2208 Music Theatre BannerIf any more proof was needed that the story of Eugene Onegin in all its forms continues to capture the interest of audiences, the National Ballet of Canada revived John Cranko’s Onegin just last fall, and the latest Metropolitan Opera production of Tchaikovsky’s opera will appear on Cineplex screens in May.

2208 Music TheatreSo when I received an email message from the Musical Stage Company in February that tickets were on sale for their production of Onegin, a new Canadian musical opening in May, right away my excited interest was caught. Cranko’s Onegin (beloved by Toronto ballet fans) has long been one of my favourite “story ballets,” its aloof and then passionate title role a test of star quality for every male principal dancer, and the role of Tatiana, who falls headlong and unrequitedly in love with Onegin, an equal dramatic proving ground for female principals.

Cranko’s ballet was not, apparently, the first inspiration for this new telling of the story by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille, two of the creators of the 2012 musical Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata. But Tchaikovsky’s version of the story, a favourite of opera fans the world over, definitely was. This new Canadian Onegin had its world premiere a year ago at the Arts Club Theatre in Vancouver where it won rave reviews and an unprecedented ten Jessie awards. The Toronto production features an almost entirely new cast and is directed by Gladstone who will be working with a new creative team; Hille provides the musical direction.

Intrigued and wanting to know more I approached the show’s creators, Gladstone and Hille, as well as Musical Stage Company artistic director Mitchell Marcus. Here are those conversations.

AMIEL GLADSTONE and VEDA HILLE

Why Onegin? What was it about the story that caught your interest and inspired you to create a new musical version? After the Craigslist Cantata, which was all about disconnection and more of a revue kind of piece, we wanted to look at something that had real passion and a stronger narrative drive. It was an opportunity to push and challenge ourselves, and see what happened if we tried to make a musical like the ones we’d grown up with. We connected strongly to themes of love - bad timing and trying not to waste your life.

I read in the press release that it was a production of Tchaikovsky’s opera that gave the first spark and that you have adopted the opera’s structure. In the process of creation, did you also go back to the novel, for inspiration and/or material? Yes, many times and through many different translations. There was even an attempt to follow Pushkin’s verse structure, but that lasted for one song. If we’d stuck with that, we’d still be on the first draft. The Pushkin is one of those things that is untranslatable - the original Russian has it all, while in English we can only give an essence. So the show is our essence of “Russianness,” of being welcomed at the theatre, of creating a space to sing some songs and tell a story together. In the novel Pushkin is a rascal; we really tried to retain his sense of fun and provocation.

You have adopted the structure of Tchaikovsky’s opera and even some of the musical lines. How would you describe the music you have created and the larger musical choices you have made for this show? There are a few Tchaikovsky quotes here and there - hidden Easter eggs for true fans. The music is definitely a mix of what could be considered standard Veda Hille type fair, (piano-based indie folk?) but with a strong sense of cabaret and other musical theatre styles. We were influenced by a wide range - everything from Boney M. to Kendrick Lamar. And we try to rock out a bit.

What was your creative process as composer and book writer? Did words or music come first or did that change along the way? Although Veda is primarily a musician and Amiel a playwright, there isn’t a separate composer or book writer. Words would usually come first, then song structure, and then adapting and deepening as we went. We had to remind ourselves what life was like as virginal teenagers. In some cases, we would find a beat and then work off of that.

From the photographs it looks as though you have kept to the story’s original period setting. How have you given the story a contemporary relevance or edge? I think you are referring to the Arts Club premiere production in Vancouver. Most of the costumes in that were modern with period touches. We felt items like Onegin’s iconic top hat were important and we kept period silhouettes, but most of the costume pieces were things you could find on the rack today. For the Toronto production, we are doing a new design - similar ideas, but possibly exploring more of the Spanish and Italian fashion world. It’s a real mix of periods, just as we live now. We’ve also attempted to clear up any of our questions, along the way. Why does Lensky get so upset? What’s the deal with duels anyway? And so on.

You had a great success with the premiere in Vancouver. What do you feel the audience connected with so strongly? It’s unabashedly romantic. It’s about being together, and love.

This is a bigger project than your earlier Craigslist Cantata. Was it a very different creation and/or workshop development process in this case? The process was both similar and different. Our investigative process was similar - building ideas and themes and then looking at how to continually deepen and clarify. With Craigslist it was all about how to structure, and how to find a through-line not based on plot. With Onegin it’s been more about clarity - making it make sense for a modern audience, giving as much agency as possible to Tatyana. When should it sound classical? When should it sound like disco? When was it spoken? Those kinds of questions. We did workshops at the Arts Club and In Tune, we saw how the audience was responding, we could feel we were on the right track - that part felt very similar.

This is a new production with a new creative team other than yourselves, and an almost entirely new cast. Is it a bigger production? Will you be taking this opportunity to make any changes or to explore the material in any new ways? For the most part the design is all new - we are looking at pushing the contemporary even more. As evidenced by your earlier question, the Arts Club version may still look period, but we want to keep making it look more contemporary - or at least keep trying. And we continue to work on the writing, yes. Still many questions around how it all works.

Is there anything you would say to the audience here before they come to see Onegin, to shape their expectations? Bring someone you like, or love, or are hoping to love. We can’t wait to see you.

