Ben Caplan was frustrated. Recruited in 2015 by 2b Theatre Company artistic co-director Christian Barry to collaborate on a musical-theatre piece, the singer-songwriter was struggling in the initial writing sessions. He had never heard of Barry (who is an accomplished writer-director), but after Googling him he determined the Halifax theatre vet was a “legit guy.” Still, ideas were slow in coming, and Caplan was concerned it wasn’t working out.
“We weren’t getting anywhere,” Caplan told The Globe and Mail recently.
Barry had experience working with singer-songwriters new to the theatre world, having created the cabaret The God That Comes with Juno-winner Hawksley Workman. He was able talk Caplan off the ledge by convincing him that it was a process and that it would work out. “This is how it goes,” Barry told Caplan. “We’ll find a way in.”
He was right. The resulting edgy klezmer-folk musical Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story had its international debut in 2017 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and went on to enjoy a successful residency Off Broadway at the 59E59 Theaters in New York. Last week it was announced that Old Stock, starring Caplan, had earned six nominations for the Drama Desk Awards, which are arrived upon by New York theatre writers and editors. A year ago they voted the smash-hit Canadian musical Come From Away as the city’s outstanding musical, a category in which Old Stock will compete in this year.
The musical – Caplan calls it a “concert-theatre mash-up” – continues its international tour this month with a stop at Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, where it will play from May 9 to 13.
The inspiration for Come From Away, of course, was clear from the beginning: The musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein takes place following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and with infectious joy and melody tells the story of what happened when 38 airplanes were redirected to the small town of Gander, Nfld.
The “way in” to the songs and concept of Old Stock came about in a much less linear fashion.
It was after Barry and Caplan saw the heartbreaking photo of the lifeless Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy whose body washed up on a Turkish beach after his family attempted to seek refuge in Greece (and in Canada eventually), that the Old Stock score began to take shape. “It occurred to us to make a show about refugees,” explained Caplan, who between performances of the play is touring the Old Stock songs across Europe and North America in non-theatrical settings with a band. “When we began writing the songs, we slowly tiptoed our way into a narrative structure.”
It was at that point that the playwright Hannah Moscovitch (Barry’s wife, and the prolific indie-theatre wunderkind) came on board. After discovering the immigration records of her paternal great-grandparents fleeing Romania for Canada in 1908, Moscovitch, whose 2006 breakout, The Russian Play, was a love story set in a Siberian prison, decided she wanted to be part of what would become Old Stock. “The story you’re working on,” she told Barry and Caplan, “is the story of my great-grandparents.”
Caplan, an exceptionally bearded native Hamiltonian who moved to Halifax for college and never left, had already released two albums with his band, the Casual Smokers, before embarking on Old Stock. In the Time of the Great Remembering and Birds with Broken Wings are marked by his sturdy baritone voice and shifting roots-music arrangements of charismatic pianos, accordions, strings and woodwinds. But the process of writing songs for the musical with such accomplished collaborators was a new experience for him. The three would get together to discuss the narrative arcs, but he didn’t work closely with Moscovitch. It was a bit of a “tug of war,” with Moscovitch looking for songs to help her with themes and Caplan wanting themes to inspire the songs.
Between the two was Barry, who kept Caplan and Moscovitch separate so they could each solve their own artistic problems in their own artistic languages. “He was the fulcrum, or the bridge,” says Caplan. “He would pull everything together and cement it into a singular thing.”
The first song written for Old Stock was You’ve Arrived, a spry imagination of refugees turning up at Pier 2 in Halifax at the turn of the 20th century, and the bureaucracy and procedural humiliation they suffered: “Just a little degradation before you can join our nation.”
Beyond service to the stage musical, the songs needed to stand on their own. From the beginning, Caplan had intended on using them for a solo album, which he has since recorded and is set to release June 15.
Looking back at the musical-theatre process in creating the songs, he sees it as a blessing. Melodies and chord progressions come easy to Caplan, whose previous songs have always had a conceptual bent to them. With Moscovitch and Barry working on the narrative threads, much of the heavy lifting was taken care of.
“It’s not always easy to know what I should bother to say, but if I want to bother to stain the silence, then it should be worthwhile,” says Caplan. “That I feel sad or bored or ‘let’s go party’ doesn’t do it for me. Having collaborators to help figure out the context of the songs would fit into, it really did the hardest part of the job for me.”
Caplan’s concert tour plays Montreal, May 3; Quebec City, May 4; Burnstown, Ont., May 5; and London, Ont., May 6.
Old Stock: A Refugee Love Story plays Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre May 9 to 13.