A New Musical
Music composed by Mike Ross
Book and lyrics by Sarah Wilson and Mike Ross
Adapted from the book The World is Round by Gertrude Stein
Directed by Gregory Prest
Sets, lighting and projection design by Lorenzo Savoini
Costume design by Alexandra Lord
Featuring: Hailey Gillis, Peter Fernandes, Alana Bridgewater, Oliver Dennis, Raquel Duffy, Troy Adams, Michelle Bouey, Frank Cox-O’Connell, Jonathan Ellul, Scott Hunter, Raha Javanfar, John Millard, Sabryn Rock, James Smith, Adam Warner
soulpepper.ca at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto’s Distillery District
Rose is the second full fledged musical to be commissioned and produced for the main stage at Soulpepper Theatre Company. Make no mistake about it – this company has proven chops to create original musicals and put them in front of an eager public. Two years ago, when Soulpepper took their local hit, the musical Spoon River (based on the fictional book by Edgar Lee Masters with music composed by Mike Ross), to New York (along with 64 members of the company), it found a receptive audience at the Signature Theatre on 42nd Street. The New York Times put Spoon River on their critic’s choice list.
Their current project, Rose (with music again composed by Ross) is based on a children’s book entitled, The World is Round, by the American expat poet, author and art collector, Gertrude Stein. Sarah Wilson collaborated with Ross on the book and lyrics for the show.
To understand this bildungsroman of the nine year old Rose with all of her anxieties, insecurities and self-doubts, it is helpful to know a little bit about Gertrude Stein and the times in which she lived and wrote. Without some background, the text seems on the surface to be a universalist childhood journey of self-awareness, with whimsical wordplay bestriding modernist literary tropes all competing with one another on the lovely pink paper and blue ink that the author insisted upon for its publication. In truth, a much darker subtext was unfolding in the real world that would challenge the certainty implied in the book’s title.
Stein was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, of a financially well off family who later moved to Oakland, California. She and her brother Leo moved to Paris in 1903 (when Gertrude was 29) and quickly became habitués of the local art scene there. This pre-World War I period of European history is elegantly described in Stefan Zweig’s autobiography, The World of Yesterday.
By 1933, she had not only built an art collection that was the envy of many private collectors (the chemist and Philadelphia art connoisseur Albert Barnes was one frequent visitor to the weekly salons that Stein and her partner, Alice B. Toklas, hosted in their Paris home), she had also come into her own as the literary toast of America. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (ostensibly an autobiography of her lesbian partner but narrated in Stein’s voice) had emerged as a best seller and was reviewed by numerous publications with headlines proclaiming personal sobriquets like, “Gertie, Gertie, Gertie!”.
Stein-O-Mania, if you will, was in full swing. She was even invited to tea at the White House with Eleanor Roosevelt during a U.S. book tour.
But that bright blue impressionist sky was swiftly scudding. The Nazi occupation of Vichy France in 1939 made Paris unsafe for Stein and Toklas so they decamped to the small town of Culoz in the Rhône-Alps region (where they had often vacationed) close to the Swiss border. It was here that she wrote, The World Is Round, where one could actually see the mountains that Rose climbs allegorically, accompanied by only a garden chair – so that she could “sit and see better” – in her quest for self discovery.
Unfortunately, there were many things that Gertrude Stein herself did not see – or perhaps simply preferred not to see. It is undeniably true that because of her status as an internationally known American expatriate author and art collector with Jewish heritage, she was largely shielded from the German Gestapo by highly placed friends like Bernard Faÿ within the Vichy government who was a Nazi collaborator and active informant.
Read in this context, Rose’s angst is quite literal. But simplified and filtered through the eyes of a nine year old girl, does this story have enough in it to fill out a full fledged 2 1/2 hour musical, or even an opera for young people if one was so inclined? No and yes. There is certainly musicality in the prose as well as the poetry with numerous references to singing, “Singing and singing!”, Rose proclaims at one point.
Stein herself had previously written for the stage, most notably the libretto for a Black gospel musical entitled Four Saints in Three Acts which was received well when it opened in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1934 going on to play runs in New York and Chicago. The music was composed by Virgil Thomson and the gospel choir was directed by Eva Jessye.
The libretto is another enigmatic text with ambivalently written stage directions such as St. Theresa entering “half in doors and half out of doors” at the beginning of the first act. Stein’s stage directions were meant to be read aloud from the script during performance.
Some of this imposed authorial eccentricity is carried on in the libretto for Rose. After a highly charged musical opening that owes more of its styling to Louisiana bayou country than it does to the Rhône-Alpes region of France, we are introduced to the good folks of “Somewhere” who look like a very interesting crew that we would like to know better. In particular, my first thought upon seeing Raquel Duffy, who is listed in the program as “Beth the Gym Buff” and Oliver Dennis as “Trevor the Gym Buff” – along with other roles for both – was “oh goody, two pompous, yuppie exercise treadmill cyclist types who are going to be so obnoxiously funny together!” Wrong. We never see them again except very briefly in the second act. This is how it goes throughout – some interesting set ups with no carry through.
And then there is the score by Mike Ross. In his review of Spoon River for the Globe and Mail two years ago, Kelly Nestruck used the word “hootenanny” to describe Ross’s musical style. Ben Brantley of the New York Times picked up on that theme and used the same word in his review of Spoon River after seeing it at the Signature Theatre on 42nd Street. I know that “Somewhere” in Rose is a generic setting meant to be universally applied, but after awhile that bluegrass southern drawl that continually creeps through in the vocals starts to become a bit annoying.
One also has to ask the question, just how many power ballads can one musical sustain? And toward what dramatic purpose?
Power ballads are best composed around emotions that are important to the character as well as the play and may involve themes like the love of one’s partner, family or country; surmounting a challenge against impossible odds; or an eleventh hour cri de coeur over some issue of fierce partisanship in which the protagonist has a stake. The power ballad generally does not favour indecision, hesitation or procrastination, or the expression of existentialist doubt. In Rose there is too much of this, that and the other.
Having said all this, one still has to congratulate the Soulpepper company and the Slaight Family Foundation for their belief in and support of musical theatre in this country. It is second to none in terms of quality, resources and production values. I look forward to the company’s next musical!