MITCHELL MARCUS

What was it about this show that made you want to produce it in Toronto? There were three things that really appealed to me. First off, the score is unbelievable. I can’t get enough of the songs in Onegin and knew that Toronto audiences had to have a chance to hear them. Second, we are fiercely dedicated to growing Canadian musical theatre. Onegin is certainly an impressive and surprising homegrown musical work which made me want to do anything we could to help it. I felt that giving the writers a second production in Toronto, and being able to promote the work nationally and internationally from our city would be advantageous for them. Finally, we believe in building long-term relationships with artists. We were so lucky to produce and tour Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata by Ami, Veda and Bill Richardson. So continuing to collaborate with Ami and Veda on this new piece was natural and welcome.

How would you describe what makes this version of the story different from the opera and ballet - and relevant, as you have said, to a contemporary audience? I must (embarrassingly) admit to having never seen the ballet or opera. But what I love about what Ami and Veda have done is keeping the piece firmly rooted in the 19th century but giving the music and performance aesthetic a 21st-century feel. I think this highlights the universal nature of love - how we fall into it, how we are shamed by it, how we lose it. Through the hip, artistic sensibilities of Ami and Veda, this story written 150 years ago feels like it captures our contemporary world so beautifully.

Onegin opens on May 13 and plays until June 4 at the Berkeley Street Theatre downstairs.

What’s On: It has become a cliche that there is so much going on in the Toronto arts and culture scene that it has become impossible to see everything you want to see, particularly if you like different genres. Even within the genre of music theatre there are almost too many shows to see ranging from opera to traditional broadway fare, to new musicals experimenting with style and form, to various new hybrids of words, music and dance. Not that I would complain.

If you are working on a show yourself it becomes even harder. I have been immersed myself in French Baroque music theatre as fight director for Opera Atelier’s production of Charpentier’s 17th-century Medea. One of the fascinating things about this production is the modernity and level of passion in the acting, so much so that director Marshall Pynkoski describes the story as one of “domestic passion similar to that of Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf.”

From the shows I was able to see over the last month, two that stood out were rarely seen operas steps from each other along Philosopher’s Walk, both with clever and interesting staging experiments by their directors illuminating the stories and making them accessible to the audiences: Marilyn Gronsdal’s production of Niccolo Picinnini’s La Cecchina for the Glenn Gould School at the RCM with the mutli-level permanent set on the Koerner Hall stage and Tim Albery’s setting for the U of T Opera School of Handel’s Imeneo along the full width of the back wall of the MacMillan stage with the audience sat on risers on the stage itself.

April also saw the return to Toronto of Garth Drabinksy with Sousatzka, a new musical on a mammoth scale of ambition and sheer size featuring an ensemble of 47 led by three Broadway stars, a multi-award-winning creative team, and a good number of Canadians. Hopes were high for going to Broadway in the fall. As it turned out, the show proved not to be ready yet for that leap.

Elsewhere in the city April saw the return of Soulpepper’s popular Spoon River. Sheridan’s Musical Theatre program continued to display the initiative which gave birth to the Toronto and Broadway sensation Come from Away, with the workshop production of a new musical by Neil Bartram and Brian Hill, Senza Luce; and Neema Bickersteth brought her one-woman amalgamation of song, dance and story, Century Song, to the new Crow’s Theatre space under the banner of Nightwood and Volcano.

Looking ahead: In May, and beyond, there is much to look forward to, from one-night-only events to long-running shows beginning their season at the big festivals.

May 1: One night only at the Atrium: Toronto Masque Theatre makes a specialty of bringing back to life rarities from the past as well as re-interpretations of well-known stories. On this evening they are presenting “The Ben Jonson Project: The Vision of Delight,” a staged reading of Ben Jonson’s Jacobean The Vision of Delight, reimagined and accompanied by an array of musical styles.

May 7: One night only at the Panasonic Theatre traditional musical theatre fans will be delighted to hear and see Stephen Schwartz (award-winning composer and lyricist of Wicked, Pippin, Godspell and more) live in conversation interspersed with performances of some of his greatest hits by Cynthia Dale, Chilina Kennedy and more.

Opening May 24: Opera as musical theatre: after a long development process with Tapestry Opera, Gervais and Murphy’s Oksana G., a daring new music theatre story of human trafficking gets a full production under the leadership of brilliant stage director Tom Diamond and music director Jordan de Souza.

April 18 to May 28 at the Tarragon Theatre, veteran musical theatre performer Tamara Bernier Evans directs the new Midsummer (a play with songs) described as “the hilarious story of a great lost weekend of ill-advised romance.”

And a final note: a heads-up for creators of new musical works! May 13 is the deadline to submit for The Aubrey and Marla Dan Fund for New Musicals. The Dan Fund is the first ever fund exclusively for the commissioning of new Canadian musical works. The fund offers financial and dramaturgical support to creators in developing new musicals. Ideas that exemplify the most potential will be awarded an $8,000 commission from the Musical Stage Company and a reading or workshop of a draft. Contact the Musical Stage Company for more information.

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. 

MUSIC THEATRE covers a wide range of music types: from opera, operetta and musicals to non-traditional performance types where words and music are in some fashion equal partners in the drama.

These listings have been sorted alphabetically BY PRESENTER. Some information here is also included in our GTA and Beyond The GTA listings sections, but readers whose primary interest is MUSIC THEATRE should start their search with this section.

This section is still in development. We welcome your comments and suggestions at publisher@thewholenote.com.

Friends of Gravity. The Seven Deadly Sins. Music by Kurt Weill, text by Bertolt Brecht. Cabaret band and silent film projections. Stephanie Conn, vocals; Scott Gabriel, music director; Branko Džinović, accordion; Max Christie, clarinet; Scott Good, trombone. St. Bartholomew’s Anglican Church, 509 Dundas St. E. 416-700-5914. $25/$20(st). Tickets available in advance or at door. Sep 25 and 26 8:00.

