Sharing a laugh in the rehearsal hall – internationally renowned Canadian soprano Measha Brueggergosman (left) plays the virtuoso role of the Moon, a gorgeous maternal presence overseeing all, shining her light where the characters need to see, particularly Caroline, played by Jully Black (right). Photo by Dahlia Katz“Change your mind and change your life.” This is what Canada’s beloved “Queen of R&B” Jully Black said to herself when she agreed to make her musical theatre debut as Caroline, the leading role in Caroline or Change for The Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theatre, opening this month.

At first, she told me, she had said “No” to the invitation. “I said no to myself, no to my agent, mostly out of fear and dealing with vocal challenges.” Yet, when she realized in hindsight that those challenges were coming from emotional trauma, she began a deep research process into “the connection between silence and holding things in, between emotions and your vocal chords, between spirituality, neural pathways, and cognitive reflexes,” and came to the courageous decision that taking up this invitation would be – a thought she would repeat several times in our conversation – “a great opportunity to be a living witness and example of ‘change your mind and change your life’.”

Although an acclaimed and multiple award-winning performer and recording artist for 20 years, with an impressive list of credits that includes a year as correspondent for CTV’s daily entertainment program eTalk, and hosting various award shows and TV specials, Black had never before performed in a musical. She had been part of the cast of Trey Anthony’s breakout Canadian hit play Da Kink In My Hair that played at the Princess of Wales Theatre in 2005, and repeated her role in a few episodes of the TV series that followed (as well as writing and singing the theme song), but Caroline would be a very different challenge. Caroline is regarded as one of the most powerful female roles in the entire musical theatre canon, and Caroline or Change is sung through, rather than being a mix of songs and dialogue. This would be a physically as well as artistically demanding role and she would be leading a cast of top Canadian performers for a company widely acknowledged to be one of, if not the top, producer of thought-provoking, socially conscious musicals in Canada.

So how did this invitation come about? The first step was back in 2018 when The Musical Stage Company invited Black to take part in Uncovered: Joni Mitchell & Carole King, that year’s edition of their annual theatrical concert series that gathers together top musicians from Toronto and further afield to explore the repertoire of two connected singer songwriters, with an emphasis on unearthing the stories within the songs.

As Black told me: “It was about a year after my mom passed, so doing [Uncovered] was about the journey of self-discovery, and ‘What does my life look like now without her?’ It was good for me, something that gave me a little bit of fear, a new challenge that I was taking on, by myself without anyone that I knew. It gave me the chance to strip away the whole imagery of Jully Black and honour another artist by exploring their songs. It was like a new beginning. I felt like I was 16 all over again, discovering that music is the one love that will never leave me.” Black was a great success in this concert and returned to blow audiences away a year later in 2019’s Uncovered: Stevie Wonder & Prince, in particular with a heartbreaking interpretation of Stevie Wonder’s My Cherie Amour, sung as if by a mother giving up her child for adoption.

In between came the invitation to play Caroline in a year’s time. When I asked music director Reza Jacobs if the inspiration of casting Black came from this experience, he said: “Absolutely. Jully has within her tremendous strength and vulnerability and has access to both of those at the same time and that seems integral to the fibre of Caroline, plus, of course, she has that amazing voice.” Artistic director Mitchell Marcus agrees. Musical Stage had produced a multiple Dora Award-winning production of Caroline or Change back in 2012 and had been hoping to remount it ever since, but as time passed and the decision was made to build a new production from the ground up, they began exploring the idea with Jully.

Caroline or Change, at the Winter Garden Theatre, Toronto. Photo by Dahlia KatzDescribed by The Boston Globe as “the first great piece of musical theatre of the 21st century,” Caroline or Change, which debuted at New York’s Public Theatre in 2003 and transferred to Broadway in 2004, rests very much on the shoulders of its leading lady. Paraphrasing Marcus’ synopsis:

Caroline is a 39-year-old single mother of four, a black maid working for $30 a week in the Jewish Gellman household in 1963 Louisiana. Day in, day out her routine is the same: a bus ride to work, laundry, cooking, cleaning, and a bus ride home. She has long suppressed her feelings of want and need in exchange for getting by and not causing trouble. But this preference for the status quo is rocked when a seemingly inconsequential event occurs: Caroline’s employer instructs her to keep any pocket change that she finds while doing the laundry, as a way to teach Noah – the nine-year-old child of the Gellmans – a lesson about minding his money. With the civil rights movement unfolding around her, years of suppressed feelings of inequity and anger bubble up to the surface from the opportunities that extra pennies and nickels provide.

