By Byrne Harrison
Show: "MUSICAL PAWNS"
How did you first get involved in theatre?
When I was three, I stole the Rabbi's cassock and ran onto the stage at the Gateway Hotel and sang: “Happy Trails To You”, which was the theme song of The Roy Rogers and Dale Evans TV Cowboy Show (and his wonder-horse -Trigger). The cassock was a little big on me. I weighed 18 pounds. I think I also yodeled.
Who are your biggest influences?
Mel Brooks. Steve Allen. Woody Allen, and my Uncle John - half of the comedy team of Wayne & Shuster.
My Mother had a great sense of humor. She was a superb piano player, and would pound out popular songs on the piano while my Sisters and I would run around the house banging on pots and pans with wooden spoons, screaming out the lyrics at the top of our lungs, and ignoring my Dad pleading for some peace and quiet. For us, music always meant having fun. My Mom almost never read bedtime stories from a book. She made them up on the spur-of-the-moment. Lots of interesting stories about “Cheese Sneezers”. She's 92 now and still making up funny stories.
My Dad liked to take me fishing. He let me drive the boat, taught me photography, and we both enjoyed going to baseball games. On Saturday afternoons, he'd perch the radio on his stomach, while lying on the sofa, turn on the Met Opera Broadcasts and promptly fall asleep.
Later when I began to sing in the opera, I bought him a ticket. When I peeked out at the audience, there he was, snoring almost as loud as the orchestra!
Tell me a little bit about your show.
MUSICAL PAWNS is based on the true story of a forgotten composer: David Nowakowsky (1848-1921), who was the composer-in-residence at the Brody Synagogue in Odessa, in Ukraine. He wrote a huge amount of music for the Synagogue, but he also wrote Violin Sonatas, String Quartets, German and Russian Lied, organ preludes, and Oratorios. He wrote a piece almost every week for 53 years, (You do the math.). Tchaikovsky thought he was wasting his time writing for the synagogue saying: “Symphonic music has lost a great master.” Only a couple of dozen songs were published in his lifetime.
As the Romanov empire declined, there were a series of revolts, pogroms, wars and finally the Communist revolution, which ended most religious activity in Russia.
Nowakowsky's music was smuggled out to his Grand-Daughter. Sofie, a concert pianist living in Germany.
In 1937 Sofie and her family became stateless refugees. They found temporary refuge in the French border village of Collonges-sous-Saleve. One by one they escaped to Switzerland. The last to go was Sofie's Husband: Boris. Before Boris made his illegal crossing into Switzerland he gave the crates of music to a M. Chosal, who owned an impressively large 16th century country estate in the nearby town of Archamps France. (You can see what Chosal did with the music by going to the website and watching the BRAVO! Television “short”.)
Rather than get bogged down with history, I'm telling the story through the eyes of 8-year-old Alexander, the son of Boris and Sofie. Alexander gets all his information about his Great-Grandfather through bedtime stories. Because Alexander is a very young child, these stories are visualized like fairy-tales, and shown to the audience through comedia-del-arte, dances, and cartoon-like figures. Every scene is supported by Nowakowsky's music, or leads into a piece of music either written by Nowakowsky, or newly commissioned musical works by Canadian composer, Penny Blake; my late teacher, Lazar Weiner; Felix Mendelsohn; or myself.
When I interviewed the real Alexander, he told me a lot about the events he and his Parents lived through, but almost nothing about what he and his parents were like, how they acted or thought. His one and only personal description of his parents was: “They were intellectuals.”
Its not much to go on when you are writing a play.
So I decided to fictionalize everything! All my characters are composites of people I know, or are totally invented. Even Alexander, who was 64 when I met him in 1995, because he never said anything of a personal nature to me, his boyhood character is also totally fictitious. My Alexander has absolutely nothing to do with the real Alexander. I have borrowed his name, but not his person.
What inspired you to write it?
You can't hear music by reading about it in a newspaper. You have to attend a live event and feel it in your bones. There were a lot of questions I wanted to answer: Why was C.H.Bialik, an aging poet when he arrived in Palestine in the 1920s, mobbed every time he left his house to go for a walk? (Chaim Bialik wrote the epitaph on Nowakowsky's tombestone) The epitaph reads: “There are many stars in the heavens, but none shone so brightly.” So I wrote a scene where Nowakowsky's Grand-Daughter reads in a letter that the tombstone has been destroyed by Stalinists. She then has a sad reverie where she remembers a quote from one of Bialik's poems:
“On a foggy night like a star I'll fade, and none shall know my burial place.
Star to Star shall whisper: See the horrible lies! Look at the awful grief! Oh if only...”
The scene introduces one of Nowakowsky's choral works that echoes the mood created.
What's it like to study in a yeshiva? In this scene my Greek chorus take on the role of teenage boys trying to learn about the birds and the bees, by finding the appropriate quotes from the Talmud and the Bible. My actors haven't stopped laughing in a week!
Who are your collaborators and how long have you been working with them?
I, unfortunately, am the producer. I haven't been able to get away from my computer in weeks! lindi g. papoff is my dramaturg and director. I gave her a feature-film script and we pulled dozens of all-nighters re-writing it for the stage. My other collaborators are my Music Director: Alexander Veprinskiy, who when lindi isn't cussing me out, Alexander yells at me for the musical notation errors in my compositions. The cast has to be given their full credit too. How many opera singers do you know who can dance ballet (and not just pretend) and have great acting chops? Three are also choreographers, two are gifted pianists, and another three, like myself, have written and produced plays. They have brought so much added value to my script that I am beside myself with joy.
(Who's that? I'm Joy. Who's that beside you? That's me. Who's that beside me? That's you. OY!)
What's next for you after FRIGID?
After FRIGID, we do the longer 90-minute version in Toronto, and we (the collective) are deciding whether-or-not to bring the show to Winnipeg and Edmonton. With an 18-person cast and crew, its a major financial and logistical endeavor.
And finally, if you could say anything to your potential audience, what would it be?
We love you to pieces, and hope to meet you all after each show. My daughter lives in New York. I'll ask her to find a reasonably-priced restaurant or coffee shop, where you can meet the cast and ask us questions about the show. All the best.
Written by Ron Graner
Company: Lost Music Productions
85 E. 4th Street