Actor Tim Campbell is sitting before an upright piano, brows furrowed in concentration. His hands move to the keyboard, and the opening of Moonlight Sonata ring out, Beethoven’s moody, dark chords echoing through Canadian Stage Company’s vast Toronto rehearsal space. Campbell abruptly stops playing and strikes one note repeatedly as he leans forward, tilts his head sideways, then looks up at the dark wooden cabinet of the piano. He suddenly stands, the piano bench flying out behind him, then opens the lid as if he is about to start tuning the instrument.
The scene is part of the new stage adaptation of Fall on Your Knees, the wildly successful 1996 novel by Ann-Marie MacDonald. Developed over more than a decade by director Alisa Palmer and playwright Hannah Moscovitch, the two-part theatrical work is set to open in Toronto at the end of January before touring to four other Canadian cities.
Campbell plays family patriarch James Piper, whose passion for music shapes the lives of his children in 1890s Cape Breton. His wife, Materia, plays the piano to accompany silent films and sings the Lebanese lullabies of her youth to her children. Firstborn child Kathleen aspires to be an opera singer and travels to New York to study, eventually becoming immersed in the jazz and ragtime scenes, falling in love with Black musician Rose when she takes vocal lessons from a strict German teacher for whom Rose plays piano. The work brims with lively descriptions of jazz clubs, concert halls, rehearsal rooms, cinemas, family homes and private apartments, conveying as much about the locales as the inner lives of those who inhabit them.
“The novel is a well of musical content,” said Sean Mayes, the stage adaptation’s music supervisor and composer. He was particularly struck by James Piper’s constant quest for perfection, whether for himself or for his daughters, wife, in-laws, fellow workers, miners and local townsfolk. That quest is conveyed onstage through a specific direction for Campbell to repeatedly play one of the production’s three pianos, before stopping and striking a C# repeatedly.
The piano also represents temporal concerns and changing social mores. “Much as we’re going over time periods of characters, we’re also talking about the evolution of piano music over the course of 60 years,’’ said production dramaturge Mel Hague, “and the changing use and styles of the music and the instrument throughout that time.” Currently artistic director of Toronto’s Factory Theatre, Hague has worked as dramaturge for numerous productions and is quick to note the piano’s dramatic potential: “As a stringed and a percussive instrument, the piano allows for such a wide diversity of sounds and tones, for beauty and then terror.”
Other musical instruments and forms also make their way into the production, reflecting a little-known history of the region and its ethnic diversity. “The book exploded the idea of what a place like Cape Breton is,” said Palmer, who is currently the artistic director of the English section of the National Theatre School of Canada, as well as MacDonald’s real-life partner. “It showed how there were Jewish, Black and Lebanese communities who had been there for generations. The Cape Breton sound is a weave made up of many things.”
In adapting the book to the stage, Palmer and her team had to express the cultural specificity of those sounds in accurate, dramatically immediate ways. “We had to ask ourselves, ‘What is the range of sounds that make up any community or any family?’”
Those sounds, as demonstrated in a recent rehearsal, feature a vivid mix of elements, including a diverse and sizable cast (20 in total), who sit onstage and clap, hum, stomp their feet and provide sound effects (for crying infants, for instance) alongside four musicians. Classical pieces (including Moonlight Sonata and the Habanera from Bizet’s opera Carmen), ragtime (including Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag), Middle Eastern lullabies and original material (eerie klangs, hums, percussion) mix easily, evoking a range of atmospheres and emotions. The band for Fall On Your Knees includes associate music supervisor Douglas Price (who plays piano and accordion), Anna Atkinson (violin, accordion) and Spencer Murray (flutes, reeds, pipes), as well as Egyptian-Canadian vocalist Maryem Tollar, who has multiple creative duties within the work: providing vocals and percussion, playing the oud and the qunan (a stringed instrument played solo or as part of an ensemble) and performing the role of Mrs. Mahmoud, Materia’s mother.
Mayes, who recently worked as music director and conductor of the world premiere of Mandela at the Young Vic in London, says MacDonald’s specificity regarding cultures allowed for experimentation in the adaptation. The repeated use of sounds for certain characters’ mental states – like James Piper’s repeated note – gave licence to go beyond the words on the page. “The ideas of sensuality and motivic exploration align with a lot of the music we use,” he explained, adding that James’s tuning obsession is only one of the motifs embedded within the production. “It’s always that question of what’s in tune or not in tune, of sounds for various characters sliding back and forth and trying to find their footing.”
The adaptation, which is the result of a partnership between the National Arts Centre English Theatre, Vita Brevis Arts, Canadian Stage, Grand Theatre and Neptune Theatre, plays as much with audience perceptions of sound as it does with sound itself. “It’s fascinating to play accordion and the sound makes you think of the East Coast – like the pipes – but we can also be halfway around the world,” Mayes said. “It’s not about telling everyone how to feel – the audience has to be brought into that world with us.”
Palmer said the music is “a vein that goes into the cultural roots of all the characters” and aims to capture both the lyrical and rhythmic qualities of MacDonald’s writing, as well as the literal and symbolic ways in which it functions within the narrative. Voice, not solely as a sound but as an overall concept, is perhaps most clearly embodied in the relationship between Kathleen and Rose. “They are two young women finding their voices, literally and musically, through the piano, through opera, and also through meeting each other,” Palmer said. “They are finding their voices as queer women and as young people trying to push forwards through obstacles – voice is a beautiful word to bring in metaphorically and literally.”
Voice is something Moscovitch knows as well. A Dora and Governor-General Award-winning playwright, her writing frequently explores the trinity of identity, power and culture within the context of traumatic histories. She and Palmer worked with various composers to experiment with sounds that might convey the novel’s rich tapestry. “We didn’t want to shoehorn this into a genre that already exists,” said Palmer, alluding to other literary works that have been adapted into big, brash musicals. The director was keen for music to be a kind of “muscle” within a live iteration, so that the sound would serve a function beyond the obvious (exposition, transitions) and might imitate the effects of the novel. “The centrepiece of the adaptation is to make people feel like they feel when they read the book: that they are immersed.”
Immersion within the world of theatre is an important experience to highlight at a time when many Canadian cultural organizations are grappling with the difficult economics of post-pandemic life. “Over these past couple of years I’ve come to cherish the collective act of sitting with other people watching or experiencing something,” Hague said. “I am not a religious person, but I find my communion in theatres. I’ve never worked on anything this big before, and when you have 20 people onstage as a band, it is joyful to be around. It is an exercise of the senses, and that is critical to have right now.”