Tonight I saw and heard the world premiere of Hook Up, a partnership of Tapestry Opera with Theatre Passe Muraille.
It’s a very accomplished musical, a story about relationships, sex and self-discovery. For the occasion of the premiere maybe we weren’t the right audience for the piece, an older average age than the younger crowd to whom this piece might seem to be directed. At times there were a few people laughing uproariously while others were quiet: but perhaps that’s because humour & language are sometimes coded in ways that can leave the outsider puzzled, not always picking up allusions.
I expected a louder ovation (and was surprised that there was no bow at the end by Julie Tepperman—librettist or Chris Thornborrow—composer nor by director-dramaturg Richard Greenblatt; you can read an interview about their work here) But then again, perhaps the darkness of the ending (with a glimmer of hope on the horizon) conditioned our sombre response.
Thornborrow does an admirable job scoring for piano & percussion, staying out of Tepperman’s way so that the words he asks the young cast to sing are phenomenally clear. The complexities of the story develop gradually, at times grabbing the audience more completely than anything I’ve seen in a long time. It’s powerful.
This is a through-composed musical that rarely has something one would call a song in the usual sense, even though the style is very self-consistent in the segments, often sounding like popular music, and never remotely like something you’d find on Broadway. It feels very new & original. Some of them are haunting: for instance there’s one sequence of question & answer where the accompaniment had a beautiful repeated pattern of notes against which the perplexing questions floated like thought balloons. At times the music was a perfect match. There were a couple of places later in the show when things become more reflective, and we’re given space to feel and to observe. That’s a very welcome choice.
Overall, though, I think it’s a trial for something to come, a very understated style that hasn’t yet found its ideal material. There were moments when I thought Thornborrow was going to step forward and take over. The ending? But no that wasn’t to be, as the music backed off completely. Or in the party, a sequence of about ten seconds when things were building up wonderfully…? After all Bernstein gives us that erotic dance music in West Side Story for example. But no, Thornborrow behaves like a film music composer, wonderfully self-effacing, allowing the details of the conversation to be heard distinctly. I wanted him to step forward, to make his mark, but again, given the sexual politics of this story, perhaps what I ask is problematic.
Even so there’s much to admire in the work, that ranges across multiple styles. For such a detailed complex show, with so much going on played on multiple levels around the theatre space, and with music that doesn’t sound easy, this was a very polished performance. Emily Lukasik, Jeff Lillico, Alexis Gordon, Nathan Carroll & Alicia Ault were proper champions for Thornborrow & Tepperman. Director Richard Greenblatt created something at times very physical, yet often leaving space for reflection and quiet. That’s a necessary balance in music-theatre, that Greenblatt honoured very sensitively, helped by Kelly Wolf’s intriguing set design. Jennifer Tung at the piano kept the performance together, aided by percussionist Greg Harrison.
I think the ending of Hook Up is itself a subject worthy of discussion, but I hate to be a spoiler so I’ll have to be oblique in what I say. I think the last ten minutes are fascinating theatre, ending in thematic discussion that’s a bit Shavian, drifting away from the realm of art into something didactic & political. And so be it, as I believe that’s what the creators wanted, what they aimed at all night.
Dare I say it, this might have been an occasion when Tepperman might have turned the material over to Thornborrow, to let the unspeakable be expressed in music. If in the old days we understood music to be necessary to go where words cannot go, to me that’s what the ending required, rather than debate: although in a piece so invested with questions of consent & control, and male vs female, my suggestion might be troubling. In my defense I submit that Thornborrow’s contribution at that moment is arguably a feminine rather than a male principle (recalling Caryl Flinn’s book Strains of Utopia about film music & Freud).
But perhaps I should see it again before presuming to say this definitively. New works challenge our ability to understand them. See Hook Up for yourself, and please let me know what you think.
Hook Up continues at Theatre Passe Muraille until Feb 9th .
I loved Hook Up and thought it was incredibly well done. It felt like contemporary opera to me, not like a musical, and I was genuinely puzzled by the choice to use musical theatre actors instead of operatic ones. The actors were wonderful, but did seem to struggle with the challenging vocal writing, especially the recit! I also think it would have been really something to see such a political and immediate piece being performed in an operatic style. Would love to see it remounted this way.
Interesting question! it comes back to the genre discussion, which is somewhat fraught. But imagine, you might find people who might sing it a little better (and btw while the “opera” singer might sing it more accurately, I think they would be less idiomatic), would they look the part? the cast looked perfect, totally believable. I suspect that’s a trade-off contemplated by the creators.
Now in fact truth to tell, there was only one person having difficulty with her vocal writing, and she had the biggest most challenging role. The other members of the cast were excellent. Let me compare this to what I said about Christine Goerke a few days ago, when –GASP– I’m the only person in Toronto AFAIK who said a discouraging word about her performance. I fear she’s not the singer we heard 2-3-4 years ago. She was singing Elektra, a killer role. This is no Elektra, but it is a huge long role for a young performer to undertake. So I didn’t criticize her portrayal. I had some issues with the levels (at times her piercing music-theater placement was almost hurting my ears: but HELLO that’s because she was singing correctly!). And it’s opening night. They will get better! Indeed, the same could be said for Ms Goerke, right?
There is an idiomatic thing with music-theatre that was especially evident in the singing of Alicia Ault, who totally owned her music, including some completely inimitable sounds and expressions she created. OMG she was amazing, totally adorable. No opera singer I know could do those little things that might be the music-theater equivalent to ornamentation.
Thank you for your comments!