(photos of Musical Director Reza Jacobs and Artistic Director Mitchell Marcus, Acting Up Stage Theatre)
Next Monday, November 18th, Acting Up Stage launches its 10th Anniversary season by presenting the One-Night-Only tribute concert UnCovered: Sting and The Police at Toronto's beautiful Koerner Hall. This annual tribute concert has become known as a "don't miss" event for local lovers of music and/or theatre. This year should be no different, with such notable vocalists as Jackie Richardson, Thom Allison and others (including myself), singing classic hits like "Message in a Bottle", "Roxanne", "Desert Rose", "Don't Stand So Close to Me", and "Fields of Gold".
It's hard to believe, but the Acting Up Stage theatre company is already 10 years old. Thanks to the wise stewardship of Artistic and Managing Director Mitchell Marcus, it didn't take long to become one of Toronto's best, having been awarded with 32 Dora nominations since its inception. I had the pleasure to speak with Mitchell Marcus and his long-time musical director Reza Jacobs in advance of the concert to find out how it all started, and why they think it has become such a smash hit.
REWIND. Some eight years ago, with his company barely off the ground, Mitchell Marcus was suddenly struck with an idea. Inspired by an event in New York City, he wanted to produce a tribute concert featuring well-known Pop songs, but sung by the stars of Toronto's Musical Theatre scene. Having this idea coincided with his meeting Reza Jacobs, freshly back from finishing his MFA in Graduate Musical Theater Writing at NYU - Tisch, who had a similar idea for theatrically re-arranging the music of The Beatles. "That meeting felt serendipitous, and the idea for our first tribute concert was soon born," said Marcus, over the phone from his office.
Since their Beatles concert in 2006, Mitchell has chosen to tackle the music of Paul Simon (a concert at which I also sang), Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, and last year's concert Tapestries: The music of Carol King and James Taylor. In Mitchell's words, "the goal was not to put a cover band of Musical Theatre stars together, but rather to take great songs, and give them to great singers who also happen to be great story-tellers".
FAST-FORWARD. This year the concert shines a light on the music and lyrics of the seemingly ageless Englishman Gordon Matthew Thomas Sumner, aka Sting and his former band, The Police, one of music's most influential New Wave groups. Beyond simply doing a concert of popular music, Reza Jacobs explains exactly how he and Mitchell choose the songwriter to feature in concert.
"It's the perfect union of both of our guts. It has to be something that I respond to musically, and that I feel I can do something with - that there's a reason to re-tell these things. There has to be a theatricality in the writing in order for us to make it work. That's part of Mitchell's mandate - it's a musical theatre company so we want to pick songs that tell stories."
Sting's music has never neatly fit into the Pop/Rock genre, as it features elements of jazz, reggae, world-beat and even classical music. Jacobs feels that for a concert of this type, this diversity is an asset. "I feel great about Sting's music. There's a lot going on in there, and the stories are clear enough that you can do something with the songs. We're always trying to hit that mix of entertainment and story telling, and Sting's songs lend themselves to that really well."
Marcus agrees. "The best material for this are pop songs where there's a character and a plot and a story - and Sting is a great example of that. Many of his songs read as if they were a monologue. And he offers a large catalogue of material to apply this concept to."
For many people, what elevates this night from 'concert' to a 'theatrical event' is the brilliant orchestrations and arrangements that Reza Jacobs creates, and how cleverly they are matched with the incredible vocalists. It may only run one night, but Marcus notes that to make the night as special as it can be, planning starts "10-12 months in advance, when we sit down to choose who the featured singer/songwriter will be."
Jacobs jumps in. "Then, about eight months out, Mitchell and I talk through all the potential songs from their catalogue. We also put together a dream-list of actor/singers, discuss possible matchings of songs with the singers, for example, who would be the right vibe for Sting's music, what kinds of things we might want to do with his songs. Then we give ourselves a long gestation period to let it sit."
Shortly after this meeting, invitations were sent out to their 'dream-list' of actor-singers to gauge their interest and availability. (I can tell you that I received my invitation in May, a full six-months out.)
Then, in early September, after he "spent the summer listing to those songs on my iPod", Marcus met with Jacobs to nail down a set-list of roughly 20 songs. Then, only six weeks before the concert, Marcus "would send a list of two or three songs to our singers as a suggestion. Some people said 'Perfect, let's do it', and others said 'that's not really speaking to me' so we might change it up, by bringing in one of the other songs from the short-list."
