Since he went solo from the Barenaked Ladies a decade ago, Steven Page has also been working behind-the-scenes on a secret passion – composing songs for a number of musical-theatre projects for Broadway and the Stratford Festival.
But the 49-year-old singer-songwriter is about to be beaten to a full Page stage production by a nose – by his son.
Ben Page, a 20-year-old Sheridan College student in music-theatre performance, has written the songs for a show called Leaving Eden, having its world premiere at the New York Musical Festival this week.
Steven’s much-anticipated first musical, Here’s What It Takes, meanwhile, won’t open until at least the 2020 season at Stratford.
It is not a huge surprise for Page senior, however, that the middle of his three sons has scored first with a score for a musical. The former BNL front man used to do what he calls “that dad thing” where, driving his boys around, he’d musically educate them with an iPod connected to the car stereo, putting on something by Stephen Sondheim from Company or Merrily We Roll Along – but the student quickly became the teacher.
“You know, I was guiding my kids the right way,” Steven recalls. “And, all of a sudden, Ben laps me with a Wikipedia-like knowledge of contemporary musical theatre and Golden Age musical theatre."
Music had been a part of life in the Page household from birth for the boys – their mother, Steven’s ex-wife, is a musician, too – but here was the way for Ben to distinguish himself in his teens. “There was always music, but when I found, you know, my cast albums that I love, they were mine,” he says, listing William Finn’s Falsettos as his favourite.
The Pages spoke to The Globe and Mail about their shared love of musicals on a conference call – the father in Calgary, where he had performed a Canada Day concert, and the son in New York, where he was working on last-minute rewrites. (“Love you, Ben”; “Love you, too.”)
Leaving Eden is the long-in-development project of a Canadian lyricist and book writer named Jenny Waxman. (“Book” is jargon for the script in a musical, for those of you who haven’t attended Sondheim school in a car with your dad.)
It retells the myth of Lilith, said to have been Adam’s first wife in the Garden of Eden, alongside a story about a modern couple with infertility issues. It’s a conundrum of creation, tackled from two angles.
Ben first got involved with Leaving Eden last summer, cast in the role of “ancient Adam” for a workshop in Hamilton, shortly after a previous composer left the show (Ada Westfall is still credited with “additional music”).
One Adam song was still only lyrics – and Ben was supposed to simply speak them. Instead, he went home after rehearsal and composed a setting for the words – a bit of bravado that so impressed Waxman, she brought him on to write the rest of the score.
Now, Leaving Eden is being performed at a festival attended by major Broadway producers, where musicals such as Next to Normal and [title of show] first garnered buzz.
The New York Musical Festival, it could also be noted, is a place where a couple hundred musicals that were never heard of again made their debuts, too.
The stakes are higher for Page senior’s forthcoming debut as composer/lyricist at Stratford: Here’s What It Takes will be the (some would say well-overdue) first original musical to open there in Antoni Cimolino’s tenure as artistic director. Donna Feore, director of many hit revivals at Stratford, is attached and the book is by Siminovitch Prize-winning playwright Daniel MacIvor. It will show whether Stratford can play a meaningful role in the renaissance of Canadian musical theatre exemplified by Come From Away – or if Canada’s largest not-for-profit theatre will continue to sit in the wings and watch.
While the Stratford Festival can’t confirm when Here’s What It Takes is being mounted, Page says it is in the mix for next season, which will officially be announced in August. He has his “fingers crossed.”
The musical’s plot follows two friends through the rise of their band in the eighties to its eventual break-up. “It may sound familiar, but it’s not,” says Page, who has already released versions of many of its songs on his 2016 and 2018 albums, Heal Thyself Pt. 1: Instinct and Discipline: Heal Thyself, Pt. II. “It’s definitely not the story of my old band, but I certainly drew on my experience.”
What the two Page shows have in common, Steven points out, is the question: What is the cost of creation?
There are some composing dynasties in musical theatre – for instance, Richard Rodgers, of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame, was the father of Mary Rodgers, composer of Once Upon a Mattress, who was the mother of Adam Guettel, composer of The Light in the Piazza. A father and son having their first musicals premiere within a year of one another would be unheard of, however.
Both Pages trace their interest in the form back to their early teens. Steven was in a Scarborough community-theatre production of Oliver! in Grade 8 – and remembers it as the moment he came out of his shell and the beginning of his love of singing. He, of course, took that love in a different direction for a few decades, feeling that musical theatre struggled to channel the pop or rock sound he liked.
Ben was likewise bitten by the Broadway bug in middle school, performing in Into the Woods, but it was only after following friends to an extracurricular theatre program that he became a full-fledged musical nerd. Soon he was competing to track down the best new off-Broadway show and having in-depth debates over Company cast recordings.
Says his father, hearing this, nostalgically: “That’s exactly how I was at that age, but with punk and indie rock and finding obscure 45s and flexi discs."
Although his true musical-theatre debut will come second to his son’s, Steven has been building a solid theatrical résumé for a while now. He first composed music for a 2005 production of As You Like It directed by Cimolino, and, since, has collaborated on several other Stratford productions with the lyricist William Shakespeare (and one with Ben Jonson).
Page père has had dalliances with Broadway producers, too. At one point, he was approached to write songs for a musical of the 1982 movie, Diner (Sheryl Crow ended up attached). In 2011, he worked on another show with some “New York people” that eventually “ran out of money”; he says he has to be vague about it.
“It’s much more fun to just work on my own stuff,” he says.
Steven also seems to be having fun supporting his son’s nascent career. Just as Victor Page, a drummer and Steven’s dad, founded the indie label Page Publications in the eighties to distribute Barenaked Ladies’ early cassette tapes, Steven has been helping spread the word about Leaving Eden.
Father and son have collaborated on a couple of music videos for the show. For the song Universe, they sneaked into a Sheridan College studio after hours to shoot, while the song Three Weeks got a more straightforward video of the two performing in Ben’s student apartment. “It’s been three weeks since I’ve gotten out of bed / gotten off the couch / put a comb to my head,” Steven croons as Ben strums guitar behind him, both wearing big-framed glasses and checkered shirts. (If the lyrics make you think of classic Page-sung BNL tracks One Week and Brian Wilson, it’s only coincidence; the words are by Waxman.)
Ben can’t wait to bring Leaving Eden back to Canada – and is mostly bullish on the renewed energy surrounding musical theatre in this country these days. But he still thinks it’s sadly the case that “Canadian musicals don’t happen in Canada until they go to the States first.” Spending four weeks in New York working on his festival show, he’s realized that the resources south of the border are at a “totally different level."
This, like sneaking into studios at night and teen debates over albums, flashes Steven Page back to his youth. “Canadian musical theatre hasn’t had its Tragically Hip or Arkells yet,” he says. “The ones who can actually make a living and gain popular acceptance at home alone without having to make it somewhere else first.”