Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
The Musical Stage Company‘s annual UnCovered concert series has an unsuspectedly far reach.
True story: exactly one year ago, I found myself in a school principal’s office for a meeting to discuss planning for school improvement. “I’m sorry if I’m a bit tired,” the principal apologised as we began.” I was at a concert featuring the music of Queen and David Bowie last night.” Clearly, his tiredness was well worth it (he pronounced the show “Excellent!) – and he was delighted that I knew which concert he was talking about. We parked the school improvement planning for a bit, and bonded by chatting about this iconic music that defined our generation. We quickly agreed that the UnCovered series was remarkable less for the songs themselves than for the novel ways they were interpreted – by a veritable who’s who of Canadian theatre – and arranged by UnCovered Musical Director Reza Jacobs.
Mitchell Marcus, the Artistic and Managing Director of The Musical Stage Company, met Jacobs in 2007 when Jacobs moved to Toronto after completing his schooling in New York. “We instantly hit it off,” Marcus recalls. Looking for something to collaborate on, they met at the prophetically titled Future Bistro in the Annex, and realized over cake that they shared a love for musical theatre and pop music. “At that moment, UnCovered was born. We became curious about creating a fundraiser for The Musical Stage Company (then Acting Up Stage Company) which would see great musical theatre artists performing the songs of The Beatles.”
That loosely structured first concert was quite different from what UnCovered would become — though even then, Marcus relished the opportunity to build around a great storyteller tackling pop songs: “It is a principle that has stuck in the format, even as it has transformed from a one-night, thrown-together fundraiser into a multi-night core program with months of rehearsal.”
This year’s UnCovered concert (the 11th edition) again presents the music of two influential and popular artists: Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, whose compositions provide social commentary and political indictment nestled within poetry; and visionary rocker Bruce Springsteen, whose plainspoken insights champion the working-class hero and the truths of ordinary living. Their influence might have begun in the Sixties and Seventies, but decades later, they continue to enjoy a relevant popularity as outspoken political activists and social commentators.
So what makes an UnCovered concert so resonant? As the principal and I agreed, it’s the combination of the music and the artists interpreting them. The true success of UnCovered is rooted in its unique collaborative process. Each singer works with Marcus and Jacobs on the songs they will sing. Together, they determine how their interpretation will highlight the narrative in the lyrics and bring characterization to the songs. “Reza and I do a lot of prep work in advance of meeting with the artists,” Marcus explains of the preliminary planning process. “Our objective is to really analyze the lyrics so we can come to the table with a proposition for what the story is within the song, and what the objective or journey is of the narrator.”
This proposition always comes from clues in the lyrics themselves. It is not something they impose on top of a song. When they meet with the artist, they begin by sharing their preliminary ideas and hearing the artist’s. The process is reciprocal and fluid: “Sometimes we end up going in a totally different direction than anticipated through that brainstorm. As we work through the song, all musical decisions are rooted in the narrative we have decided to explore — while the audience will never know the details, we know exactly why a song is speeding up, or slowing down, or why back-ups come in, and sometimes why a particular instrument is being used.” With this specificity on their end, the fervent hope is that the audience will hear the song in a new way, and connect emotionally with the character lurking within the lyrics.
Marcus observes that the most successful UnCovered concerts have featured an incredibly diverse group of musical performers, who make each act feel unique, yet unify the concert into a single whole. He admits that this year’s concert was particularly challenging to cast. While Dylan has had a pronounced influence on Springsteen’s lyrical composition, the artists are musically quite different. Marcus and Jacobs began with a dream song list and started to look at which artists could a) anchor certain songs in the Dylan or Springsteen catalogue, and b) also have a potential unique fit in the other catalogue. He describes this matching as “gut instinct”: trying to identify the core of a song and the essence of a narrator to bring the intrinsic character in the song to life. “Usually our match making works out really well. But sometimes (and a few times this year),” he admits, “our instincts are wrong, and once we get into the room to rehearse with the artist, they don’t connect to the material.” Fortunately, the long rehearsal period ensures that there is sufficient time to “pivot and make changes to ensure that everyone deeply connects with the material they are performing.”
