Capturing a complicated holiday: a new Canadian musical by Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, with songs by Hawksley Workman

playwright Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman. Photo by Hannah Endicott-Douglas.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“It’s the first snow of the year/ Guess it happens once a year….” from Almost A Full Moon, Hawksley Workman

“Christmas is a complicated holiday,” says playwright Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman, pausing to consider the multiple facets of that show-stopping calendar centrepiece. “So so complicated. Well, it’s about family. And family is complicated.” 

It’s the raison d’être of Almost A Full Moon. the new Canadian holiday musical commissioned by the Citadel, where it officially premieres next week in a production directed by Daryl Cloran. It’s set to the evergreen 20-year-old Christmas album of that name, a sort of seasonal song cycle by Canadian indie rocker/ singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman. And it has lured Toronto-based Corbeil-Coleman, one of the country’s younger generation of playwriting stars (Scratch, The End of Pretending, Guarded Girls), into the world of musicals for the first time. Ah, and into writing about a holiday with which, as she says, “I have a very complicated relationship myself….”

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“That for me was THE most nerve-wracking part of signing on to this project,” Corbeil-Coleman says. Hers is a holiday history steeped in sorrow. “My mother (novelist and arts journalist Carole Corbeil) died when I was young. And what had been this really magical holiday became all about really missing someone, about grief.”

And both the idea and the circumstances of creating a multi-generational show about family — finding one, having one, being in one — have been “transformative” in redeeming the beauty and joy of the holiday season for her, as Corbeil-Coleman explains in her exuberant way. A joint inspiration of the Citadel artistic director Daryl Cloran (who’s talked about his family’s annual bonding with the album) and Workman, the notion of the musical floated her way in 2018. 

For her, its creation is part of a birth and rebirth story. She smiles. “Having a child really did transform Christmas,” says Corbeil-Coleman, who’s married to Globe and Mail theatre critic Kelly Nestruck. “I found out I was pregnant when I had my first official meeting,” she says. “I pitched Daryl and Hawksley my idea. And they were so excited, so generous, so I just went for it!” Four months after the birth of her son Dash in 2019, she wrote the first draft of Almost a Full Moon. “And we’ve been developing it ever since,” she says of a show history that has included five weeks with the late lamented Canadian Musical Theatre Project at Sheridan College, a Zoom workshop as part of the Citadel’s Collider Festival and a live Christmas concert version last year. 

And now, as opening night approaches, Corbeil-Coleman, pregnant again and due in February, laughs that she is making a second baby in addition to a first musical. And actually she has a second musical (with Greg Morrison of Drowsy Chaperone fame) in gestation, too. 

Hawksley Workman. Photo supplied.

One of the draws of an Almost A Full Moon musical for her was that she is by her own description “a huge Hawksley fan… I saw him in concert when I was 17 or 18, and it transformed me. I became obsessed. His sound, his writing … there is something in his music that really spoke to me.” Later in the playwriting program at the National Theatre School, he was her creative soundscape. “I wrote to his music…. If I could go back in time and my 20-year-old self (got told) I’d be writing a musical with this person some day, I’d have lost it!”

Corbeil-Coleman was both an actor and a playwright when she co-wrote (with her best friend Emily Sugarman) and performed in her first play The End of Pretending in 2001. She grew up surrounded by writers and theatre artists (her dad is actor/director Layne Coleman). “But it was the death of my mom (in 2000) that really made me a writer,” she thinks. “It was for me a real coping mechanism at the beginning…. It was the tool I had to express myself, and I really needed to express myself.” 

Post-NTS, she pretty much stopped acting (“I was much happier writing”). An exception, though, was her contribution this past year to Year of the Rat, a series of original solo pieces commissioned by Factory Theatre, and streamed live from each playwright’s own home. Corbeil-Coleman’s Want Now (a title borrowed from the immediate demands of toddler Dash) had to do with living in a house bequeathed to her by her surrogate mother, playwright/actor Linda Griffiths (who passed away in 2014), always wondering if she’s “acting” her life. “When I’m telling my own story, being the face of it … I’m interested in that kind of storytelling.” 

What is it about Workman’s music that appeals so strongly? “I felt very familiar with his voice…. It’s a sense of humour that really aligns with my humour,” she considers. “And leading with the heart: that also runs in my work.” 

“He captures a feeling really really well,” she says of Workman’s gift for storytelling through music. And, as his history as a cabaret performance artist attests — witness his cabaret The God That Comes — Workman is a musician strikingly tuned to theatricality, and to characters as the ‘voices’ of his songs. “I was really able to feel the story coming off of them.. I did a lot of listening, a lot of imagining and letting the images come!” 

In short, “I knew this was a match that could work,” she says. “Now I’ve listened so much to his music. And I wake up every morning with another song from a musical in my head!” The song list from the musical — 10 actors strong with a six-member band — is joined by songs from elsewhere in the Workman canon. “Always room for discovery!” 

“When I was pitching my idea, I explained that I had different relationships with Hawksley’s music at different stages of my life.… That’s what so wonderful about music. About any art, right? You can explore it when you’re a teenager, and in your 20s or 30s it changes….”  

That thought has found its way into the structure of Corbeil-Coleman’s new musical, with its weave of generations, of three stories from different time periods. “I was interested in having people share songs in different times, and having it mean something different….”   

For the playwright it’s been important that the musical capture the holiday, “in all its beauty, the complications, and yes the sadness…. I wanted people to be able to bring all their feelings to the musical and feel they were seen a little.”

As for three-year-old Dash, who’s visiting from Toronto for a week, he’ll be bringing his own excitement to the theatre — though perhaps not to the house seats. ‘We’ll bring him in for part of the music rehearsal,’ says Corbeil-Coleman, who doesn’t quite trust Dash yet not to talk and ask questions out loud all the way through the show. “Because he just loves music. Ryan (musical director Ryan DeSouza) is going to take him down to the pit to meet the band. I’ll be great!”

PREVIEW

Almost A Full Moon

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman

Music by: Hawksley Workman

Directed by: Daryl Cloran

Starring: Alicia Barban, Felix deSousa, Chariz Faulmino, Peter Fernandes, Kayden Forsberg, Kendrick Mitchell, Amanda Mella Rodriguez, Luc Tellier, Lyne Tremblay, Patricia Zentilli

Running: Nov. 5 to 27

Tickets: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com 

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