By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“How many songs do you actually know the words to, that you could sing?” wonders the Newfoundlander on the phone from the Rock last week. “A couple of campfire songs? Happy Birthday? A Christmas carol or two?”
“I grew up with people who knew hundreds of songs, off by heart,” says composer/ musician/ musicologist/ producer Bob Hallett, a founding parent of the late lamented Newfoundland band Great Big Sea. “I spent my childhood and teen years learning to play traditional Newfoundland music, the styles, the instruments, the rhythms, immersing myself in that distinct tradition…. I have a lifetime degree in translating Newfoundland music to the rest of the world.”
The musical that comes from away and arrives here Wednesday on a westward tour is all about that. No Change In The Weather mines the riches of the Newfoundland songbook by inviting us to a wake in the outpost hamlet of God’s Back Pocket. The characters — a fractious family along with their friends and neighbours — gather on a foggy night to revisit the past and celebrate the life of their matriarch. And in meeting the characters, we also meet up with the story of “the terrible mistake of the ‘60s when everything went wrong for Newfoundland,” Hallett says.
Under the controversial premier Joey Smallwood, “backed into a corner by the federal government of Lester Pearson,” the province signed on to a losing deal with Quebec Hydro that would “keep the peace in Canada by sacrificing its greatest asset for a song.” Two words: Churchill Falls.
“It’s made 20 times what petroleum has made for Newfoundland,” says Hallett. “And Newfoundland won’t make a cent for another 30 years. People couldn’t understand how that could happen.” And since that moment, Canada’s easternmost province has been given a bad rap for naiveté. “In reality it’s a whole chain of events when Newfoundland took one for the team.… We had two terrible choices; we were dealt a terrible hand, a case of doing the wrong thing for the right reason I guess.”
“It’s a complicated story we try to tell simply, through people,” says Hallett, the producer (and along with Paul Kinsman, the gatherer and arranger of the score) of No Change In The Weather. He laughs. “You can’t give hand-outs to the crowd.” When he signed on to the conception, by Winnipeg philanthropist Walter Schroeder, of bringing Newfoundland’s story to life in musical theatre, the idea was “big events told through individuals….”
The musical theatre repertoire has plenty of examples of that idea. “Titanic is about a couple. Les Miz is about a revolt, yes, but really, the relationship between three characters. What if one family were witnesses to history? What if we could make the province’s story their story?”
If you’re marrying the songs and sounds of Canada’s easternmost province to a story in a musical, a wake is a natural setting, says Hallett. In Newfoundland, they’re non-sombre, raucous, celebratory affairs. “Old romances get re-lit. Great emotions are expressed; the conversation goes in many different directions.” And music figures prominently; “they’re great opportunities to sing and dance.”
The music we’ll hear in No Change In The Weather comes directly from “the Newfoundland tradition, or was inspired by it,” says Hallett, who was musical consultant on the hit musical Come From Away, by now the country’s most successful Broadway foray ever.
“Come From Away was written by Canadian-Americans, largely for an American audience,” he says of the heartwarming musical inspired by the hospitality offered freely to travellers stranded in Gander Nfld. by the terrible events of 9-11. “This is different,” says Hallett of No Change In The Weather. “It draws on pure Newfoundland music…. So much of the job was finding ways of making the songs work in a Broadway musical context so they still have that pizzaz, that excitement.”
Newfoundland music is “a very coherent block, a style of playing, and a genre, derived from English, Irish, Scottish, French, Indigenous (sources).” Five hundred years of isolation have preserved its unique characteristics. And it was for Hallett to “create arrangements and settings for the songs that makes them work for musical theatre.”
“The big thrust is driven by the button accordion and the fiddle,” says Hallett. “They’re the major stakeholders, and if you’re at a kitchen party, 90 per cent of the time, those instruments will be there. Mandolins, bouzoukis, tin whistles follow from that….” Newfoundland, he says, “doesn’t sound like anywhere else.”
No Change In The Weather arrives here with its original cast of Newfoundland stars and a record-breaking run of 30 sold-out shows in Nfld., followed by stops in Kitchener, Hamilton, Ottawa, and Winnipeg. For the Newfoundlanders, scattered across the country — “we’re assimilating you!” — there’s “tremendous nostalgia” attached to the show, says Hallett, who’s anticipating a striking response in Alberta. “It’s a big tour, very ambitious.” And the hopes for it have Broadway scale: “we have great expectations, nationally and internationally.”
The story of the province is powerful. But “our first goal is a great night out for people,” says Hallett. “We’re taking everyone to a small town in Newfoundland for a night — very funny, with tremendous singing and dancing, where everything goes upside down.”
“If we can educate and inform, great. But people don’t come to a play to be educated. No one goes to a restaurant and orders porridge,” says Hallett wryly. “Our job number 1 is to be a great show. And I think we’ve done that. Everything else is a bonus…. I want people to walk out singing and clapping, (having had) a good time!”
No Change In The Weather – A Newfoundland Musical
Created by: Walter Schroeder and Berni Stapleton
Where: Westbury Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns, 10330 84 AVe.
Running: Sept. 25 to 28
Tickets and info: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca