"Whoever said you can't be saved by a song, whoever said that is stringing you along" – Sam Roberts's Uprising Down Under
"Check – check, check." While Kevin Drew tests the microphone and the PA system, somebody else is moving a guitar and a Rhodes piano into place. Drew is the leader and lead singer of the Canadian indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene. Yet this isn't a rock show, but a new play, A&R Angels. And Drew is not only a first-time actor in it, he's a debut playwright.
In August, The Globe and Mail visited the Streetcar Crowsnest theatre facility in Toronto where Drew and fellow rock-star/novice actor Ben Kowalewicz (of the punk group Billy Talent) worked out the early-going kinks of the play with director Chris Abraham. In a comic fable about mid-career anxiety, Drew and Kowalewicz portray a pair of heavenly messengers whose job is to compose songs melodic and anthemic enough to save humanity, two ears and one heart at a time.
Playing "Loud Angel" to Kowalewicz's "Soft Angel," Drew at the light rehearsal is doing most of the talking as he works out the right kind of emotion for his character – a frustrated individual who he describes as an "overamplified destroyer of my own life."
When he wrote the play a few years ago, Drew was heading into his 40s and feeling melancholic over his career. Since that time, he resurrected Broken Social Scene and collaborated with the late Gord Downie. He's in a much better place now, ironically revisiting a worried version of himself as a character he had no intention of playing in the first place.
"I didn't want to be in this play," Drew says, during a rehearsal break. "I wanted to write it, and then I wanted to watch it."
The idea for Drew to act in A&R Angels came from Abraham, who is also the artistic director of Crow's Theatre. His first exposure to the play was Drew reading the part of Loud Angel. "I recognized that he was drawing on aspects of his life to create the characters," Abraham says. "I found it hard to imagine anyone bettering what Kevin could do in the role."
Although A&R Angels is not a musical, we see Drew working on a song, Apology People. The play is about the creative process and the frustrations of the business. And it's about saving souls through art, specifically music.
A&R Angels is darkly comic – the first scene opens with a man in mid-suicide – but the notion of songs changing lives is a legitimate enough topic. In Rachel Joyce's exquisite new novel The Music Shop, a record-shop owner has a talent for melodious therapy: He remedies emotional troubles by matching a piece of music with the sufferer. In one passage, a mother explains the art of listening to music to her son by pulling out a record – "black as licorice and twice as shiny" – of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5. "The silence at the beginning of a piece of music is always different from the silence at the end," she says, speaking of the journey a piece can bring. "If you listen, the world changes."
Asked about his initial attraction to A&R Angels, Abraham talks about the conviction of the play, which he describes as a "call to arms" to all artists, "That musicians write songs to save lives; that struck me as a holy mission. And I related to it. The play's disenchantment is the failure of music to do that."
Is that Drew's mission, to save lives through music? "From the beginning, I just wanted to be honest," says the man whose music with Broken Social Scene is euphoric and up-swelling rock. " Hug of Thunder and You Forgot It in People and Forgiveness Rock Record, they're a group effort and they're honest records."
Abraham adds his opinion. "It's supersincerity," he says. "There's a sincerity to what you do, Kevin."
Drew: "We've been able to connect with people"
Kowalewicz: "It's all about letting people know they're not alone."
Rehearsal break over, Abraham is back working with his novice actors. He needs Kowalewicz to hang back a little before entering a scene. He wants more emotion from Drew. "Mean it," he instructs. "Load up." Later, there's trouble with the blocking. "Something's not right," he says, hand at his chin.
As this is happening, the veteran actor Maurice Dean Wint absent-mindedly whistles the melody to the song Drew wrote for the play. He heard it earlier in the rehearsal; it stuck with him.
Later, I let Drew know that Wint had been whistling his song. How does that make a songwriter feel? "A catchy song is what this play is about," Drew says. "Making that kind of connection, that never gets lost on me."
A&R Angels runs Nov. 24 to Dec. 9 at Toronto's Streetcar Crowsnest (crowstheatre.com).