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Theatre & Performance Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto brings a new groove with Rose: A New Musical

Composer Mike Ross and lyricist Sarah Wilson pose for a portrait on the set of their new musical, Rose, designed by Lorenzo Savoini, in Toronto, on Jan. 7, 2019.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

A new year, a new artistic director and a new risky but potentially lucrative kind of programming.

Twelve months after the calendar turned over under darker circumstances, Soulpepper is kicking off 2019 in celebratory fashion with what’s being billed by the Toronto theatre company as its "first-ever original musical.”

The World is Round by Gertrude Stein.

Illustrations by Clement Hurd.

Rose: A New Musical is an all-ages adaptation of a cult 1939 children’s book by Gertrude Stein called The World Is Round – one of the works that popularized her famous aphorism “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”

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The show’s creators are Soulpepper stalwarts: Head of music Mike Ross and long-time ensemble member Sarah Wilson, who met as part of the inaugural Soulpepper Academy back in 2006.

That impressive cohort of young artists also included director Weyni Mengesha, who officially stepped into her new role as Soulpepper’s artistic director on Jan. 2 – a year minus a day after founding artistic director Albert Schultz was served with civil suits alleging sexual misconduct that led to a quick resignation.

But is Rose – which was developed under Schultz, programmed under interim artistic director Alan Dilworth and now premieres under Mengesha – really a fresh path for Soulpepper? Or is its promotion as such a conscious attempt to break with the past?

Ross, after all, has composed a number of musical shows at Soulpepper over the years, based on pre-existing poetry – most notably Spoon River, which was co-created by Schultz and named best musical at both the Dora Mavor Moore Awards and the Toronto Theatre Critics Awards in 2015. (More on that show in a moment.)

While his popular shows such as Spoon River; Alligator Pie, based on poetry of Dennis Lee; and re(Birth), based on that of e.e. cummings, may have been classified as musicals by others, Ross refers to them as “music theatre” or “song cycles” now; they didn’t have original lyrics and they didn’t have an original book (as the script is known in musical-theatre parlance).

For years, the two friends – who live in the same neighbourhood and often run into each other at the park where their young children play – had been bouncing around ideas for a project they could work on together aimed at a wide age range.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

And he’s clear that Rose, while initially developed in a similar fashion, evolved into a bigger, different beast during the three years he and Wilson have been working on it.

“We reached a point where we said: Let’s commit to this being a full-on singing and dancing piece of musical theatre with choreography and a big cast,” Ross says, sitting in the theatre’s library with Wilson, who wrote the lyrics and co-wrote the book for the show, which features 15 performers doubling as actors and musicians.

It’s definitely the right time for Soulpepper – a company initially built around Western classics that has grown a fervent following for its cabarets and concerts curated by Ross – to fully commit to musicals.

The theatrical form continues its renaissance in Canada and, after decades of primarily flocking to what was on Broadway a year or two before, Toronto audiences have redeveloped an appetite for new, locally created musicals – in part because of the massive success of Irene Sankoff and David Hein’s Come from Away.

You can see that hunger in ticket sales for Rose – which, like recent new works by up-and-coming composer Britta Johnson produced by the Musical Stage Company, has extended its run before opening.

To keep the creative momentum going, it’s crucial for Toronto’s older, established theatres to shed their historical reluctance to devote the extra resources needed to develop a show with an orchestra and cast from the ground up.

“Because of the room that’s been carved by Come from Away and what they’re doing at Sheridan College [through the Canadian Music Theatre Project], theatre companies are looking at musicals differently,” says Wilson. “A lot of people I think have in the past rolled their eyes a bit about musicals – but you can’t. They’re amazing.”

Though primarily known to Soulpepper audiences as an actor, Wilson has been an avid student of lyrics since growing up pouring over songsheets, books of Christmas carols and Stephen Sondheim liner notes – and Ross knew from their time working on collective creations in the Academy that she was a talented writer.

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With the material in the public domain, he and Wilson realized they could craft an original story out of her journey that could also interest adults.

Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

For years, the two friends – who live in the same neighbourhood and often run into each other at the park where their young children play – had been bouncing around ideas for a project they could work on together aimed at a wide age range (a Rapunzel set in Casa Loma, perhaps?). Then Wilson stumbled upon The World Is Round shortly after a new edition was released in honour of its 75th anniversary.

A beautiful objet d’art printed on pink paper with blue writing and original illustrations by Clement Hurd (of Goodnight Moon fame), Stein’s book is written in what Ross calls “poetic stream of consciousness” – and concerns a girl named Rose who is having an identity crisis.

Though Stein didn’t first pen her famous line about a rose for the book, her nine-year-old protagonist, readers are told, “would carve on the tree Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose is a Rose until it went all the way around.”

While the simple repeated sounds in Stein’s recursive writing are as appealing as Dr. Seuss when read aloud, The World Is Round is also a rewarding read on a deeper level for adults – a moving and often funny exploration of how we make sense of ourselves and the world around us.

Excerpt of The World is Round by Gertrude Stein.

Illustrations by Clement Hurd

There’s not much of a plot, however. “Ultimately, in a poetic way, Rose decides that the answer is at the top of a mountain and so she climbs a mountain,” explains Ross.

With the material in the public domain, he and Wilson realized they could craft an original story out of her journey that could also interest adults – envisioning a cross between a Pixar and Wes Anderson movie. (The pink-and-blue set, designed by Wilson’s husband Lorenzo Savoini, another 2006 Academy grad, certainly has the look.)

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“The narrative is our major departure from Stein,” says Wilson. “We wanted to keep the energy and bonkers-ness of the original book, but it’s not an avant-garde musical. You don’t need to know or like Gertrude Stein.”

For Ross, creating character-driven songs that moved the plot along “took a new kind of brain” from his past work composing song settings for the poems of Dennis Lee, e.e. cummings or the free-verse epitaphs of Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology. “The last phase for us was trying to flesh out how the songs informed the story and weren’t just things to enjoy,” he says.

Enjoyable melodies have never been Ross’s problem – and he wrote his perhaps most enjoyable ones for Spoon River. Due to Schultz’s involvement as a co-creator, however, that work now sits in limbo after being named a Critic’s Pick by The New York Times and garnering potential commercial interest during a short run in Manhattan in 2017. Its future, as a disappointed Ross puts it, is “complicated.” “I feel very strongly about that piece and the effect it had on audiences, so I would love to find a way to keep that going,” he says.

Excerpt of The World is Round by Gertrude Stein.

Illustrations by Clement Hurd

A spokesperson for the theatre company, however, confirmed by e-mail that when it comes to shows Schultz had a hand in creating: “The company will not be staging those versions of those productions moving forward.” This follows the precedent set with Hungarian director Laszlo Marton, who left the company following a sexual-harassment allegation; the theatre company permanently retired his productions afterwards.

If celebrating the biggest musical triumph of its past is now, indeed, complicated for Soulpepper, its musical future looks bright on a number of fronts.

With Toronto writer Leah-Simone Bowen, new artistic director Mengesha is currently workshopping a reimagining of a 108-year-old opera called Treemonisha by African-American composer Scott Joplin with the indie theatre company Volcano – and confirms that it may show up at Soulpepper in a future season. “I’m very excited about this project, the artists involved, and what is being offered, we are definitely considering it for future programming,” Mengesha wrote in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail about Treemonisha, which is already attracting buzz in the United States. (The Washington Post wrote a major feature about the piece, whose commissioners include Washington Performing Arts, London’s South Bank Centre and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, earlier this month.)

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And will there be more original Soulpepper musicals after Rose? Composer James Smith and playwright Rosamund Small are at work on a show, Ross says – and Mengesha (a composer herself, who wrote the music of ’da Kink in My Hair) notes that she’s already having conversations with her director of music about where to take the programming and “opening it up to include more diverse artists and voices.”

“It’s this intersection of musicians, styles and approaches that I know excites both Mike and me,” she says. “I know music will continue to play a big role in the future of Soulpepper."

Adds Ross: “More broadly than even at Soulpepper, in the next couple of years, there’s going to be a really exciting crop of unique, diverse, adventurous musical-theatre pieces that I hope are going to really make some noise beyond the borders of this town."

Rose: A New Musical opens at Toronto’s Young Centre on Jan. 17 (soulpepper.ca).

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