How did they match the song with the vocalist? Jacobs breaks into a smile. "It's a huge juggling act. It's finding the songs people want to do, and that are a good fit for those people, but making sure that we leave enough good fits for all the other people, too." Marcus summarizes it this way. "Ultimately, we want to best showcase the skills of everyone we had."
Pre-planning done, it was now time to crank the creativity up a notch. As Musical Director, it falls to Jacobs to devise arrangements and instrumentation that suits the story-telling while staying faithful enough to the original version to keep the audience happy. It's a huge and difficult task, one that he delights in comparing to, of all things, cooking.
"I don't have just one way that I cook. Sometimes it's a question of 'what do I have in the fridge and what can I make?' Other times I'm going to go out and buy specific ingredients to make a specific meal. So, with these concerts, it's a little bit of both of those techniques. I know I want a percussionist, I know I've got a piano. So, what are the other ingredients? A lot depends on the Hall. I've tried going with an amplified sound in Koerner Hall and it doesn't work. That Hall wants acoustic chamber music, so that starts to limit things. Rather than going with a loud electric guitar or an instrumentation that resembles The Police and Sting, I would go with a violin, and instruments that are more chamber music as opposed to a rock band."
Jacobs extends the food metaphor further. "Since the Band will be onstage, this instrumentation also visually creates an expectation of what the show is going to sound like. It's just like eating, right - you start eating with your eyes, even before you take a bite. So when people come into the Hall, it has a classical music vibe. If they see a violin on stage they know right away it's going to sound different - they start eating with their eyes. If they saw a drummer, a bass player and a guitarist, they would think 'Oh, this is going to sound like the originals'."
PLAY. The real fun begins with only four weeks left before the concert when each vocalist comes in for their one - and only one - rehearsal day. With Jacobs chiming in from the piano, Marcus and each vocalist "discuss the character and plot hinted at in the songs they will sing - which doesn't get discussed in a purely pop concert." And after a few hours, the road-map for each of the songs is devised.
Jacobs explains further. "As far as making the arrangements with the singers, it's very collaborative. Artists often know themselves better that I could ever know them. So, I like to rely on intelligent artists like you and Jackie Richardson and the Trish Lindstroms of the world who have good instincts about what's going to work and what's not going to work. It's a true collaboration. We talk, we meet, we jam, then we go away. I throw together an mp3 that has the road map of what we talked about, and send it to the vocalist. Then we'll make some more adjustments. Collaboration is at the heart of the whole thing."
From watching some concerts and taking part in others, one thing I look forward to is discovering how the whole evening fits together. Like the best cabaret shows, which particular songs are chosen and the order in which they are played can provide further emotional resonance and depth to the proceedings. Marcus explains how one of the wonderful additions to this concert in recent years has been the addition of spoken-word, to further highlight the interweaving themes.
"One thing we've found is that integrating the voice of the artist that we're featuring is a really great extra ingredient to the evening. There was an awkward formality to the evening in the beginning, I mean, no artist does a concert of 20 songs without speaking between the songs. So, now we scour through the artist's interviews or memoirs and collect a catalogue of great quotes - maybe they relate to where a particular song comes from, or enlighten a reflection on the scene we've created within one of the songs. Maybe they're funny, maybe they're serious. Either way, it breaks it up for the audience, it adds some insight and depth, and it feels more like a complete package for the audience."
The quotes are delivered by the vocalists, at just the right moment. But don't worry - Mitchell assures us that no one comes out 'playing' Sting and talks to the audience. "No part of this is impersonation. We are all collectively re-interpreting Sting and his words and stories, so why not the quotes too?"
With hits like "Message in a Bottle," "Roxanne," "Desert Rose," "Don't Stand So Close to Me," and "Fields of Gold", and the level of artistic excellence on display, Marcus believes there is something in it for everyone. "It's got a hybrid nature - there's a wide group of people who would be interested in it. Corporate groups bringing clients, Musical Theatre fans, Pop music fans, Nostalgia fans, you name it." Marcus modestly neglects to mention one final reason to get down to Koerner Hall on Monday night - to lend your support to this truly fantastic Canadian Musical Theatre company. Don't miss it.