Lower Ossington Theatre. Always ABBA. An evening of ABBA’s best hits for all ages, recreated in the original style. The Lower Ossington Theatre. 100A Ossington Ave. 416-915-6747. $34.99; $159.96(table); Plus fees and taxes. Call ahead to book table. Runs Aug 14-Sep 20; Fri (7:30pm), Sat (4pm&7:30pm), Sun (4pm).

Lower Ossington Theatre. Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. The story of the young man with glasses, and his brief musical career during the golden days of rock ‘n’ roll. 100A Ossington Ave.416-915-6747. $49.99-$69.99. Sep 24-Oct 25. Thurs-Sat 7:30pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 4pm.

Lower Ossington Theatre. Mary Poppins. Based on the stories of P.L. Travers and the Disney Film. Lower Ossington Theatre Mainstage, 100A Ossington Ave. 416-915-6747. $49.99-$59.99. Until Sep 24. Thurs-Sat 7:30pm, Sat 2pm, Sun 4pm.

Mirvish Productions. Kinky Boots. The Royal Alexandra Theatre, 260 King Street West. 416-593-4142. From $39. Runs to November 8.

Mirvish Productions. Motown The Musical. Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King Street West. 416-593-4142. From $49. Runs to Sept 22 to Oct 25.

National Lampoon. Full House The Musical. Randolph Theatre, 736 Bathurst Street. 416-924-2243. From $29.95. Runs to Sept 6.

Opera by Request. Weber: Der Freischütz. In concert with piano accompaniment. Vanessa Lanch, soprano; Vania Chan, soprano; Ryan Harper, tenor; John Holland, baritone; Kieran Kane, baritone; and others; William Shookhoff, music director and pianist. College Street United Church, 452 College St. 416-455-2365. $20. Sep 18 7:30

Oshawa Opera. Suor Angelica by Puccini. In-concert version. Natalya Gennadi Matyusheva, Catharin Carew, Kaili Kinnon, Rachelle Kelly, Christina Campsall, and other soloists; Oshawa Opera Chorus; Lenard Whiting, organ; Kristine Dandavino, music director/piano. Kingsview United Church, 505 Adelaide Ave. E., Oshawa. 905-995-2847. $25; free(child). Sep 27 3:00

Shaw Festival. Sweet Charity. Book by Neil Simon; music by Cy Coleman; lyrics by Dorothy Fields. Festival Theatre. 10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake. $33.90-$129.95. Runs to Oct 31.

Shoestring Opera. Mozart’s Magic Flute. A preschooler-friendly introduction to Mozart’s most famous opera. Kingsway-Lambton United Church, 85 The Kingsway, Etobicoke. 647-980-1729. $15; group rates available. Wheelchair accessible. Proceeds benefit Kingsway-Lambton United Church Special Music Fund and Shoestring Opera. Sep 26 11:00am and 2:00pm.

Stratford Festival. The Sound of Music. Rodgers and Hammerstein. Festival Theatre. 55 Queen St. Stratford. 1-800-567-1600. From $20. Runs to Nov 1.

Stratford Festival. CAROUSEL. Rodgers and Hammerstein. Avon Theatre. 99 Downie Street. Stratford. 1-800-567-1600. From $20. Runs to Nov 1. 

“Everything old is new again,” wrote Peter Allen, the Australian songwriter and performer, in one of his memorable hits of the 1980s. As if to prove the point still holds, a spate of high-profile musicals sweeps the GTA and beyond this summer, all but one more than 30 years old. Already attracting crowds at the Shaw Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Guys and Dolls, “a musical fable of Broadway” based on stories and characters created by Damon Runyon during the 30s, originated as a 1950 adaptation by Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, with music and lyrics by Frank Loesser. The most-produced American musical in history, the show has won nearly every possible award and still scores accolades. Given its strong production at the Shaw, “odds are that [it] will become the biggest box-office hit in the Festival’s history,” writes J. Kelly Nestruck in The Globe and Mail. It’s a safe bet that the Festival indubitably is banking upon.

music theatre piazza promotional imageBy now, the plot of Guys and Dolls is well known — at least, to the demographic that appreciates the stylized depiction of Depression-era Broadway that Runyon creates for his motley collection of gangsters, gamblers, chorines and molls. Sky Masterson, a high-roller (played by Kyle Blair in the current production) makes a bet with Nathan Detroit (Shawn Wright), a shady entrepreneur who’s organizing a craps game for his cronies, that he can woo a pious missionary from the Salvation Army — Sarah Brown (played by Elodie Gillett) — and fly her off to Havana. While the sinner and saintly flirt, fight and fall in love, Nathan and his frustrated fiancée of 14 years, Adelaide (Jenny L Wright), a performer at the Hot Box burlesque, conduct a parallel romance that leads to the same destination — the altar, a common site for happy endings in frivolities like this. To chronicle their progress from craps to the church, Loesser provides one of the greatest scores ever written for a popular entertainment — a roster of songs that defines the term “classic” and sets the standard for American musical comedy.

A riskier gamble is the Shaw Festival’s other musical offering this season — The Light in the Piazza, book by Craig Lucas, score and lyrics by Adam Guettel, which opens in late July. One of the few musicals written in the 21st century to receive a major Canadian production this summer, Piazza also evolves from a literary source—a short story set in the 1950s when anxieties about romance and repression ran rampant, a circumstance not incidental to the show’s subject.

