Home Culture Arts & Entertainment Cabaret tells story of Toronto’s first immigrant neighbourhood

Cabaret tells story of Toronto’s first immigrant neighbourhood

Clockwise from top left, David Buchbinder, Cara Krisman, Derek Kwan and Kaisha Lee.

The Ward Cabaret, envisioned by trumpeter and composer David Buchbinder, is a musical theatre production about Toronto’s first immigrant neighbourhood, St. John’s Ward.

From the 1840s until the Second World War, “The Ward” was a destination for newcomers to Canada, including Chinese, African Americans, Italians and Jews. Bounded by College and Queen and Yonge and University, The Ward was designated a slum by city politicians. It was bulldozed in the late 1950s to make way for a civic square.    

It was also bulldozed from the city’s collective memory. Buchbinder, as the founding artistic director of Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival, learned about it in the mid-1990s, while he was researching Kensington Market.

“I was working to create one of the parades that we did from Kensington Market down to Harbourfront (Centre) and I wanted to understand the history of Kensington, so I did that research and that led me to The Ward,” Buchbinder said. The Jews from The Ward migrated to the Kensington neighbourhood after The Ward was razed.

With the 2015 publication of the book The Ward: The Life and Loss of Toronto’s First Immigrant Neighbourhood, a collection of stories about the area and its people, Buchbinder’s interest was piqued and he saw the potential for a show about The Ward. “I thought, I’m sure this is full of amazing characters. It’s an untold story and it was Toronto’s first multicultural community,” Buchbinder said.

Toronto has been ineffective when it comes to telling its own stories, he said. “Nobody thought The Ward was important. We got the colonial hangover, where our stories didn’t matter.”

The Ward Cabaret, which Buchbinder co-created, tells the story through music and theatre. It grew out of a concert featuring the music of four of The Ward’s cultures: Chinese (Cantonese opera), African American (blues), Jewish (klezmer and cantorial) and Italian.


For Toronto’s Luminato Festival in June 2018, the show was transformed from a concert into a theatrical production. Buchbinder also brought in collaborators from each of the four core communities of The Ward – Chinese, black, Jewish and Italian.

“That is one cool thing about the show. The creative team is made up of people from the four communities, so in a way we’re recapitulating what happened in The Ward.”

The cabaret includes cantorial music written by Boris Charloff, a cantor at Goel Tzedec, Toronto’s first large synagogue, on University Avenue, just north of Queen Street. Ellen Scheinberg, one of the editors of the book about The Ward, gave Buchbinder a photocopy of a scrap of Charloff’s music she found in the Canadian Jewish Archives.

“Both the music and the Hebrew were scrawl and I managed to decipher most of it. I arranged it in the way you might hear it in a fancy shul with a choir,” he said.

One of the stories featured in the show is about Joseph Shlisky, a famous cantor who was kidnapped from his family in Poland as a child and brought to Toronto to sing in a cantors’ choir. While he was working at a sewing machine in one of The Ward’s Eaton’s factories, Lady Florence Eaton heard him sing. She was so impressed with his voice she paid for him to study at the Toronto Conservatory of Music.

“We’re in a period of a resurgence of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, Buchbinder reflected. “The show is a bit of an antidote to all that. It’s a lived experience of the way cultures can speak to each other and move toward finding commonalities.”


A new production of  The Ward opens at Harbourfront Centre on Dec. 14. For tickets, visit harbourfrontcentre.com.