I was in Toronto for a few days leading a Director/Dramatist Exchange for the Playwrights Guild of Canada. You know how I am. When I travel I like to see some local theatre. Purely by chance, during intermission at a performance of a mediocre new musical some friends had taken me to, their good friend Roy Surette (Artistic Director of Montreal's Centaur Theatre) suggested I join him for the first preview of LONDON ROAD at Canadian Stage. I hesitated at first, since this would be a second production of a British export and my preference is to see locally-grown theatre.
Here were the essential hooks, as presented to me:
1. Huge hit in London. Canadian premiere.
2. Documentary theatre, a la Laramie Project, i.e. interview transcriptions crafted into a script featuring dozens of characters, the result of which is a portrait of a community at a crossroads.
3. Tape recordings of the interviews were used by the composer as a guide for composing melody and rhythms to mimic the natural cadence of all those interview subjects.
Now, knowing me, which of these three enticements do you imagine sealed the deal for Rolando Teco?
Yeah, #3, no doubt.
The technique of listening to recordings of spoken text and using the natural rhythms and cadence of the voice as a compositional guide is not actually new. Anyone familar with the 1964 film Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which starred Catherine Deneuve has experienced a musical score devised in somewhat the same way. Composer Michel Legrand famously tape recorded his non-singer cast members reciting the lyrics to each song before he wrote a single note of music. Then, as his model, he listened again and again to the cadence of each voice as well as the natural rhythms they employed as they each read their texts.
He did this in order to compose a score that would naturally flow from the mouths of his cast of non-musicians. And the result is still fascinating to behold, especially when you know a bit about his unique approach to songwriting.
In the case of LONDON ROAD, composer Adam Cork has taken this approach one step further. In essence, he has made musical motifs of the exact cadence of speech recorded on tape. So the particular lilt of the way one interview subject said one or two sentences becomes the musical kernel for an entire ensemble number.
The music (and its effect) is at once simple and complex. Musical notation (or transcription) of the actual rhythms of natural speech is labor-intensive and difficult to learn, no doubt requiring the use of multiple changes of meter as well as complex rhythms beyond the comfort zone of your typical music-theatre performer. There's more than one moment where everyone on stage suddenly sings a unison triplet against two beats in the orchestra. That may be a piece of cake to most music majors but I have an inkling rhythm alone must have taken up huge swaths of rehearsal time.
But, boy was it worth it! The effect is breathtaking.
But while the rhythms are complex, and some of the melodic content is equally so, the harmonic landscape is completely tonal (i.e. it sticks to western patterns and cadence forumulae familiar to our ears) and the use of rote repetition renders the material instantly accessible. Imagine, for a moment, if one were to take one line of Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire and repeat it ad nauseum, even repeat it alternately passing it around various voices giving it a full choral treatment. After a few iterations, what is not a typically lyrical snippet of music takes on new levels of meaning and new depth. Especially if the vocals were accompanied by chord progressions common to pop and classical music.
Why do we continue to flock in droves to performances of The Rite of Spring while Schoenberg, Berg and Webern frighten (or worse, bore) us to tears? In many ways, one could argue that what makes so much of Strawinsky's music so enduring (and endearing) is its simple (primitive? primal?) use of repetition. But I digress...
But here's what's most thrilling about LONDON ROAD. By repeating these hyper-literal musicalizations of snippets of interviews, playwright Alecky Blythe and composer Adam Cork may have stumbled into an approach to music-theatre that has more in common with the earliest examples of opera than it does with the American musical.
For when opera first appeared in Italy in the Renaissance, it could be traced directly to the music of the troubadours -- singers who did the audacious thing of setting vernacular to music, of putting details of domestic life -- courtship, love, sex, jealousy, betrayal -- into songmaking. In a world in which music was either sanctioned by the church or not, this was nothing short of blasphemy.
When composers like Monteverdi started taking the same approach and using music to tell theatrical stories rooted in the filth and complicated mess that is human drama, opera was born. And just as soon as it was born, it was immediately attacked as base and corrupting and condemned by the church. (No coincidence then, I suppose, that most of my music professors looked down upon opera as not worthy of my time when I was studying composition.)
It seems to me that in LONDON ROAD, Cork and Blythe have stumbled onto a new way for opera to recapture the immediacy it had several centuries ago when it was the venality and cruelty of these tales that drew the audiences in, and the music that kept them hooked. The show is being sold as a play with music, or maybe a musical play. But make no mistake, this is an opera.
I can't recall anything that has moved me more deeply than the three street walkers singing about how the killings have changed their lives completely and also not changed their lives at all. These are not the words they say, of course. They answer questions about their work and their drug use and what not -- their earnings. They answer in the most banal terms imaginable. But the implications of what they're telling us suggested by the haunting repetitive music that reminds us that everything they're describing is a matter of life and death.
Kudos to director Jackie Maxwell and to her stellar cast for making the whole 2.5 hour ride feel so absolutely real. I was told that the stage was filled with some of Canadian theatre's greatest talents and it certainly shows. While performing these highly complex musical passages, every person on stage fully embodies his/her character. The people of LONDON ROAD come to life in a raw, vulnerable and arresting way.
When the entire company picks up a line spoken by one person and then repeats it and repeats it and it spins and spins until it's a huge soaring choral number employing all eleven voices on stage, we can't help but be reminded of our shared humanity and of everything that connects us all to each other, no matter who we are and where we live.
That is ultimately what great theatre -- especially great opera -- can do. LONDON ROAD has forged a new path. Here's hoping others follow quickly in this direction.
One final note. The blizzard of the century grounded my flight out of Toronto. Faced with an extra night in the city, I opted to see the show a second time. I figured it would be a rare opportunity to better understand the mechanics at work. I'm happy to report, its impact only deepened. Like fine wine. Hopefully my friends in New York will soon have an opportunity to see this rare work.