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Hailey Gillis and Mike Ross rehearse Spoon River, a Soulpepper production that turns 100-year-old poetry by Edgar Lee Masters into drama and music.

Nathan Kelly

What makes a musical? For one Toronto theatre company this season, the answer is a 100-year-old American poetry book. For another, it's the song catalogue of a living legend.

The book is Edgar Lee Masters's classic Spoon River Anthology, dramatized and set to music by Soulpepper Theatre. The living legend is Charles Aznavour, the 90-year-old Armenian-French singer-songwriter celebrated in Necessary Angel's production of What Makes a Man.

Both projects have been long in development and both have a strong element of the unusual to them. For Soulpepper's Spoon River, it's the material itself: more than 200 free-verse epitaphs, spoken by the restless ghosts in a small-town Illinois graveyard. While Masters' poems are inherently dramatic, their rugged, deliberately non-lyrical style doesn't seem to lend itself to music. But composer Mike Ross begs to differ.

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From the moment he cracked open the unfamiliar book – handed to him for consideration by Soulpepper boss Albert Schultz – Ross sensed its musical potential. "Sometimes you get a very quick, clear sonic image of what something might be," says the affable ex-Maritimer, who has a dual role as one of the company's resident actors and its director of music. "This one was just leaping off the page."

Fired up, he came back to Schultz a couple of days later with two or three songs already written and recorded.

Masters' poems were first published in 1914-15, so Ross chose a musical style that harks back to the dawn of the 20th century. "Appalachian bluegrass Americana is at the centre of the sound," he says. And the poems' lack of rhyme didn't deter him. "When I was starting to write this, Mumford & Sons were huge, and you know, their lyrics often don't have a rhyme scheme. The verses are carried by the rhythm and the melody."

What Makes a Man taps a much more likely source for musical theatre in the rich oeuvre of Aznavour, whose songs have been covered by everyone from Edith Piaf to Elton John. What's surprising is the show's creator: Necessary Angel artistic director Jennifer Tarver, an acclaimed auteur better known for staging the absurdist plays of Samuel Beckett and edgy contemporary fare such as Venus in Fur.

"I didn't come up with the idea to do this piece," Tarver admits during an interview in the lobby of the Berkeley Street Theatre, where her show opens Oct. 9 as part of Canadian Stage's season. She was barely aware of Aznavour's work three years ago, when her agent introduced her to Sybil Goday, a lifelong friend of the still-active entertainer who was trying to turn his songs into a musical. But, like Ross, as soon as Tarver became acquainted with her source material, she was hooked. "Aznavour's songwriting is so highly dramatic and the lyrics are so finely crafted," she says, "that it just became irresistible."

Tarver, who began her career directing opera, decided to avoid a straightforward musical biography or a traditional "book" musical. Instead, she's identified four recurring themes in Aznavour's songs and related them to four facets of his personality. Each aspect is portrayed by a different singer: veteran jazz-blues artist Kenny Brawner is the Performer; soul diva Saidah Baba Talibah (Salome Bey's daughter) represents the Lover; Andrew Penner, from the alt-country trio Sunparlour Players, is the Poet; and Louise Pitre of Mamma Mia! fame plays the Survivor. "One of my aims in casting the show was to have as much variation in age and ethnicity and stylistic approach to the music as possible," Tarver explains. And any resemblance to David Young's Glenn Gould play, Glenn, which uses a similar concept – and was recently seen at, yes, Soulpepper – is pure coincidence. "I had no idea of the similarity," Tarver says. "I hadn't read Glenn when I came up with the idea."

If Tarver had any major challenge, it was selecting songs from Aznavour's prodigious output. She resisted the temptation to craft a greatest-hits jukebox musical. "There are probably fewer of the hits than a die-hard Aznavour fan would want," she cautions. Instead, she's chosen numbers that best reflect the show's four themes. They range from the bittersweet (and much-covered) Yesterday When I Was Young to the brutally honest I Drink, to the show's title song – a sympathetic portrait of a drag queen that was ground-breaking when Aznavour recorded it in 1972.

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Back at Soulpepper, Ross had a similar dilemma with the Spoon River poems, eventually whittling down the book's 212 graveyard inhabitants to about 50. They are brought to life by a cast of 18 actor-singers, many of whom also double as musicians. "A lot of young actors play instruments nowadays, so we have a fully realized band," says Ross, who'll be strumming the mandolin.

Spoon River has had a couple of well-received tryouts at Soulpepper's annual Global Cabaret Festival as a work-in-progress. Ross is confident this full production, directed by Schultz and opening Nov. 4, will click with audiences. "There's something very relatable about the gossipy nature of the small town," says the Charlottetown native, "and the idea that all its dead citizens are under the ground, still dishing the dirt about one another, is such a terrific conceit."

Tarver, meanwhile, hopes to introduce new listeners to Aznavour's genius and give the aficionados a fresh insight into his music. She has already succeeded with the man himself. Aznavour attended a workshop performance in Toronto last March and Tarver says he was delighted with the unconventional approach. "Afterward, he told Kenny Brawner, 'You've turned me into a bluesman – thank you!' He loves to be surprised by extreme interpretations of his work."

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