It is often noted that Jews wrote a good number of Christmas songs. Well, the same can be said of 1960s protest songs.
Avery Saltzman, co-artistic director of Toronto’s Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company (HGJTC), recognizes this in a revue, The Times They Are A Changin’, written by W. Joseph Matheson and playing at the Segal Centre from March 1-22.
Whereas the composers of holiday ditties were children of immigrants and eager to assimilate into their adoptive society, the protest songs of the next generation were born out of a sense of social awareness. Jewish poets urgently felt the need to speak up after the helplessness imposed by the Holocaust and from a desire to steer the future into positive pathways.
“The ‘Irving Berlins’ grew up at the turn of the century and a lot of them came from religious overtones of music, but the ‘60s poets were a whole different coming of age,” says Saltzman, who directs the revue.
“We celebrate their music with songs by Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Laura Nyro, Mama Cass, Carole King, and Simon and Garfunkel, to name a few. There are 28 to 30 songs, linked by storytelling that covers some of the history and feeds into the era. It’s not dialogue, but the narrative is there to highlight the goings-on in the ‘60s.”
Playwright Matheson is half the cast. The other half is his wife, Tony Award nominee and Montreal favourite Louise Pitre, revered after her star turn as Edith Piaf in the Segal’s 2018 musical The Angel and the Sparrow.
“As a married couple, they have a great chemistry together onstage, and when the show ran at HGJTC in 2017, we were sold out pretty much every night,” says Saltzman. The director will be in town for two weeks priming the remount before returning to Toronto to start rehearsals for his theatre’s next show, The Great Divide by Alix Sobler, about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
Saltzman says he feels strongly that The Times They Are A Changin’ is more than a nostalgia piece.
“It’s still relevant today because nothing has really changed in politics, in bigotry and in the sense of fear. We are still fighting the same battles,” he says.
But the song list also includes upbeat numbers like Issachar Miron’s “Tzena, Tzena, Tzena,” popularized by Pete Seeger and the Weavers, which emphasizes the necessity for optimism as we push forward.
“ ‘Tzena’ is actually a song that was written early on, but it had a resurgence,” says Saltzman, who has the show also pay tribute to the non-Jewish Seeger’s peace and freedom compositions, with the likes of “If I Had a Hammer” and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Other favourites in the show are “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” “The Sound of Silence,” “Save the Country” and “Forever Young.”
The show’s set is simply stools, chairs and a piano with film clips and images of the era projected behind. “It’s a beautiful video element that helps reflect the time frame. It doesn’t overwhelm. It’s just there to enhance,” says Saltzman.
A five-member Montreal band, under musical director Nick Burgess, backs Pitre and Matheson.
“I’m there to shape the show and help move it along, but I don’t get in the way of Louise and Joe doing their thing,” says Saltzman. “I had a career as an actor for 30 years, so I know what actors go through,” adds the native Torontonian, who was a musical theatre star on Broadway, off-Broadway and in London’s West End in shows such as Man of La Mancha, Guys and Dolls and Damn Yankees.
“I’ve been directing for 14 years now, so it’s a nice segue into the later parts of my life. I haven’t ever directed in Montreal before and I’m looking forward to exploring the city.”
Tickets for The Times They Are A Changin’ can be purchased at 514-739-7944.