Originally a short story written by Elizabeth Spencer in 1960, The Light in the Piazza follows Margaret Johnson, a wealthy matron from the southern U.S. (played by Patti Jamison) as she chaperones her daughter Clara (Jacqueline Thair) on a summer trip to Florence. There, a love affair between Clara and Fabrizio, a young Italian man (Jeff Irving), forces Margaret to face the fact that her future is overshadowed by the past. While still a small girl, Clara suffered a concussion that stunted her mental and emotional growth. Now a beautiful young woman, she retains the innocence of a child, which becomes more than usually troubling after she announces her intention to marry her Italian paramour. Watching Clara’s love blossom, Margaret grapples with her responsibility to her daughter and the girl’s fiancé. Should she acquiesce to love and celebrate the young couple’s marriage, or should she intervene to stop it?

music theatre paul sportelliWriting about The Light in the Piazza, Jackie Maxwell, artistic director of the Shaw Festival, suggests that “actors and singers adore being in an Adam Guettel musical as they have to push themselves to the limit musically and emotionally.” I asked Paul Sportelli, musical director of the show, if he agreed. “Actors do love singing Guettel,” he replied. “He knows how to write for the voice and his compositions are tremendously powerful, so singing actors like to be a part of bringing that kind of composition to life.” Sportelli also suggests that “as much as one can analyze and admire [Guettel’s] composition, there is something in it that is powerful and emotional and transcendent ... that can’t be fully explained ... ” One reviewer of the original Broadway production (2005) made a similar point, observing that “the songs complicate rather than simplify the characters,” which led him to reflect that “the musical is conventionally thought of as the lightest and most disposable of theatrical genres, but The Light in the Piazza is on every level more profound than [many dramas].”

Piazza is one of the few bilingual Broadway musicals to succeed with an audience, many of its characters being fluent only in Italian. The bilingual book and lyrics make the piece more difficult to rehearse than other musicals, Sportelli notes, adding that “the dialect requirements (English with an Italian accent, English with a North Carolina accent), along with the complexity of the score” require extra rehearsal time. Mounting the production in the close confines of the Festival’s Court House Theatre also presents challenges. Using an orchestration that Guettel wrote for piano, harp, double bass, cello and violin rather than a full orchestra, Sportelli and the play’s director, Jay Turvey, hope to turn the liabilities of the space to their advantage. “It’s the orchestration I used when I did Piazza at the Arena Stage in Washington DC in 2010,” Sportelli explains, “and it is very effective: lush while achieving a more intimate ‘chamber’ feel. The five players will be on stage at the back and will be visible.”

music theatre catsAnother show that uses reduced orchestration to meet the demands of a smaller house opens in early June for a two-month run at Toronto’s Panasonic Theatre. Like Guys and Dolls and The Light in the Piazza, it also stems from a literary source, but one less time-specific. Written in the late 1970s, Cats qualifies as both a cultural phenomenon and a large-scale musical, a fact that often overshadows its considerable artistic achievements. Based on T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939), the show premiered in London in 1981 as a high-concept suite for dancers, with music composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Trevor Nunn (its director) and choreography by Gillian Lynne. The following year, the same creative team opened Cats on Broadway under the guidance of Cameron MacIntosh, its producer, where, as in the West End, the show garnered instant acclaim and set attendance records. Besides running for 21 years in London and 18 years on Broadway, Cats has since been translated into 22 languages and played around the world. The seven Tony Awards it won in 1983 represent only a few of the many honours it has accumulated during its travels.

The first of the so-called mega-musicals, Cats cost five million dollars to produce on Broadway in 1983, a figure that established a new benchmark for large-scale musical theatre. Given its unusual subject and eclectic score, this cost is remarkable. Much has been written about the initial production, primarily because the cast rehearsed without a book, plot or structure — a situation that regularly led to confusion. Inasmuch as the performers all play cats, they were required to learn a complex physical vocabulary to execute Lynne’s stylized choreography which, while much copied, has never been surpassed. Although the show is sung-through, the music intermittently accompanies spoken text, though never dialogue. Musical forms include an overture that incorporates a fugue for three voices, power ballads, rock solos and chorale recitative as well as novelty numbers that highlight the attributes of the various cats that gather for the Jellicle Ball — an annual event in this feline fantasy that provides the show’s inciting premise. Meeting in a junkyard (the musical’s only set), the phalanx of 22 cats waits for the moment when Old Deuteronomy, a revered elder, will choose the most deserving celebrant to ascend with him to heaven. Defying expectations, he eventually names Grizabella, a shabby old cat shunned by the others, whose signature song “Memory,” introduced at the end of Act One, provides the musical motif that repeats throughout the show to lend it a melancholic tone as indelible as the song’s soaring melody.

The small stage of the Panasonic Theatre is a far cry from the wide proscenium and lofty fly gallery of the Elgin Theatre where Cats received its all-Canadian premiere in 1985. The brain-child of Marlene Smith who, along with Tina Vanderheyden, raised over three million dollars to finance the show (unheard of at that time), Cats gave Toronto’s commercial theatre a long overdue kick-start. The production ran for two years before touring the country and returning for a second sold-out run at Massey Hall in 1987. Responsible, in large measure, for the restoration and refurbishment of the Elgin Theatre, its success had even more important consequences. As Mel Atkey writes in his book Broadway North, the production proved “that there was an audience for musicals in Toronto, the talent to perform (if not yet to write and direct) them and money to be made. When the suggestion of bringing in Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera cropped up, it was feeding time at the zoo.”

Marlene Smith acknowledges that she enlisted a number of investors from her initial team for the new production of Cats that she undertook at the suggestion of her son Geoffrey, with whom she has formed a new company, Nu Musical Theatricals. To direct, she turned to Dave Campbell, who has mounted the show elsewhere in Canada. Interestingly, she sourced her choreographer and musical director from the original Canadian production: Gino Berti, a member of the initial Canadian cast, is charged with recreating Lynne’s West End choreography, and Lona Davis, another member of the original cast, serves as musical director. It was Davis who explained the show’s orchestration to me, noting that “due to space limitations we have a reduced eight-piece orchestra. The arrangements are based on an existing ten-piece version [for which] Mark Camilleri has created new programming for the three keyboards that updates some of the original sounds.” She adds that “the orchestra performs on a scaffold upstage behind the set” and that “all the performers are miked.”

A new Cats for a new generation? Perhaps, given that the set employs the designs of Rose and Thistle, a Toronto-based company whose digital technology attempts to add depth to the Panasonic’s shallow stage by projecting layers of holographic imagery. While such effects are welcome, even without them the old becomes new again as fresh faces enliven a show that has passed the test of time. The same can be said of a number of other productions that grace our stages this summer — too many, in fact, to allow more than a mention here. Tommy, the acclaimed “rock opera” that began as a record album by The Who in 1969, receives a new production at the Stratford Festival under the direction of Des MacAnuff, one of its originators and continues until mid-October. Another all-Canadian production of an oldie but goodie that promises high-tech staging, the show is sure to attract a new generation of theatregoers interested in experiencing a milestone in the history of musical theatre.

Reaching back even further, Anything Goes, in a touring production by New York’s Roundabout Theatre that won the Tony Award for Best Revival in 2011, also arrives in July for a one-month run at the Princess of Wales Theatre. Written in 1934 by the inimitable Cole Porter, this frothy confection is perfect summer fare — and the second most-produced musical in the American theatre canon, right behind Guys and Dolls. If you haven’t seen it before, you’re in for a treat. And if you have, well, as with all the other musicals available to you this summer, it’s worth seeing again — especially in this rousing production that revels in the joy of staging the past. Who knows, you might even want to sing along. I’m sure you’ll know the songs. 

Based in Toronto, Robert Wallace writes about theatre and performance. He can be contacted at musictheatre@thewholenote.com.

 

Two toronto theatre companies, neither known for musical production, break new ground this month by presenting on their main stages original musicals written and composed by Canadian artists. The first show, by Soulpepper theatre, opens on May 9, and while its title may lack originality, the production certainly doesn’t. An update of a “comedy with songs” that Theatre Columbus created in 1996, The Barber of Seville reunites its creators — Michael O’Brien (writer), John Millard (composer) and Leah Cherniak (director) — for a fresh look at the runaway hit that won DORA awards for outstanding musical production, score, and female performance. Needless to say, the show arrives with buzz.

1808-musictheatre“But original?” you ask. “What about Rossini’s opera?” As if to answer such a question, Michael O’Brien points out that Gioachino Rossini based The Barber of Seville on a comedy that French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais wrote in 1775, the first of his “Figaro trilogy.” Well before Rossini’s opera buffa premiered in 1816, Beaumarchais’ play (itself an opéra comique — a mixture of spoken words and music) inspired other writers and composers (most notably Mozart) to pen variations. This type of borrowing, far from exceptional in the theatre, is common, with writers and composers using a variety of sources to create work whose originality often relies on form more than content. Certainly, this is the case with the two musicals I preview here.

As O’Brien sees it, Soulpepper’s take on The Barber of Seville “combines the best elements of Beaumarchais’ play with highlights of the Rossini opera and a few twists of our own, creating an all-new contemporary version ...” Using a highly theatrical representation of 18th-century Spain as his touchstone, the Toronto playwright heightens the play’s comic elements at every turn. “Dialogue and lyrics are a colourful mish-mash of classic romance and modern irreverence. Plot and characters are faithful in spirit to both Beaumarchais and Rossini, though I’ve thrown in a few big surprises that I hope will delight those who know the source material well.”

Discussing the music he composed for the play, John Millard addresses the similarities and differences between O’Brien’s script and those of his predecessors. “Michael used the dramaturgical structure of the [Beaumarchais] play and placed the musical moments where they belonged inside it. All the recitative is gone. The songs function the way they do in most theatrical situations, in that very little action takes place inside them. Mostly they reveal states of emotion: current, past or future. Many of the recognizable themes are there [but] it’s not the opera. It’s an entertainment of our own devising, based on [the work of] Rossini and Beaumarchais.” Ultimately, Millard regards the score as a “high end folk music version” of Rossini’s creation, noting that it includes “patter songs, cavatina and arias. There is also a Scottish folk song, a couple of things of my own invention and quotes from many different sources.”

Arguably, it is the quotes and references that most distinguish the show as contemporary — a mash-up typical of late 20th-century performance that is clever, tuneful and fun. In many shows from this period, style uses content as a pretext for coups des théâtre that foreground the paradox of combining live performers with technological wizardry. Barber is no exception although, rather than treat its sources with reverence, it lampoons them with a playful vigour that is as physical as it is stylized. In the press release for the 1996 production of the show, Theatre Columbus celebrated the act of “freely plundering from Rossini’s opera” even as it reduced its summary of the plot to a cryptic sentence: “A lovesick nobleman seeks the woman of his dreams but to win her, he must enlist the help of the mercurial Figaro.” More telling of the company’s theatrical goals and achievements with the prodution was its contention that the play leads the audience “into a madcap spiral of deceit, disguise, trickery and mayhem.”

