From the darkness of Toronto’s 2003 blackout . . . light! Composer Anton Lipovetsky on CYGNUS

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Anton Lipovetsky

It was sweltering… a dog day of summer if ever there was one. The abrupt absence of sound was the first indication of something wrong. No humming white noise. No thrumming street noise. Just…silence.

That’s what I remember most vividly of the day when the city went dark – truly dark – and stayed dark. The soundscape turned all-natural: the birds outside more audible, my two restless toddlers and the panting dog even more than usually the center of a suddenly silent house. And all of us seeking respite from the oppressive heat: at loose ends and confounded that the air conditioner, the lights, the refrigerator, the computer – all the electricity – had just…stopped. I recall spilling into the street, where neighbours confirmed that the stoppage extended beyond our neighbourhood. How we came to understand that the whole city – and many cities beyond ours – had simply ground to a halt. With subways stuck in stations, buses burst at the seams with passengers trying to find their way home. My husband walked more than five hours from the heart of downtown to our uptown home. That night, we decamped to sleeping bags in our tiny basement, our sole respite from the stifling heat, which had long since extinguished the last vestige of air conditioning.

Just like I do, I’m pretty sure every Torontonian remembers where they were during the blackout of August 14, 2003. 

16 years later, the infamous and indelible blackout has inspired “Cygnus,” the third of a triptych of musicals titled Reprint, which are the inaugural production of Launch Pad, a musical-development residency from The Musical Stage Company and Yonge Street Theatricals. Over 10 months, musical-theatre creators and artistic teams have navigated a full developmental process to conceive, create and produce a 30-minute musical with the guidance of mentors. 

The first two parts of Reprint are “Fangirl” and “What Goes Up”. All three are based on photos or articles published in The Globe and Mail. “Cygnus” was inspired by the photo of two young men who chanced to meet in the blacked-out city. Gazing at a constellation together changes the course of their lives. Vancouver-based composer Anton Lipovetsky and playwright Steven Gallagher,co-created the musical, whose focus is loneliness. “In cities like Toronto, you can be surrounded by masses of people and still feel totally alone,” notes Lipovetsky notes. “Big-city-loneliness was a theme Steven and I both really connected to, and I think the Toronto audience will relate!” Yet despite the characters going to “deep and vulnerable places”, Lipovetsky also reassures that “’Cygnus’ has lots of laughs.”

The pair began their process in The Globe and Mail’s archive. Gallagher slowly narrowed down photo choices based on gut instinct, ultimately choosing an image that he and Lipovetsky found atmospheric and beautiful. “It shows the backs of two people overlooking the blacked-out city as the sun was going down”, Lipovetsky recalls. The musical takes its name from a northern constellation lying on the plane of the Milky Way, and is a Latinized Greek word meaning “swan”. After selecting the photo, Lipovetsky and Gallagher dove into further researched, learning as much about the night of the blackout as they could . “But of course, facts aren’t enough to make a good piece of drama,” Lipovetsky winks, “so our work ultimately became finding the specific characters and their human struggles that could fill a compelling story. We kept coming back to that special loneliness of urban life.”

REPRINT Cast: K. Verzotti, B Antonio, K. Harwood, M. De Rose (photo: Dahlia Katz)

Gallagher’s research revealed that, with the city plunged into darkness, the stars were the brightest they’d been in decades thanks to an absence of light pollution. This anomaly made the stars central to the story: “The musical opens with a song called ‘Shine Again’, in which our main character Lenin, underneath the rare brightness of a Toronto night sky, prays to the stars for a sign.” Through talking to people about their memories of the blackout, the duo were surprised to learn that many remember the blackout with great fondness. “When people were forced out into the streets, it put them in the moment, and they were suddenly free from distractions” Lipovetsky avers. “They had impromptu barbecues or just enjoyed each other’s company…it sounds as though, for many, there was a real feeling of camaraderie– which just adds, I think, to Lenin’s isolation.”

The process of creating “Cygnus” has been anything but lonely or isolated – so much so that Lipovetsky feels a bit “spoiled” by the resources of Reprint and the exceptional team he has worked with. “Steven and I have great chemistry, and I think he’s crafted an absolutely wonderful story. Our show grew over the multiple workshops led by the  guidance of director Ann Hodges.” An actor by training, Lipovetsky has a prolific career in his native Vancouver, and he taps into this talent when composing: “I’m always using my training as an actor when I’m writing musicals. I can’t help but imagine what it would be like performing the material, and I’m often asking myself, ‘if I were cast in this role, would I enjoy singing this song?’ I think it’s important to try and make songs enjoyable for the actors to perform so they can really dig in and own it on stage. I also use my acting training to try to make the songs rich with story, and have a progression of thoughts that’s playable and makes sense.” As a composer, Lipovetsky has never before had the luxury of a musical director (Wayne Gwillim) and a copyist (Jonathan Corkal) in the room together with him: “They’ve made my work so much better with their skills. And Brandon [Antonio] and Michael [De Rose] sing the songs beautifully. And program directors Robert McQueen and Lynne Shankel are absolute experts. So inspiring!”

Indeed. That stifling silence of 16 summers ago, which prompted mass introspection and renewed Toronto’s sense of community, has belatedly birthed a final legacy. Thanks to the sonically rich, meditative and evocative “Cygnus”, the confusion and disorientation that we remember can be seen as the start of something… stellar.

Cast and creative team of REPRINT; photo: Dahlia Katz

News You Can Use

What: Reprint, 3 World-Premiere musicals produced by Musical Stage Company and Yonge Street Theatricals, in association with The Globe and Mail  | Accompanist/Copyist: Jonathan Corkal | Stage Manager: Dustyn Wales

1. “Cygnus”: Music & Lyrics by Anton Lipovetsky | Book by Steven Gallagher | Music Director & Supervisor: Wayne Gwillim | Directed by Ann Hodges

2. “Fangirl”: Music & Lyrics by Anika Johnson and Barbara Johnston | Book by Nick Green | Music Director & Supervisor: Adam Sakiyama |Directed by Tracey Flye

3. “What Goes Up”: Music by Colleen Dauncey | Lyrics by Akiva Romer-Segal | Book by Ellen Denny | Music Director & Supervisor: Shelley Hanson | Directed by Lezlie Wade

Performed by Brandon Antonio, Michael De Rose, Kaylee Harwood, Kelsey Verzotti

When: On stage until August 22, 2019
Where: The Globe and Mail Centre, 351 King Street East, 17th Floor, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: musicalstagecompany.com

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019

Posted in Opera and Musical Theatre and tagged , , , , .