The powerful semi-autobiographical book by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and rich score by Jeanine Tesori (Fun Home) have been described by stage director Robert McQueen (who also directed the 2012 production) as “a perfect fusion of text and music.” Music director Jacobs agrees: “As with all of Kushner’s work it’s an entire universe onstage, and it’s really a perfect musical setting.” The score draws on many different styles of music including “Motown, rhythm and blues, klezmer, and various different ages of classical music, but it never comes across as pastiche, Tesori is able to take these different genres and serve the dramatic moment and not make it about the genre. She completely immerses herself in the world and then it seems that she is humble enough to leave without any trace that she was there. There is a clever use of anthropomorphized appliances, particularly the radio played by three women who sing in a variety of different styles to comment, articulate, encourage, frustrate, or sympathize with Caroline. There is also one beautiful sequence where Caroline and her daughter Emmie switch the radio back and forth and the difference you hear in the feeling and vibe of the music encapsulates the difference between the two in generation and attitude.”

This focus on mother and daughter, and the story itself, also had personal echoes for Black whose mother had been a domestic worker for a wealthy white family in Jamaica in the 60s – a family who later helped her emigrate to Canada. This personal connection was part of what encouraged Black’s decision to take on the role of Caroline, to acknowledge her own old personal stories but also to leave them behind, to immerse herself in this character, to jump into a year of intense training in order to “get to know the blank canvas of Jullyann Inderia Gordon, again.”

The regime she described to me was intense: physical training building up to running 10K while singing or talking to fans online in order to build her stamina and vocal power; working with a vocal coach for the first time in her life (the famed Elaine Overholt) to increase her range from her natural alto to soprano; and working weekly with music director Jacobs to learn the score. She is revelling in the rehearsal process which she describes as being like part of a relay team with exceptional teammates, and is working personally every minute to be “very present, to really stand in every word I am singing.”

Two days before we spoke she had had a breakthrough while singing Lot’s Wife that had everyone in the room in tears. This is Caroline’s tour de force solo, described by Jacobs as “a song that has in it all the heartbreak of frustrated dreams butting up against self-imposed limitations and limitations from the world; seeing a blossoming future in your daughter; wanting to move forward but also afraid to; wanting to dissolve and die, but also needing to continue and live.” Immersing herself in this song in rehearsal, Black suddenly realized that Caroline was her mother’s best friend, her “Aunt Jenny” when she was growing up, a woman who, like Caroline, was caught unable to change in spite of the world changing around her. 

So much of this story is about ordinary people facing extraordinary change, and all the members of the company I have spoken with talk about how this drew them to the show and how they expect audience members will find it as relatable and cathartic as they do.

Caroline in the musical is not able to “change her mind and change her world” but her daughter Emmie, is. Her solo ends the show with hope and with the words, “Change come fast, and change come slow, but everything changes, and you got to go.”

Caroline or Change plays at the Winter Garden Theatre January 30 to February 15, coinciding with Black History Month.

Jennifer Parr is a Toronto-based director, dramaturge, fight director, and acting coach, brought up from a young age on a rich mix of musicals, Shakespeare and new Canadian plays.

Alison Mackay and Suba Sankaran. Photography by Kevin King“When did you two first start talking about this project?” I ask my guests. It’s January 14, 2020 and The Indigo Project, the latest in a long series of thematically based multimedia projects from the fertile curatorial mind of Tafelmusik’s Alison Mackay, will open on February 27. We sit surrounded by samples of indigo-dyed fabric, some old, some new, some borrowed – all very definitely blue. A fat binder of images from which Raha Javanfar is designing the projections for the show, sits on the table; over the course of the next
45 minutes, Mackay dips into it from time to time.

“Around a year ago …?” Mackay says, looking inquiringly across at Suba Sankaran, her prime collaborator on this project. “These things always take about two years to incubate...maybe a bit before that…I would have to go look at email. I began to think about this as a topic when I was working on Safe Haven. I have always been very inspired by the work of Natalie Zemon Davis – she wrote the first Return of Martin Guerre and she’s in her 90s now – she’s Aaron Davis’ mother, if you know him – and she’s just won, a couple of years ago, this enormous international history prize because she’s one of these cutting- edge people, examining court documents and things like that for written records that give glimpses into the lives of people who, perhaps as the less powerful, fall through the cracks of history. And she has done a lot of work on Sephardic Jewish refugees who went to Surinam and then in turn became plantation owners, and there was one family that were indigo growers there. I asked her to read the Safe Haven script for me, and she had some suggestions; but she also gave me some material about indigo at that time and it made me think, oh this would be a compelling topic! …”

Read more: Alison Mackay and Suba Sankaran: On the Early Trail of Indigo

Bob BeckerWith a career spanning half a century, renowned Toronto-based percussionist Bob Becker has garnered a global reputation for his instrumental mastery, interpretive skill and rigourous commitment to his art.

Reading road kill on balding tires
In the 1996 issue of Percussive Notes, veteran marimbist Leigh Howard Stevens summed up the prevailing opinion of Becker: “Everybody who knows anything about xylophone knows you are not only the greatest living xylophonist, but also the greatest xylophonist who has ever lived. Everybody who knows anything about … ‘world percussion’ knows you are a black belt on tabla and African hand drums. Anyone who has heard you perform the Toru Takemitsu From me flows what you call Time with Nexus knows you have a golden touch on steel drums. Anyone who is familiar with your performances with the Steve Reich Ensemble has to admit that you are a hot marimbist and vibe player, and anybody who knows you well, also knows that you are a superb all-around orchestral percussionist and timpanist who can read road kill on balding tires.”

Having established Becker’s percussion street cred, Stevens cheekily continued, “[but] … how are your drum set chops?”

Read more: Best of Both Worlds: Composer-percussionist Bob Becker

Speranza ScappucciWill there come a time when we journalists will be able to stop making a big deal out of women conductors? We are not there yet – systemic barriers in the profession remain all too real – but the fact that we can already see such a time on the horizon is thanks to the critical cohort of women in their 30s, 40s and 50s who have more than paid their dues in the industry and are now toppling the dams everywhere, finding themselves equally at home in opera and symphonic music, and combining associate principal positions with at least one directorship. We are talking people like Susanna Mälkki, Xian Zhang, Keri-Lynn Wilson, Dalia Stasevska, Gemma New, Han-na Chang, and the conductor currently in charge of the COC’s The Barber of Seville (January 19 to February 7), Speranza Scappucci.

Piano study since the age of five; degrees from the Conservatory of Music Santa Cecilia in Rome and the Juilliard School; nine years as the rehearsal conductor with Ricardo Muti; 15 years as a répétiteur in some of the most prestigious opera houses in Europe; fluency in English, Italian, French, German – even with such a résumé and experience, the switch to full time conducting wasn’t immediate. “It helped that I have worked as a coach in so many places and that I know the opera world well already,” recalls Scappucci. “But trying to break that wall between the categories – convincing people to see that yes I was a good répétiteur and can also be a good conductor, that was a challenge sometimes. People like to put you in a box. So they’ll think, ‘Oh she’s a pianist, and pianist primarily.’”

Read more: Always Asking Why: Speranza Scappucci, conductor

Norma Beecroft. Photo credit UofT Faculty of MusicNow in its 49th season,Toronto’s New Music Concerts (NMC) remains one of the main presenters of contemporary concert music in Toronto, with a long and diverse legacy of bringing first performances of significant new works to Toronto audiences, covering compositions from a wide range of styles, written by living composers from around the world, including Canada.

NMC was founded in 1971 by composer-flutist Robert Aitken and composer Norma Beecroft. In her unpublished NMC Memoirs, Beecroft wrote, “Norma and Bob founded a baby. This was not your usual conception, but a brainchild which would revolutionize the city of Toronto’s musical public – we hoped. In fact, it was not our brainchild, but seeds that were planted by the Canada Council, which found fertile ground in the thoughts and dreams of both of us.”

Read more: Fertile Ground for Thoughts and Dreams: NMC Then and Now
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