In productions such as this, style is tantamount to sensibility. In this particular Barber, the sensibility is simultaneously base and sophisticated — an appropriate combination given the show’s debt to bouffon and commedia dell’arte — theatrical styles that elevate mime and exaggerate gesture with a precision akin to dance. The style was noteworthy in the Theatre Columbus production, of which Kate Taylor noted in her review for the Globe and Mail:“From the slightest gesture to the smallest prop, every opportunity for a laugh is exploited in a hugely detailed production. It takes a great deal of control to create the appearance of reigning confusion on stage; Theatre Columbus has plenty.”

The onstage band that John Millard has assembled to accompany the Soulpepper cast promises to further extend the stylish originality that the play achieved in its first production. Millard’s use of banjo, violin, accordion, bass, guitar and flute is unconventional to musicals, let alone opera, yet “true to the spirit of Rossini,” he suggests, though he quickly adds “but it’s quite a different creature.” He explains that “In some of the pieces I’ve attempted to replicate [Rossini’s] score. In other arrangements, we’ve approached it in the form of a lead sheet. In others, a re-envisioning. It’s a broad approach.” The cast, he notes, which mixes new faces and seasoned veterans like Stratford stalwart Dan Chameroy who plays Figaro, is “discreetly miked,” a tip of his hat to current fashion.

There’s nothing discreet about our second original either: Of A Monstrous Child is a new musical that recalls Weimar cabaret in its coupling of queer provocation and steamy style in the service of a political aesthetic. Created by Ecce Homo for Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which co-produces the piece on its main stage starting May 15, the show’s subtitle, “A Gaga Musical,” offers a key to the production’s theme that Alistair Newton, its writer and director, is happy to elucidate in an interview. “I think that Lady Gaga is a kind of climax — or perhaps denouement — of post-modernism. Gaga is the ideal cipher to explore and explode our current cultural moment, ruled as it is by hipster ersatz-irony and obsession with authenticity. […] Gaga is obsessed with persona and fantasy and self-aware self-expression, and that’s really what theatre is all about.”

Ecce Homo, like Newton (the company’s artistic director), is preoccupied with theatre in extremis — or, more precisely, “total theatre” as it was theorized by artistic visionaries like Meyerhold and Antonin Artaud in the early 20th century. For them, “self-aware self-expression” was tantamount to theatre as theatre, not as a representation of life. Ecce Homo, founded in 2005 by Newton, Matt Jackson, a production designer, and Austrian installation artist Edith Artner, defines its goal as “stylized theatrical works with strong socio-political content which synthesize text, music, dance and design to yield a total theatrical experience. Ecce Homo strives to equally balance politics and entertainment, to challenge audiences visually, intellectually and emotionally; to produce work on big themes for troubled times.”

While Lady Gaga might seem a strange choice on which to focus a musical with such lofty pursuits, Newton says otherwise. “I think Gaga is actually a deadly earnest figure in a pop-cultural landscape that prizes detachment above all. I think her project is to elicit intimacy through artifice, and my work attempts to do the same.” Besides, as he points out, Of A Monstrous Child is not about Gaga per se but, rather, one of her fans who loses his way en route to a Lady Gaga concert and encounters the ghost of Leigh Bowery, a performance artist who died in 1994.

Described by Boy George as “modern art on legs,” Bowery has become more famous in death than in life, an irony that Newton exploits by making him emcee of the evening’s shenanigans that proceed in cabaret fashion. Introducing a who’s who of artists, academics and celebrities whose work Lady Gaga has used in her rise to fame, Bowery gives “the monstrous child” (and the audience) a crash course in queer performance. Simultaneously he constructs a dialectic in which originality and fame square off. As Newton puts it: “Leigh sought the kind of fame Gaga has achieved but he wasn’t willing to compromise, even slightly [to get it]. A part of Gaga’s genius is her ability to sell downtown aesthetics to a midtown audience. I’m not sure what Leigh would have thought of her.”

For Newton, Bowery is “the rarest of pop cultural figures: a total original.” To play him, the director has cast Bruce Dow, a masterful singer and actor as well as a consummate comic whose latest incarnation as King Herod in the Stratford production of Jesus Christ Superstar landed him on Broadway. At his side, celebrated comedian and impersonator Gavin Crawford plays a host of famous artists and intellectuals that includes Bjork, Marina Abramović and Andy Warhol. To bring Lady Gaga onstage, Newton employs the talents of Kimberly Persona whose uncanny resemblance to the pop star extends the musical’s interrogation of authenticity. With her voice, movement and style Persona mimics the pop star so expertly that she calls into question the idea of personal authenticity in much the same way that the show interrogates the notion of originality.

This latter theme is best illustrated by the score of the piece which, ironically, is not credited to a composer. “I view Lady Gaga as an appropriation artist, in the tradition of painters like Jasper Johns and musicians like Girl Talk,” Newton explains. “It only seems appropriate to create a score that deconstructs and reconstructs and mashes up bits and pieces of existing pop music to create something ‘new.’” To achieve this end, Newton, along with his musical director, Dan Rutzen, and sound designer, Lyon Smith, devised a process by which Newton would suggest “how certain pieces of songs might fit together — related by a similar key, or a hook that seems to fit” at any given moment. Rutzen’s task was to translate Newton’s instincts into vocal arrangements and the basic outline of the instrumentation, which he then would give to Smith to create the final backing tracks. “Both Dan and Lyon are taking on several roles in this project — producer, session musician, vocal coach etc. — and they’ve combined their talents to create a unique musical experience.”

Unique equals original? Hardly, in that all the music in the show has been heard before, although not in the way it is presented here. Onstage: a cello, piano and live, amplified voices; offstage: recorded sound. “You’ll hear many recognizable pieces of songs throughout the show,” Newton comments, “though no part of my artistic practice is ever entirely straight ...”

