Ever wanted to literally step into a classic musical? Theatre lovers will soon have that chance with Talk Is Free Theatre‘s immersive and ambitious production of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, which will transform downtown Barrie, Ontario into the song & dance filled streets of River City, Iowa. With audiences being whisked from one city site to another to witness the whimsical tale amongst unsuspecting local residents, as well as a cast of more than 60, including barbershop quartet and full brass band, this promises to be a production to remember.
We had the pleasure of talking with Talk is Free’s Artistic Producer, Arkady Spivak, who conceived this bold staging:
One of your best known productions is Sondheim’s dark and brooding Assassins. The Music Man, by contrast, far more cheerful and wholesome. What drew you to this piece?
My job is to provide a pertinent platform to the company of artists. I actually think Assassins is easier to produce better than The Music Man. When you assemble a company of classically trained, singing actors of high caliber, you know they will put everything they have into a piece like Assassins for many reasons (great parts, rarely done, always pertinent). We have also done a number of esoteric plays and musicals – Anyone Can Whistle in Concert, Floyd Collins, Sunday in the Park with George, and more accessible but troublesome Napoleon in Concert, Darling of the Day as well as over 20 Canadian musicals from many major established writers. It’s easy to mobilize great talents to do those shows.
Someone dared me to do The Music Man. I thought it a major joke first. How would I invite total commitment from the artists I love? I tried to think of a way to do it that would add something new to what others did before us. And I fell in love with the show I barely tolerated in the past.
The Music Man is often celebrated and lampooned by contemporary pop-culture, including The Simpsons and Family Guy. In your opinion, what is it about this work that keeps it alive when so many other musicals from the same era have faded into obscurity?
Oh it is a good show, damn it. When something is as good and successful it is the first thing to be parodied. Let’s say it’s a good thing.
Tell me about the unique staging of this production. What prompted this idea?
Upon reading the libretto I wondered what the show was about. To me, it’s about transformation – personal and that of an entire community. I soon knew that the way to do that show was actually to transform the community. That, and the fact that most characters are running away from the things they are chasing, made me want to move the audience and the action. And because it celebrated a sense of community – we wanted to involve children, non professional adults and celebrity cameos into the story. All in all, it’s a 60 person show. It’s pretty much an entire city playing a city.
What have the greatest challenges related to this staging been? What have been the most positive surprises or discoveries?
The greatest challenge is the unknown factor for everyone. No two performances will be the same from an aesthetic point of view. When it gets dark, who is on the street, whether it rains (and we have all sorts of contingencies). As we are performing in a living city, some people walking through the scenes will not know they are in a show.
The biggest challenge is for the cast. Acting is volatile. Singing is even more volatile. Singing around unsuspecting pedestrians, without anything to hide behind makes it even more volatile. You can imagine what kind of brave actors this required. And the creative team have been consistently superb.
The greatest surprise is about how excited people get when they hear singing even though it totally interrupts their work or passage to wherever they need to go. Commercial musicals pay thousands for a chorus like this. We just blatantly use unsuspecting pedestrians.
The size of your cast and creative team is just as notable. Tell me about the experience of working with, and the desired effect of so many “moving parts”.
We were onsite today for the first time. We all found this liberating. No one solves more challenges better than the talented artists. They should be on every corporate board.
You referred to “unsuspecting local residents”. How do you feel the citizens of Barrie will react to this production?
Who doesn’t like to be a star?
If you had to pick a favourite number from the show, what would it be?
I like how we staged and reinterpreted Marion the Librarian especially. It’s sexy and satirical, in equal measure.
Any plans/daydreams to mount other shows in a similar manner and scale?
Here you are, attending my wedding and asking me what my next one will look like.
The Music Man opens this Wednesday, September 14th. Tickets (which are expected to be in high demand) and more info can be found on the Talk is Free website here.