeather at the turn of the century but “it is also about this young Métis man in an opera program, and what it means for him to encounter and be impacted by this music. That’s the beauty of how we find the ways to leak the music in and take it out, to stay with the emotional journey of the young Métis opera singer.”

Intriguingly, when I suggest that there was a time travel element to be experienced, Chan says that they are aiming for something even more complex: “the thought that if we might expand what we know around us we could reach it; that they are existing at the same time.”

Ultimately, says Chan, the goal of the team is that “the audience should be able to come in and experience the journey of a young man reaching back into his culture – and reclaiming culture and music that belongs to him.”

I Call myself Princess plays September 9 to 30, at Native Earth Performing Arts’ Aki Studio, Toronto. 

MUSIC THEATRE QUICK PICKS

 Donna-Michelle St. Bernard - "Sound of the Beast." Photo credit Graham Isador 2017SEP 28 & 29, 7:30PM: Sound of the Beast. Theatre Passe Muraille (followed by a national tour): Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, who collaborated so wonderfully with Tapestry Opera last season on the Persian inspired Tap Ex: Forbidden, is the solo artist here as emcee “Belladonna the Blest,” and, using a combination of hip-hop, spoken word and storytelling, tells truth to power with a brutally honest take on policing in Black communities.

SEP 18 to 29: Grand Theatre. Prom Queen: The Musical. The High School Project - Grand Theatre London, 471 Richmond St., London. The Grand Theatre’s annual high school project aroused controversy earlier this year in the city of London because it tells the true story of Marc Hall, who in 2002 wanted to take his boyfriend to the school prom. Originally developed at Sheridan’s Canadian Musical Theatre Project, the show has earned rave reviews elsewhere and here will have a large cast of real high school students, 50 onstage and 30 backstage.

SEP 13 to OCT 7: Musical Stage Company. Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life. Heliconian Hall, 35 Hazelton Ave., Toronto. The latest creation by the talented Johnson sisters, Britta and Anika, this co-production with Mitchell Cushman’s Outside the March company promises to be “immersive” and very different from your usual musical. At the historic, tiny, Heliconian Hall in Yorkville.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

In May, two shows stood out for me for different reasons. Picnic in the Cemetery at Canadian Stage’s intimate upstairs Berkeley Street Theatre was an unusual theatrical concert with a whimsical heart and setting, combining often-sublime chamber music (by composer Njo Kong Kie) with simple props, a dancer, short films and onscreen poetic introductions to the various compositions. The beautiful playing by violinist Hong Iat U and cellist Nicholas Yee (supported by the composer on the piano) stood out as enigmatic conversations between their instruments, in much the same way that author Patrick O’Brian describes the often improvisatory, lyrical, shipboard violin and cello duets played by his famous characters Captain Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin.

A more traditional musical theatre outing was the TSO’s concert presentation of Leonard Bernstein’s musical Candide This was a wonderful opportunity to hear and see the exquisite Tracy Dahl as Cunegonde, with her crystal clear tone, perfect technique, and delightful acting and star mezzo Judith Forst in great comedic form as the lively Old Lady.

Looking ahead to June, there is no shortage of music theatre on offer but the most striking cluster of offerings is concentrated under the umbrella of the Luminato Festival. I took the opportunity to meet artistic director Josephine Ridge to ask her about her approach and goals for the festival as she nears the beginning of her second season in Toronto.

Josephine Ridge 4 Photo by Katherine HollandWN: Looking at the upcoming Luminato program, what really struck me was how much music there is, but also, and this seems new this year, how politically and socially engaged the whole festival is. Is that because of the current atmosphere we are living in?

JR: It’s actually deeper than that; it’s about the way I view the role of a festival within its home city – that a festival needs to be relevant to the inhabitants of its city and therefore we need to engage with the ideas that are in the public realm of discussion. We need to think about what are the issues, the concerns and the enthusiasms and in other words really what’s in the ether, because if we’re not a festival that is distinctly about Toronto and of Toronto then it means that we are not contributing and adding to the cultural landscape in the way that I believe we should as a festival.

It’s something that I was very proud to have been able to do when I was at the Melbourne Festival.

And it takes time to explore and get to know a new city.

That’s part of the excitement of course, and I think, as in all things, with fresh eyes one has a different perspective, perhaps, as well – and that certainly for me adds to the interest in terms of the conversations that I have.

You have talked before about wanting to have conversations with as many of the arts organizations as possible in the city.

Yes, this is the other side of the engagement and connection that we were just talking about. This is really about understanding what Toronto artists and companies are doing now, and how can we add to that and perhaps together achieve something which each can’t on their own.

There is already growing excitement about that approach from some of the artists I’ve spoken to – at Tapestry Opera for example.

In fact, Tapestry is a good case in point. I quickly came to understand the work that Michael Mori and his company are doing, so the conversation with Michael about this year was around work that they have produced in the past that is really deserving of a wider audience and being revisited and seen in an international festival context. We very quickly got to Nicole Lizée’s multimedia piece Tables Turned. It’s one of the important components of a platform we have created this year called Illuminated Works, which is all about fulfilling one of Luminato’s founding briefs – which was to throw a spotlight on the creativity of Toronto and take Toronto arts to the world. We are bringing a large group of international and Canadian presenters and producers to come and look at a whole range of work, with a view to it being picked up and given national and international touring opportunities. We can’t work with everybody every year but we can make a start and really make sure that over time we engage as widely as we can.

Will you be continuing with these conversations, looking for companies you haven’t yet met, and new artists emerging onto the scene?

Definitely. One of the important roles we have is not only to present work that is complete but also to recognize the proper support that is required for the creative development process of new work, and so in the program this year we have four works that are works in progress.

We’re giving those artists an opportunity to put their work in front of an audience so they can feel how it sits with that audience and feed that learning into the way they then take the work forward for future development.

This will be exciting for audiences, too, to be in on the development process on the ground floor.

Yes, and I think the works we have chosen are far-ranging: Dr. Silver: A Celebration of Life, Hell’s Fury, The Ward Cabaret, and Balaklava Blues.

Dr. Silver a Celebration of Life - Photo by Neil SilcoxAnd they’re all music theatre – as we define it at The WholeNote – where music is an integral element in telling a theatrical story. This year the mix is very interesting and even more experimental than last year. Do you see music theatre as always being an essential part of the Luminato recipe, particularly as it crosses borders and genres?

Well, I’m particularly interested in artists and their work where they are not working in art-form silos; and distinctions between the definitions of particular art forms now are so blurry. Also, music to me is really central so it’s not surprising that so many works that we are looking at are cross-genre. I also think that the ability that music has to speak to audiences who perhaps might not think of themselves as being a “theatre audience” or a “dance audience,” for example, is exciting.

How did you choose the music theatre pieces this season? Did you start with one that was a cornerstone, the Irish Swan Lake, for example, or did you begin with the underlying themes and ideas you wanted to engage with this season and go from there?

I think it’s partly that I am always drawn to music and so there is no one answer to that. I have a long relationship with Teaċ Daṁsa, Michael Dolan’s company (Swan Lake), and have seen a lot of Michael’s work over the years as a director and choreographer. He is, I think, a unique and important voice, and Toronto audiences and the artists working in Toronto should see the works that he is creating

The excerpts that I have seen online look wildly theatrical.

It’s a completely original reading of such a well-known work, and all the elements of the Swan Lake story are there, but of course it is completely transformed into this really poor community in Ireland. There are no kings and queens and princes here, and the music is original Irish music (with folk references) played live onstage. Somehow even with all of that transformation, the classic story is there, which to me is just magical.

And the Canadian pieces – how did you choose those, Dr. Silver for example?

In the case of Dr. Silver, A Celebration of Life I was invited by Mitchell Cushman of Outside the March, very soon after I arrived in Canada (the middle of 2016), to go to a day of workshops they were holding, and this was one of those works in a very raw form. I met and talked with Mitchell and then also with Mitchell Marcus of The Musical Stage Company, as it was absolutely evident to me that Britta and Anika Johnson are a real creative force. I was interested in not just the direction of that work but of whatever else they were doing, and wanted to signal that I would be interested in finding a way for Luminato to be part of that story to support those artists. Although Dr. Silver has its official presentation in September as a finished work, I asked if it would be useful for them to have an opportunity on the way through to put it in front of an audience, so that’s how that conversation went.