A rock-show with choral singing and acoustic moments: something like a Lady Gaga concert by way of Yoko Ono and a Gregorian choir? Rossini, via banjo, accordion and flute?

See both, and then you decide on the effect ... and the label. If you must. 

Based in Toronto, Robert Wallace writes about theatre and performance. He can be contacted at musictheatre@thewholenote.com.

Music Theatre Acting up Stage Company is on a roll.  Since its inauguration in 2005, this small but visionary theatre has steadily attracted attention, its 2011/2012 season pulling an audience of over 11,000 members, landing six Toronto Theatre Critics’ Awards, and  receiving 11 Dora Award nominations, four of which it won for the acclaimed production of Caroline, or Change.  As Mitchell Marcus, the company’s peripatetic artistic director puts it, “we were blessed with a … season where all of the elements magically came together.”  Inevitably, the comment prompts him to ask, “Where do we go from here?”

            The answer, or the first half of it at least, was on view this past February and March at Toronto’s Factory Theatre. Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata is a song cycle of ads from the online classified site set to music by Veda Hille and Bill Richardson that generated enthusiastic responses when it premiered at Vancouver’s PuSH Festival last year.  After seeing the show, Marcus “knew that we had to find a way to produce it in Toronto.  Our company has been known for eight years for bringing to Toronto boundary-pushing musicals that defy our expectations from the genre; in that regard, it is imperative that we also play that role with similar kinds of works that are being developed in Canada.”  Toronto critics lauded A Craigslist Cantata as much as they praised Ride the Cyclone, Acting Up’s import last season.  Audiences, concurring with critics who found the show “intoxicating, wildly creative, wonderfully witty and just downright fun,” queued nightly for rush seats.  The production sold out an extended run.

            For its second show this season, Acting Up Stage joins forces with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre to co-produce Falsettos, a new production of the Tony and Drama Desk award-winning musical whose book by James Lapine and music and lyrics by Lapine and William Finn is widely considered a break-through in musical theatre form.  Despite such regard, the show, last seen in Toronto 18 years ago, rarely is produced, a fact that surprises Marcus.  “Falsettos might be my favourite musical ever, and I [am] shocked that it hasn't received a major revival anywhere in the world since its Broadway run in the early 90s.”  Opening the show on April 23 for three-weeks at Daniels Spectrum, a new space in Regent Park, he hopes to ensure its success by hiring the Dora Award winning team responsible for Caroline, or Change to stage the production.  With Robert McQueen (director), Reza Jacobs (music director), and Tim French (choreographer) rehearsing a stellar cast, Marcus is betting on another winner.

            Most synopses of Falsettos do little to suggest the “difficult” nature of its book, or its historical significance—not to mention the wit, poignancy and sophistication that elevate its music and lyrics above standard Broadway fare.  The show incorporates three plays written over a 15-year period, each staged separately Off Broadway as one-acts before being integrated into one long production that opened on Broadway in 1992.  Significantly, that two-act presentation, despite winning Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score, failed to take home the Tony for Best Musical of the year, an irony that attests as much to the themes of the piece as to its unusual form—fast-paced sequences of short vignettes sung-through in a non-linear and frequently self-referential fashion. 

Act One of Falsettos, titled “March of the Falsettos,” incorporates material written by Finn for “In Trousers” in 1979, the year in which the act is set, to bring to life a group of New Yorkers whose circumstance is by no means extraordinary.  Marvin, the central character, leaves Trina, his wife, and Jason, his son, for another man, Whizzer Brown.  Complications ensue when Trina falls in love with Mendel, Marvin’s psychiatrist, then moves in with him and begins to plan their marriage. At act’s end, Marvin’s dream of a tightly-knit but “extended” family lies in ruins, and his relationship with Whizzer comes to an end.  Desperate, he turns to Jason to posit a future, assuring his son that no matter what sort of man he chooses to be, he will be loved, at least by him.

            When “March of the Falsettos” premiered as a one-act production Off Broadway in 1981, the libidinous experiments of the swinging Seventies were shifting to more sombre reflection—or so popular wisdom holds.  Nevertheless, the tone of the piece was upbeat, its bitter-sweet ending promising change.  In 1992, as Frank Rich recounts in his New York Times review of Falsettos,  “When ‘March of the Falsettos’ first charged confidently forward . . . 11 years ago, nothing so bad was happening, and the high spirits of that moment pump through Act I of Falsettos as if pouring out of a time capsule.  Act II plays out in another key as lovers no longer ‘come and go’ but ‘live and die fortissimo’.”  He refers, of course, to the havoc wrecked by AIDS which, by then, had devastated communities of gay men perhaps more extensively in New York than any other American city. 

In 1981, AIDS had yet to be identified, let alone named.  The fact that Act II of Falsettos, titled “Falsettoland,” is set in that year, allows the writers to introduce a darker tone to the music as they expand their narrative to include the effects of the mysterious new illness that Whizzer contracts.  Rich notes that "[In Falsettos], Mr. Finn is not merely writing about the humorous and sad dislocations produced by an age of liberated sexual choices and shifting social rules. When 1981 arrives in Act II—and with it, a virus ‘so bad that words have lost their meaning’—Mr. Finn is not merely charting the deadly progress of a plague. . . .  [He is writing about] a warring modern family divided in sexuality but finally inseparable in love and death.”

