Theresa Tova is really into this song. The venerated actress is grooving and slow-dancing to the piano’s rhythm as she bursts out the lyrics in a powerful contralto. She’s on autopilot, it seems, leaping and strutting downstage before she pivots, careens back and swoons on the couch.
The show’s director, Adam Seelig – the artistic director of the One Little Goat Theatre Company – is accompanying Tova on the piano, leaning forward and watching her so intently that he’s hardly blinking.
This is his latest musical, Music Music Life Death Music, and it debuts in Toronto on May 25. Tova plays a mother who interrupts her daughter and son-in-law’s romantic evening with an abrupt lesson about their immigrant family’s history.
This song feels like an explosive showstopper.
When Tova finishes, Seelig stands with a hesitant look on his face. “They’re big moves,” he says, choosing his words carefully. He wants to keep this song more tender, in order to focus on the music and her voice. He wants fewer laughs and more emotion.
Tova listens with her eyes squinted. After a pause, she perks back up: “OK, let’s try it!”
“Often performers feel like they have to win us over and grab us and hold us,” Seelig explains afterwards during a lunch break. “And I feel like audiences, for the most part, are a lot more engaged from the get-go.… Why don’t we go from that premise? Rather than try and grab them and never let them go, why don’t we meet halfway? Why don’t we relax a little bit?”
That kind of philosophy has steered much of Seelig’s approach to directing his latest musical. While he’s worked in theatre for years – including having spearheaded the English-language translations of four radio plays by acclaimed Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai – this latest project is different. In some ways, it’s more personal.
The seed was planted in late 2016, after Seelig’s lifelong friend, a Vancouver-based musician, died of cancer in his 40s. Months later, Seelig emerged from mourning with a desire to write a play that celebrates life. Because he started his first band with his late friend in high school, he knew a musical celebration was the only way to go.
“What can I bring to this play that embraces the thrill, the joy and the burden of being alive?” he recalls thinking. “If these were my last days, or my last months, what would I want to do? I would want to sit at the piano. I’d want to feel good through music.”
Seelig wrote the script in his uniquely poetic style – lines of dialogue cascade down the page like an e.e. cummings piece, and there’s barely any stage direction.
When Tova first read the script, she loved its style and depth. But she didn’t think she could take it on, because she was too busy – for starters, rehearsals would overlap with her starring role in the Harold Green Jewish Theatre’s production of Mikveh.
So in early 2018, she called up Seelig to politely turn him down. But he didn’t accept her rejection. Instead, he convinced her to come over to his place, munch on some bagels and sing the songs together.
Tova laughs about it now. “You can’t turn down material you think is exciting,” she says. “This music is just exciting. It’s complex, it surprises you.”
During her first week of rehearsals, she arrived on the set of Mikveh after a full day with Seelig. Tova’s castmates asked her how she was feeling and she told them, honestly, that she felt great.
“After making these sounds that fit like a glove – it’s the closest I get to feeling religious,” she says. “This is why I’m doing this play … because this music just moves me.”
Music Music Life Death Music will run from May 25 to June 10 at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. For tickets, visit onelittlegoat.org, or call 416-531-1827.