Of course, the artists being covered this year are themselves deeply interconnected. Dylan’s influence on Springsteen was profound, thus it was Springsteen who inducted Dylan into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and The Boss has covered several Dylan songs, including “I Want You” and “Chimes of Freedom” at his shows. Thanks to his own lyrics, Springsteen was proclaimed the “new Dylan” early in his career, burdensome praise which he set out to shake off with his 1975 breakout megahit album Born to Run. UnCovered: Dylan and Springsteen will reference the significance of this influence by devoting an act to the songs of each composer: “the first act is all Dylan songs, and the second act is all Springsteen.” This structure is complementary, rather than compartmentalized: “Structuring it this way, we are aiming to examine the passing of the torch from one artist to another,” Marcus elaborates. The goal is to look “at two bodies of work in chronological order, both of which served as anthems for underrepresented voices in separate generations.” Two of the actors, Sara Farb and Jake Epstein, will augment the music with quotes from Dylan and Springsteen, respectively: “The text that surrounds the material – particularly in the Springsteen act – deals a lot with Dylan’s influence on him.”
Both artists being unCovered this year are poets who use music as a vehicle for social commentary. Each takes critical, principled stances on a variety of social issues. This shared tendency can’t help but draw comparisons. How might the polemics of these artists collide and connect with political attitudes of the audience and performers? Marcus affirms that Dylan’s and Springsteen’s political activism was a significant “driving theme” in the quotes that he and Jacobs curated for the spoken-word portion of the concert. “How much did these great artists intend to be the voice of a political movement, and how much was that thrust upon them?” he wonders. “We have included many of the great political songs, and the text in both acts very much focuses on this idea.”
We know that we can expect favourites from the Dylan and Springsteen songbooks, including “Mr Tambourine Man,” “The Times, They Are a-Changin’,” “Thunder Road”, “Dancing in the Dark”, and “Born to Run.” What we can’t anticipate is the real draw: the unique musical and narrative interpretation of each. Any opportunity to see luminaries like Divine Brown, Brent Carver, Jake Epstein, Sara Farb, Hailey Gillis, Arinea Hermans, Melissa O’Neil, Andrew Penner and Jackie Richardson perform at one venue is an altogether welcome one. With this star power matched with these songbooks and driven by this intent, I fully expect UnCovered: Dylan and Springsteen to become fuel for another year’s unsuspected conversations with unexpected fans.
As I reviewed my notes from my Q & A with Marcus, I was struck by the fact that I repeatedly referred to the concert series as “UnCover” rather than “UnCovered” (even though I have the press release in plain sight!). Marcus hadn’t once corrected me. I attributed this at first to his innate graciousness (certainly true). But perhaps there’s something in my incorrect name for the concert series. The series feels less like something “uncovered” and finished . . . and more like an engine in perpetual motion: an active, vital and continuous process of uncovering songwriters through surprising flashes of illumination…an ingenious theatre-concert hybrid born of a long-ago conversation, that has grown into an annual highlight, connecting artists and audiences in surprising ways.
A final tip: typically, this series explores an artist only once. So if you are a Dylan fan, Springsteen fan, a fan of one of the performers or of UnCovered, don’t miss this!
News You Can Use
What: UnCovered: Dylan and Springsteen, music direction, vocal arrangements and orchestrations by Reza Jacobs
Performers: Divine Brown, Brent Carver, Jake Epstein, Sara Farb, Hailey Gillis, Arinea Hermans, George Krissa, Melissa O’Neil, Andrew Penner, Jackie Richardson, Celine Tsai
Orchestra: Anna Atkinson, Jamie Drake, Justin Gray and Reza Jacobs
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: November 14-16, 2017
Where: Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre for the Performance and Learning, 273 Bloor Street West, Toronto, ON M5S 1W2
Info and Tickets: MusicalStageCompany.com
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya