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Show re-imagines the songs of Leonard Cohen

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The cast of Chelsea Hotel Mat Simpson photo
The cast of Chelsea Hotel Mat Simpson photo

Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen is part cabaret, part theatre, a show about a poet suffering from writer’s block who’s visited by five singers, some of whom are former lovers.

“The show is a re-imagining of Leonard Cohen’s music,” said Brian Goldenberg, executive director of Theatre 20, adding the writer goes on a journey through songs of love and loss.

Arriving in Toronto in February direct from Edmonton’s Citadel Theatre, Chelsea Hotel is presented by Theatre 20 and Theatre Passe Muraille. Chelsea Hotel has played to sold-out audiences across Western Canada since 2012.

The show is loosely set in the infamous Chelsea Hotel in New York, where Cohen lived for a time in the 1960s and whose guests once ranged from Mark Twain to the punk rocker Sid Vicious. The title also refers to one of Cohen’s well-known songs.

When introducing Chelsea Hotel in concert, Cohen used to tell a story about meeting a famous singer in an elevator at the Chelsea, which led to the sexual encounter he describes in the song.

A celebration of Cohen’s music, the show features 26 of his songs. The cast of six plays 17 instruments, some of which you wouldn’t expect to hear on his songs. “You may hear ukulele and cello in Suzanne; accordion, guitar and violin in Take This Waltz; accordion in Joan of Arc; banjolele in No Way to Say Goodbye and ukulele and guitar in Lover, Lover,” said Tracey Power, who developed Chelsea Hotel.

“It’s the arrangements themselves that I think bring a new sound to some of the songs.”

In Famous Blue Raincoat, the instruments and voices have been arranged to reflect raindrops. Power asked her musical arranger, Steve Charles, to create a sound for the world of the show that was circus-like at times and highly imaginative. It embraces the element of surprise and allows an audience to hear well-known songs again for the first time, Power said in an email.

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“This world would also allow audience members not as familiar with Cohen to be included and not feel like they were on the outside of a world so well known to others.”

Surprisingly, Cohen’s music was not the focus of the show in her original conception. “It started as a piece that was storytelling through purely movement and accordion music. Very much like what a silent film would look like,” Power said. “I wondered what would happen if I took the same idea, but instead of accordion music, it was the music of Leonard Cohen. I never thought of any other artist. It was the poetic nature of his lyrics that inspired imagination and creativity and through his music could be beautifully interpreted on stage.”

She added that the show’s dance element supports the songs, like backup singers or dancers in a band. “I’ve expanded on that idea and used it to express emotions, action and to keep the show flowing and moving continuously from one song to the next.”

The cast includes  Rachel Aberle, Sean Cronin, Christina Cuglietta, Benjamin Elliot, Jonathan Gould and Power, who also directs the show.


Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen previews at Theatre Passe Muraille on Feb. 3, opens on Feb. 4, and runs to Feb. 21. For tickets, click here.

A Valentine’s Day Soiree, in support of Theatre 20, whose mission is to advance the development of musical theatre in Canada, includes dinner at the Banknote Bar near King and Bathurst, the show and a post-show reception with the cast in the Theatre Passe Muraille lounge. For more information about the soiree, click here.

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