Chelsea Hotel: Leonard Cohen inspires stories

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Leonard Cohen is an artist who demands to be reinterpreted. Like the hundreds of remountings and reworkings of Shakespeare, new takes on Cohen’s canon emerge with frightening regularity, with everyone from Johnny Cash to the Pixies covering the bard of Montreal.

Maybe it was inevitable, then, that his influence would extend to the world of theatre. One Yellow Rabbit presented its own theatrical take on Cohen’s writings with Doing Leonard Cohen, which premièred in 1997, and now it is co-presenting another with Theatre Calgary as part of the High Performance Rodeo. First mounted in 2012 by Vancouver’s Firehall Arts Centre, Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen earned raves for its theatrical revisioning of Cohen’s work, draping the singer’s compositions over a story in which a character called The Writer, struggling to rediscover his muse in the titular hotel, reflects on past loves. This being Cohen, both melancholy and eroticism are in abundance.

Don’t go in expecting a slavish re-creation of a Cohen concert, though. Much of the power in Cohen’s music comes from its abstraction — the way that every artist and audience member who approaches it seems to find something unique. That’s something the play’s creators aimed to preserve.

“Because of the poetic nature of the piece, I wanted it to inspire a story in everybody,” says Chelsea Hotel’s creator and director, Tracey Power. “The piece may inspire the same story that I see in it, or it may inspire your own story as far as what you’re bringing to it from your own experiences with love. And then there’ll be people that see it very much as a concert, and it doesn’t inspire as much of a story in them. That’s fine either way — it’s whatever the piece brings out for that individual.”

Rather than re-creating a Cohen concert experience, Power and musical director Steve Charles put their own carnivalesque spin on the proceedings, adding a dynamism to songs that are often carried more by Cohen’s charisma than vocal or musical gymnastics. It’s an approach that has struck a chord with Cohen fans and newcomers alike.

“We had a talk-back after the show last night [in Vancouver], and one of the audience members said, ‘I know every one of these songs, and you made me feel like I was hearing them again for the first time,” says Power with obvious pride. “On the flip side of that are audience members who aren’t familiar with Cohen’s music and say, ‘that was so fantastic, I’m going to go and get a bunch of his music and listen to it.’ I think it’s been great for the Cohen fan and the non-fan.”

Power’s willingness to rework her source material could come from the fact that Cohen’s music only entered partway through her writing process. While working on a Parisian-inspired piece, Power made a connection between the themes she was exploring and those in Cohen’s songbook. Before long, the original plan gave way to the song cycle that would become Chelsea Hotel.

She began digging through Cohen’s work, discovering rich characters and settings, and creating a narrative that would, in turn, suggest more songs. Trusting her experience as a director and choreographer, she let her instincts guide her in assembling the piece.

“As a choreographer,” she says, “when you hear a song, right away you can get a sense of how it moves, and how people move to it. But also as a director, I can see how that works in the arc of the show, and the intentions of the characters on the stage. I think there were a few different things that would come into play, but as I got deeper into it, it was much clearer right away if something was going to work with the piece or not.”

The result is a work that lands somewhere between theatre and a concert experience, one that has been praised for its arrangements and the incredible musicianship of its ensemble, with audiences returning multiple times to tease out new connections and new lyrics. Calgarians hoping to do the same will only have a half-dozen opportunities during Chelsea Hotel’s run at the High Performance Rodeo. They’ll provide the music. What you take away is up to you.

Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen runs until January 11 at Max Bell Theatre as part of the High Performance Rodeo.

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