When presented with a new musical based on the songs of Leonard Cohen, you’d be forgiven for thinking that someone in the show might actually be playing Leonard Cohen. That, however, was never the plan with Chelsea Hotel. While writer-director Tracey Power has been enamoured with Cohen’s songs for years, she was wary of mounting a bioplay. Instead, she looked to Cohen’s musical legacy for inspiration more than interpretation.
“What interested me were his music and lyrics, the story that comes out of them, being able to interpret those in a theatrical way,” she explains. “I haven’t added any of my own text. It’s not a jukebox musical, it’s a fusion of theatre and dance and music—it definitely lives in its own world.” Power pauses and chuckles. “Besides, I don’t think Leonard Cohen would actually like someone doing a play about him. He’s a very private man.”
Originally mounted at Vancouver’s Firehall Arts Centre back in 2012, the recently remounted and critically acclaimed Chelsea Hotel is now coming to the Island for the first time as part of the Belfry’s 40th anniversary season—doubly exciting for the Comox-raised Power, whose family will be catching the show during its October 20-November 15 Fernwood run. With its talented six-person cast changing characters as often they do instruments, Power’s Hotel is a sensual, poetic interpretation of Cohen’s work that easily surpasses the audience’s biographical expectations.
“Everyone who listens to his songs will have different interpretations of them, will bring their own experiences to the lyrics—so the story comes from the poetic world he has informed,” says Power. “Cohen’s lyrics allow that freedom . . . I want the audience to bring their own ideas and life experiences to the piece. I wanted to create a world very different from what people were expecting.”
That said, she knew any show based on Cohen’s work would have to feature at least a few of his hits—and, hallelujah, dedicated fans won’t be disappointed. “There were a few songs I knew right away I wanted to have in the piece, one of which is ‘Bird on a Wire’ . . . yet there were also a lot of songs I didn’t know well, but as soon as I heard them felt they had to be in the show,” she says, noting the lesser-known likes of “The Singer Must Die,” “Diamonds in the Mine” and “The Guest.” “Then there’s something like ‘Hallelujah’—people will be expecting it, but how do you find a way to use it dramatically and in a different way that will not only evoke emotion but also fit our world and not bring a preconceived sound?”
An entrancing mix of musical, dance, and theatrical cabaret, Chelsea Hotel offers a poetic journey for both audiences and performers that only Leonard Cohen could inspire.
Chelsea Hotel runs October 20 to November 15 at the Belfry Theatre. Tickets $26 to $52 at Belfry.bc.ca or 250-385-6815.
Words by John Threlfall
Illustration by Freyja Zazu
Published in analogue magazine’s Oct/Nov issue