“I just happened to move here,” says Ron Sexsmith. “It wasn’t planned.”
When the Juno-winning singer-songwriter and his wife relocated from Toronto two years ago to Stratford, Ont., it wasn’t meant to be a career move. In fact, as soon as Sexsmith got to town, he left it, hitting the road in support of a new album and his debut novel, Deer Life. As it turns out, the move may well spawn a new career for the melodious one. Stratford’s a theatre town, optimal to work on his second act.
Sexsmith is currently shopping his first musical, a stage-production adaptation of his lyrical, fairy tale of a novel. He’s written his first script – “my wife printed it up to make it look professional” – and he’s recorded piano and voice demos of the songs. “Now I’m trying to find someone who will step in and help me make it better,” says Sexsmith, calling from Stratford, population 31,465. “It feels like I’m in the right place for this to happen, if it ever does.”
Sexsmith, 55, had already written his book before he settled into Stratford. Still, from the description of Deer Life’s small-town setting, one gets the feeling the mellow troubadour was looking for peaceful new place to call home. “People were kind, the air was clean,” Sexsmith wrote of fictional Hinthoven. “The water was pure and life in general was … livable."
Livable, and more importantly for Sexsmith’s Gilbert and Sullivan aspirations, functional. He’s had coffee-shop discussions about his musical with actors and directors associated with Stratford Festival. And last year, the Stratford Summer Music festival presented Songs from Deer Life, a sold-out concert version of the fledgling musical with narration, in collaboration with the INNERchamber ensemble.
“I’m showing myself around,” Sexsmith says about acclimating to the world of Shakespeare, greasepaint and Broadway-style musicals. “The people here know what my dream is.”
For accomplished musicians with theatrical desires, dreams do come true. In 2020, Stratford Festival will premiere Here’s What It Takes, a musical from former Barenaked Ladies singer Steven Page and playwright Daniel MacIvor.
Although the transition from singer-songwriter to stage composer might seem like a natural one, the two worlds, according to one drama-dabbling musician, are as alike as Rodgers and Hart. “One of the biggest differences is that the get-rich delusion still exists in the music business, which means it attracts hacks, sociopaths and the under equipped,” says the flamboyant singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman, who occasionally tours his 2013 one-man rock ’n’ roll cabaret The God That Comes. “There is no such delusion in Canadian theatre, and consequently you find yourself working with people who are there for the love of it.”
Workman, who scored Stratford’s spectacle production this summer of The Neverending Story, also notes the difference in the orderly realization of an album, compared with the relative chaos that comes with the development of a play. “When you’re making a record, you shape and nurture its identity as you go, and when it comes time to mix it, the product is clearly visible.”
And a theatrical play? “It’s wild,” Workman continues. “It’s a disaster until they call it a play and people are buying tickets for it. And then, boom, suddenly it’s a show.”
And sometimes it’s not. Years ago, the Stratford Festival commissioned a “meditation on Hamlet” that was to feature music by the celebrated Canadian indie-pop band Stars. The production was to pair the group’s songs with a script from playwright-novelist Ann-Marie MacDonald. It didn’t come together as planned. What was once workshopped as a metaphysical cabaret ended up being a Bard-boned play from MacDonald and director Alisa Palmer. The decade-gestating Hamlet-911 is set to premiere next season at Stratford, with no Stars involvement.
As his musical’s lyricist, librettist and music composer, the multitasking Sexsmith is taking the most daring leap onto the boards since John Wilkes Booth. On Pretty Woman: The Musical, Bryan Adams worked with collaborators. Paul McCartney is developing a stage musical adaptation of the 1946 Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life, but with the help of Lee Hall, the screenwriter behind Billy Elliot and Rocketman.
The page-to-stage process for Sexsmith so far has been a natural one. As a stranger in a new town, he found himself with plenty of time to write not only the songs for the musical but for a new album (set for a 2020 release) as well.
Sexsmith knows his script requires a lot of fine-tuning and that the musical won’t happen without an experienced team behind it. “My dream is to sit in the audience and watch it on stage, the same way that I’ve seen Guys and Dolls,” he says. “But I guess it takes a village.”
It does. And some villages are better than most.
The song does not remain the same
All the world’s a stage, but some stages are different than others. Canadian musicians who have worked in theatre talk about the divide between the music industry and the thespian scene.
Torquil Campbell, who will appear with his band Stars at Toronto’s Crow’s Theatre this fall in Stars: Together: “When you play a rock show, you are preaching to the choir. In the theatre, you are trying to start a new religion every night. Getting people there in the theatre requires that hundreds of things need to be right and almost nothing can go wrong. In music, transcendence is as easy as turning it up.”
Sarah Slean, currently writing the music for the stage-musical adaptation of the film Maudie: "The music industry commodifies personalities – it’s in the business of branding, it’s an ego-machine. A solo artist has to find some way to manage that, psychologically and spiritually. By contrast, when I am writing for a character in theatre, while I draw on all the same skills I’ve acquired over decades of singing, playing, writing, arranging and composing, and draw on all of my empathy and human experiences, I am not the centre of it. I am a midwife.”
Raoul Bhaneja, actor and blues musician: “Theatre has its own language, rhythm and set of actual rules, and musicians can feel a bit confined by the structure. But I’ve seen musicians totally blown away by the power of design and theatricality, and how it can multiply the impact of the music if supported the right way.”
Hawksley Workman: “Theatre people love what they call ‘process.’ They tinker and pull things apart and put it back together. For a ‘let’s rock’ type guy like me, it was a slow torture that I learned to appreciate.”
Benjamin Kowalewicz, Billy Talent vocalist and co-star in Kevin Drew’s play A&R Angels: “Doing theatre, I’ve never been more tired and exhilarated at the same time. Every minute of the day is about the show. It is a 24-hour commitment.”