By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“Something has got to start/ I am ready to be loved”….
— Ready To Be Loved, from Edges by Pasek and Paul.
Eleven months ago, a little indie company with a specialty in musical theatre — re-discovering, re-imagining, re-purposing, re-buffing the off-centre, the under-loved, the forgotten — had an ingenious work-around idea.
In the pandemic world of last September, when nearly the worst thing you could possibly do in public was sing (and inside a theatre? unthinkable!), the Plain Janes devised an “inside-out cabaret.” In Scenes From The Sidewalk, the audience, 20 of us, sat far apart in the Varscona Theatre lobby looking out the big front windows. The performers were outside wistfully looking in — and singing, dancing, storytelling, very separately, on the sidewalk. The city ‘hood was their stage.
The numbers they chose from the musical and pop repertoires felt reinvented by the constricting, isolating, mortality-soaked circumstances of our lives. And there were new creations, too.
In this late-pandemic world, the Janes are back with another edition of Scenes From The Sidewalk, produced again by Kate Ryan. They’ve moved across the street to the Westbury lobby at Fringe Theatre headquarters. And for two shows, Sunday and Monday, a cast of seven — five performers from last time and two newcomers (Rain Matkin-Szilagyi and Logan Stefura, recent MacEwan grads) will be outside. They’ll be looking at the audience inside and “turning the neighbourhood into a block party,” as musical director Matt Graham puts it. The 30 “inside” tickets were gone in a flash, but you can bring a lawn chair and hang outside.
“The world felt so scary last time,” says Daniela Fernandez of Scenes From The Sidewalk I. “It felt like there was more to come.” There was an unmistakeable frisson to going out, queuing to have your temperature taken, seeing other live people out in the world, masked and distanced though they were. “Like a speakeasy,” laughs Sue Goberdhan. “Like you’d need a secret password,” Graham says.
“It was such a weird time to create anything!” he muses. A musical theatre composer/ lyricist himself (he’ll be leaving for NYU Tisch in August), Graham had been in “a song-writing slump, banging my head on the keyboard for a few months,” until the inside-out cabaret came along. In a middle-of-the-night revelation, he realized “it’s hard to be optimistic, but not impossible! This (show) is more … well, you feel the joy of the vaccine summer in the set list!”
For one thing Scenes From The Sidewalk II is “twice as long”; the cast is doing two sets. For another, there are more group numbers than solos. And the cast had the thrill of rehearsing in person, on the garage pad of Althea Cunningham’s apartment. “Just hearing the voices together for the first time, without the lag of a Zoom call,” was “so beautiful it made you want to cry,” says Graham.
“I wanted to make everyone’s dreams come true,” he says of the song-gathering process. He asked the cast “what have you wanted to sing you haven’t been able to? What do you want to get off your chest right now? What song has been on your mind the most?”
Interestingly, though “none of us are particularly religious, there’s more gospel this time … rejoicing, making a joyful noise, I guess. Because we can!”
“The energy feels very different this time,” agrees Fernandez, “more optimistic, more hopeful, more alive. There’s more percolating. And because we’ve done it once, we’re pretty comfortable….”
No wonder actor/ playwright/ poet/ activist Cunningham picked Feeling Good (Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley) for one of her numbers: “It’s a new dawn/ It’s a new day/ It’s a new life/ For me/ And I’m feeling good….”
The song is quite precisely of this moment, says Cunningham, who’s working on a Nina Simone homage musical. “When I got my first jab, I was so emotional, I cried…. A time to celebrate!” As a black artist, her year has had the “double-whammy” of the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. Her spoken word piece Human First, First Human, “about the black experience,” is part of the show.
Goberdhan, the new co-artistic director of Azimuth (with Morgan Yamada), actually had COVID early in the pandemic. “You just realize things could have ended very differently,” she says simply. “It helps you take stock a little bit.”
She thinks the new show speaks (or rather sings) “to the ways we interact with the world, and the ways they’ve changed…. Being single during the pandemic, I’ve realized that any adverb you put in front of the word ‘single’ applies to me,” she laughs. What she wanted was “a song that invites the world into my world … a song that’s all about doors opening and things happening.” Ready To Be Loved from Edges: A Song Cycle by the Dear Evan Hansen team of Pasek and Paul is 15-years old. But it’s a perfect fit: “I think at last the cloud has moved aside/ I’ve spent a lifetime waiting/ Awoke today to find my arms are wide open….”
Lawrence’s wry and funky It’s Not All About You is on the money too. Goberdhan and Graham are doing it together. “It reflects just how much our (collective) patience has diminished,” she says. ”People have been on their own for months and months. And now you don’t know how to talk to people, how to listen to people. You have to re-learn social skills!” says Graham.
For Fernandez, this moment is about “facing fear, the fear that’s all around us…. “ And the song beautifully positioned for that is I’m Not Afraid Of Anything, from Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For A New World. She takes it to heart, since there are big changes happening in her own life — as a musical theatre triple-threat who’s moving into the male-dominated world of sound design (she’s a Citadel RBC Horizons Emerging Artist). “Scary but refreshing! Learning a new skill has helped me come into my own as an artist. The hardest part is getting started.”
Breathe from the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical In The Heights, an insight, both in Spanish and English, into overcoming the universal fear of falling short of people’s expectations, “is one of the songs in musical theatre that speaks most strongly to Fernandez, she says. “Welcome home, just breathe….”
As last time, there are original creations in the show, too. Graham’s In 50 Years is one, a reflection on the uncertainties of the future. Taste, by the queer pop duo Homofonik (Daniel Belland and Josh Travnik), is another. And the show includes the finale of Marnie Day, a 2018 musical by Goberdhan and Graham (did I mention they’re a musical-writing team?). “We don’t have forever, but let’s have a go!”
“There’s a big hug in that song,” says Graham. It’s one of the things that none of the cast will ever take for granted again.
Scenes From The Sidewalk II
Theatre: Plain Jane Theatre Company
Musical director: Matt Graham
Starring: Althea Cunningham, Daniela Fernandez, Sue Goberdhan, Matt Graham, Josh Travnik, Rain Matkin-Szilagyi, Logan Stefura
Where: Fringe Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barn, Westbury Theatre lobby, 10330 84 Ave.
Running: Sunday and Monday 7:30 p.m.