Spoon River – Roots Musical Theatre
It’s not every theatre experience that begins with a walk past an apparent beautiful corpse in a coffin, proceeds through a graveyard to the theatre auditorium, and then impresses with a rousing musical number performed by ghosts wielding an array of acoustic instruments – acoustic and resonator guitars, violins, banjos, string bass, mandolins, piano and drums (maybe more).
Toronto’s acclaimed Soulpepper Theatre has mounted one of the most interesting musical productions I’ve ever seen. It’s based on “Spoon River Anthology” by Edgar Lee Masters, which was published 100 years ago to great acclaim and tremendous sales. This is amazing, considering that the anthology is essentially a long series of poems that don’t rhyme, that chronicle the lives of the dead — the inhabitants of the mid-western graveyard through which we passed on the way into the the theatre. There’s tragedy, there’s humor and there’s hope, and Soulpepper has captured all of this in a joyous musical way, staying true for the most part to the original text.
Masters pulls few punches in his series of vignettes. One of the poems, given as a soliloquy surrounded by music in the production, is the story of a woman raped as a girl of eight, whose husband abandons her when he finds out through the grapevine. Heavy stuff for the early 20th C.
I WAS only eight years old;
and before I grew up and knew what it meant
I had no words for it, except
That I was frightened and told my
Mother; And that my Father got a pistol
And would have killed Charlie, who was a big boy,
Fifteen years old, except for his Mother.
Nevertheless the story clung to me.
But the man who married me, a widower of thirty-five,
Was a newcomer and never heard it
‘Till two years after we were married.
Then he considered himself cheated,
And the village agreed that I was not really a virgin.
Well, he deserted me, and I died
The following winter.
It’s not all gloom, by any means. Humor abounds, and laughter often filled the theatre. Among the lighter moments (but with serious overtones) are the series of vignettes chronicling the town’s drunks, and their respective deaths. Done as both a series of soliloquies and musical numbers, it culminates in a rousing session you might have heard in some seedy bar.
The strongest theme is really all about seizing the moment. Death comes for us all, but all we really have is life. Seize it, live it, revel in it and have no regrets. As Fiddler Jones said:
THE earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove.
. . .
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill–only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle–
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.
One of the big questions, of course, is how well do they pull off this blend of roots and stage? I’d have to say very well. With few exceptions they company is the standard Soulpepper crew, and includes a number of music-capable individuals. The playing is generally pretty good, and the voices are great. I missed Miranda Mulholland in one of the roles (she’s a musician, mainly, who had been in the runs in 2014 and earlier this year), but she was unavailable due to touring commitments with her band The Great Lakes Swimmers. Anna Atkinson, a Soulpepper regular who took over the fiddler role was certainly capable, and has her own music career, but seemed just a bit tentative at times. Overall, though, it was a fine musical performance by really excellent actors.
This is not the first time I’ve seen a musical production based on poetry (think the Broadway hit ‘Cats’, with the poetry of ee cummings), but it’s certainly the first time I’ve seen it done with a kind of rootsy musical approach completely congruent with the material. Kudos to Soulpepper for the courage and skill to pull it off, and to receive so many awards for having done so.
You may also be interested in the online trailer and rehearsal videos, which give a good flavour of the production.