“Falsettoland” premiered as a one-act production Off Broadway in 1990.  While it introduces two new characters—Marvin's lesbian neighbours, Dr. Charlotte, an Internist,  and Cordelia, a kosher Caterer—its focus remains Marvin and his relationships with Trina, Whizzer and Jason.  When Trina turns her considerable energy to planning Jason’s  Bar Mitzvah, the enquiry into manhood begun by “March of the Falsettos” gains a new dimension.  Simultaneously, Whizzer’s reappearance and subsequent reconciliation with Marvin ushers in the unexpected complication that has begun to unsettle Dr. Charlotte in her practice—the mystery virus killing scores of gay men.

  For audiences who saw “Falsettoland” as part of Falsettos in 1992, Rich notes, the act “[gained] exponentially in power by being seen only 15 minutes, instead of 9 years, after the first installment.”  For Toronto audiences today, it is difficult to forecast how the power of Falsettos will register, the AIDS crisis having lost the media spotlight even as it continues to blight the lives of millions of people worldwide.  Mitchell Marcus argues that the time is ripe to restage the show—not because it foreshadows AIDS but because it emphasizes the changing nature of families and the way they respond to crisis. As he says, “In a world concerned with the legislation of Prop 8, the It Gets Better campaign, and the recent repeal of ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,’ Falsettos offers a platform for discussion about how far society has or has not progressed since the AIDS era.  Looking at the breakdown (and ultimate re-genesis) of family after a father leaves his wife and son for another man, Falsettos explores connections (both losses and gains) of those closest to us.”

It also revives a water-shed moment in the history of American musical theatre.  Again, I quote Frank Rich: “Falsettos is a show in which the boundary separating Off Broadway and Broadway is obliterated, a show in which the most stylish avatars of the new American musical embrace the same thorny urban landscape of embattled men and women to be found in so many new American plays.”  For this reason alone, Toronto’s production is worth seeing.  But there are other reasons as well. 

For the first time ever, William Finn has granted permission to a producing company to use the text and score of the original one-acts that comprise Falsettos to re-create the sensibility of the different time periods in which each act is set. “We are delighted to have built such a strong relationship with William Finn over the last nine seasons […] that he has endorsed our re-examination of the piece,” says Marcus, noting that his company has produced the professional Canadian premiere of Elegies: A Song Cycle and A New Brain, two of Finn’s lesser known works.  For Marcus, staging the two acts in their original form provides “a genuine snapshot of two moments in history—something utterly unique in the musical theatre. As such, we want to highlight this rarity and try to recreate for our audiences what it would have been like to revisit these characters after a decade, with a completely new perspective. So while the texts will reflect the original one-acts, the design and staging will be utterly different for each act. It's a very novel approach to this piece and one that I think will help to frame the experience of this family pre and post the discovery of AIDS….”

The approach is appropriate to Finn’s score which includes a variety of styles characteristic of the 80s.  In his review, Rich suggests that “One of the virtues of Falsettos is that you take in [Finn’s] whole, wide range in one sitting and appreciate the dramatic uses to which he puts his music, not just the eclecticism of tunes that range from show-biz razzmatazz (‘Love Is Blind’) to lullabye (‘Father to Son’) to lush ballads (‘Unlikely Lovers’). . . .”  For Marcus, the score is “one of the most unique ever heard in a Broadway musical.”  He elaborates: “Finn employs almost patter-like songs which shift quickly from one to the next, and allow characters to rapidly deliver train-of-thought information.  Nothing feels planned; it always feels like characters are discovering things for the first time as they sing their thoughts. The result feels so deeply human and raw. These characters are in a constant state of panic as they try to put their lives back together.”  Remarkably, the two acts, though different in tone, create a cohesive score.  A musical signature from Act I turns up in Act II, fractured and reformed, to highlight how life cracks and reshapes the characters.  In Act II, Finn embellishes the music that accompanies Dr. Charlotte’s lyric about “something bad spreading, spreading, spreading round” so that it itself appears to spread, a metonym for the insidious terror that accompanies the proliferation of the still nameless virus.

Like Marcus, Reza Jacobs, muscial director of the production, is thrilled by the opportunity to work with a sung-through score that is neither opera nor conventional musical.  Nevertheless, he admits that the score challenges the cast of seven, most of whom are known to Toronto audiences for their work in productions here and at the Stratford and Shaw Festivals.  One actor, in particular, I would like to mention—Michael Levinson whose performance as Noah, the privileged son in Caroline, or Change, won him a Dora nomination last year.  In the demanding role of Jason, Levinson must navigate not only the complex requirements of the score but, as well, the complicated emotions of the adult characters.  It is appropriate that Acting Up Stage uses his image in its advertising for the show for, in many ways, his character symbolizes the emotional break-throughs that all the characters pursue and, to differing measure, achieve.

Lapine and Finn end Falsettos with a scene that centres on Jason’s Bar Mitzvah—a rite of passage that celebrates a boy’s arrival at manhood in the Jewish religion.  From this time on, the child is entitled to participate in all areas of life in the Jewish community, but must do so as an adult, assuming full responsibility for his actions.  Because this ritual often occurs when a boy turns 13, his voice frequently “breaks” around the same time, so that he speaks in two registers—the modal or normal one, and the falsetto, an octave highter. The dual nature of a speaker’s voice during this period of change suggests the double nature of the boy/man—a person able to frame his perceptions of the world from two different perspectives.  This, Lapine and Finn imply, is the state of many of the characters in Falsettos who are left to celebrate Jason’s coming-of-age in the hospital room where Whizzer lays dying. 

Yes, the ending of Falsettos IS difficult, but it heralds a number of beginings.  All of them merit attention. 

Based in Toronto, Robert Wallace writes about theatre and performance. He can be contacted at musictheatre@thewholenote.com.

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