Hells Fury: The Hollywood Songbook [Tim Albery’s concept based on the life and songs of composer Hanns Eisler], on the other hand, came to us as an idea from Lawrence Cherney at Soundstreams. He said “We want to create this work and need a partner.” So, there are many ways in which these projects can come to life. You have to be in the room, seeing work, having the conversation for these outcomes to even occur.

And if artists are interested in having a conversation with you how should they approach you?

I try to go to see artists working at all scales and at all types of work, so people do tend to find me in foyers, but I can also be easily be contacted at Luminato.

The Ward Cabaret you mentioned is also a work in progress – can you tell me a bit more about it?

I think it’s a really important piece because it comes from the recent book The Ward from Coach House Books that deals with the importance of the Ward [an area bounded roughly by Queen and College, Yonge and University] and the cultural diversity of its original inhabitants as being the real basis of Toronto’s cultural diversity today. What David Buchbinder (the show’s originator) has done is have a musical response to that material, and I think it’s going to be really interesting and very rich.

Now that playwright Marjorie Chan and director Leah Cherniak are newly involved in the collaboration, is there any sense yet of how theatrical it is going to be?

What we have now is really a cabaret concert performance, but eventually it will be a fully staged theatrical experience. I can’t tell you when that will be but we are certainly there for the journey.

Before we finish, could you tell me a bit more about Riot, the other show you are bringing from Ireland? It sounds like a smorgasbord of different genres, including music theatre, all mixed together.

Riot is uplifting. It’s funny, energetic, has got real heart and soul, and deals with – going back to your first questions – issues and ideas. It covers quite a lot of really important territory of social politics, in particular, but does it in a way that is very entertaining and lightly done. I think you’ll find a lot of connection to Toronto audiences because of the territory it covers and because it is so entertaining.

Up Over It in 'Riot' - Photo by Conor Horgan for THISISPOPBABYAnd because of the contrast in style with everything else?

That’s why we are running it a bit longer – so it has a chance to bridge a lot of the other works that are taking place.

The whole festival is longer this year. Is there extra programming or are you spreading things out?

It’s more about pace, allowing there to be some air in between, so hopefully people can see more but also connect the various aspects of the festival. It’s also structural: with only two weekends you begin and you end; with three weekends now we have a beginning, middle and end, and we’re telling a story.

Luminato runs from June 6 to 24 at various venues around Toronto.

Follow our online blog for more previews and reviews of music theatre around Ontario this summer.

Quick Picks

June 1 to 10: Frame by Frame. A new collaboration between international theatrical innovator Robert Lepage with Canadian choreographer Guillaume Côté, celebrating and showcasing excerpts of Canadian filmmaker Norman McLaren’s groundbreaking films. National Ballet of Canada at the Four Seasons Centre, Toronto.

June 6, 7: Soundstreams finishes its 35th season with an exciting two-part music theatre program, the world premiere of James Rolfe’s I Think We Are Angels, with a libretto based on the poems of Else Lasker-Schüler, and a new theatrical version of David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion led by music director John Hess and stage director Jennifer Tarver. At Crows Theatre, 345 Carlaw, Toronto.

June 16: Tony Award-winning Scottish actor Alan Cumming (of The Good Wife and many other shows) comes to Massey Hall for one night only with his new cabaret show Legal Immigrant, built around stories and songs of his life and loves in his adopted homeland, the USA.

June 26: A rare chance to see Canadian stage and film star Christopher Plummer live at the TSO, in Christopher Plummer’s Symphonic Shakespeare, at Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

July 13 to August 12: Rosalynde (or As You Like It). Driftwood Theatre places one of Shakespeare’s most musical comedies in Canada in 1918, with the songs given new musical settings to fit the period by music director and composer Tom Lillington. In parks around Ontario; see driftwoodtheatre.com/bards-bus-tour for details. 

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

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