Friday 23 March 2018

Chelsea Hotel rhymes off favourite Leonard Cohen charts
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights Since first performed in 2012, Chelsea Hotel that champions the muse of Leonard Cohen has packed houses to the rafters in 250+ performances locally and across Canada. Conceived and directed by Tracey Power, the current iteration of this show will, sadly, be its final resurrection. 

Loosely, the story-line involves songwriter Cohen stumbling over writer's block. He comes to New York's iconic Chelsea Hotel seeking through memory to be provoked into epiphany : surely another song is in there somewhere. By conjuring memories of The Mighty Three -- Suzanne, Marianne and the one he "didn't trouble with", Jane -- he is forced to confront what the woman in his life now, for real, means to him. Symbolically, if awkwardly, she is given no name.

Through re-jigged musical arrangements by Steve Charles of some two dozen songs -- involving 17 instruments, solos, duets, choruses, a capella numbers -- the somewhat contrived storyline is an improvement over the original, no question, more dramatic arc now. But no script however it's manipulated or finessed can ever outperform the lyrical tunesmith genius that Is. Just. Plain. Remarkable Leonard to his fans (a "dreary drone" to his dour detractors).

Everyone but the Cohen manque himself joins in one of Chelsea Hotel's choruses, "Everybody knows!", led by the show's musical arranger Steve Charles on guitar with the giddy Ben Elliott artfully & athletically blowing the pipes out of the accordion behind.
Photo credit : Emily Cooper

How it's all put together :  As noted previously by BLR, melancholy, loss, romantic dread and love's wreckage are never far from the tip of Cohen's quill & inkwell. There's also the metaphoric mirror Cohen holds up to look both at and into himself. "I am the one who loves / Changing from nothing to one," is a perfect example from "You know who I am". It is the show's leitmotif. The cast's three men and three women twizzle about doing flicks and scrambles through Cohen's songs -- a line here and there, a stanza, once in awhile a whole number. Often returning to just a single line commingled with another line or two from a similar song.

"If you want another kind of lover / I'll wear a mask for you" : the show's women Kayla Nickel, Marlene Ginader and Krystle Dos Santos mock Cohen with 20's cabaret whiteface & Freudian cigar kazoos.
Photo credit : Emily Cooper

Cohen in "Chelsea Hotel #2" recalls a night of sharp drugs and limp sex with Janis Joplin there in the late 60's : "You told me again you preferred handsome men / but for me you would make an exception." His irony and ache are the stuff central to Cohen's every chart. He asks his muse Ben Elliott : "How can I begin anything with all of yesterday in me?" 

Shortly he and Suzanne (Krystle Dos Santos) meander "down to a place by the river" accompanied sweetly, brilliantly by banjo (Steve Charles) and cello (Kayla Nickel). He's all about "love, love, love / come back to me" while Marlene's character with the curlicue papers in her hair would be happy with him in the here and now.

"Like a drunk in a midnight choir / I have tried in my say to be free" Adrian Glynn McMorran sings with pain and regret and just a hint of humble pride to Marlene Ginader who wins his love -- for awhile.
Photo credit : Emily Cooper
Production values that shine through :  Writer Tracey Power and musical arranger Steve Charles have re-worked the script and added more punch both musically and dramatically. Once more the Marshall McMahen set with its paper-thin walls and mountains of crumpled-up rejected white composition pages provide visual impact. All this contrasts nicely with the red notepaper messages on which Cohen writes sweet nothings to his current love -- whom in reality he can't seem to get less of fast enough. Still he is redeemed by realizing his antics amount to the epigraph "That's no way to say good-bye".

Barbara Clayden's costumes are noteworthy x3 : muse Ben Elliott's harlequin-esque white tails atop Converse hi-tops; the cocktail waitress cum burlesque outfits of the old girlfriends; and the dowdy nearly sexless get-up for his current companion straight off the set of Les Miserables.

But mostly it is Mr. Charles' dynamic musical stitchery that binds the ever-compelling Cohen lyrics together : the 17 instruments and the myriad stylings from country ballad to rockabilly to cacophonous rock to some latter-day Dylanish riffs to the prayerful lamentation blending "Bird On a Wire" with "Hallelujah" at the end.

Acting pin-spots :  Top honours drop squarely between Ben Elliott as the writer's muse and genie and conscience and the superb vocal power brought to this production by newbie Adrian Glynn McMorran. Elliott's March Madness height emphasizes his character's wizardry and impishness that he excels at portraying. McMorran's voice is rich & resonant & subtle, the best yet for this role. 

But not to detract one iota from the others. Ms. Nickel's soprano opposite Ms. Dos Santos's mezzo were a treat all night. And Ms. Ginader once again attracts every viewer's sympathy for trying to catch-&-keep the "beautiful loser" Lenny could at times be to the women whose hearts he melted.

Who gonna like : As Coach Jimmy V. famously said : "When you consider it, any day you can think and laugh and cry has been a very good day." Such it is with Chelsea Hotel. It will make you do all three and just that much more in part due to Leonard's passing a year back.

This is creative theatre that is bold and impudent and cheeky but that captures deliciously the essence of Leonard Cohen as man, as loner, as lover, as poet, as seeker. The musical smorgasbord and the chops of the performers who deliver it are a wonderful tribute to his memory. If at times they may be musically an 1/8th-note sharp or not quite altogether in-sync rhythmically or harmonically, mere quibble.

No matter in the least. The couple in front of me said this was the 3rd or 4th time they'd seen the show since its mount in 2012. Through my tears I said in response "Lenny does it to me every time." 

And the Power \ Charles collaboration is just the kind of live theatre excitement that would compel me to go again-&-again to celebrate and immerse myself in a poet-songster whose stuff is so much more than his studio recording compromises. The man had heart, soul, guts, poetry, love, lust, imagination, magic. What possible reason not to go and be swallowed up by all that?

Particulars : Chelsea Hotel : The Songs of Leonard Cohen at the Firehall Arts Centre theatre, 280 East Cordova Street (corner of Gore), until April 21, 2018.  Box Office 604.689.0926.  Tickets & schedule information @ Firehall.  Run-time 120 minutes, including intermission.

Production Team :   Creator / Director / Choreographer Tracey Power.  Musical Director and Arranger Steven Charles.  Firehall Arts Centre Artistic Director / Producer Donna Spencer.  Designer Marshall McMahen.  Costume Designer Barbara Clayden. Lighting Designer Ted Roberts.  Sound Designer Xavier Berbudeau.  Stage Manager Emma Hammond.  Apprentice Stage Manager Tanya Schwaerzle.

Featured Actors :  Steven Charles.  Kristine Dos Santos.  Ben Elliott.  Marlene Ginader.  Adrian Glynn McMorran.  Kayla Nickel.


The Vancouver connection in the Janis / Cohen story

The dubious get-on between Janis Joplin and Leonard Cohen occurred shortly after Janis's final Big Brother and the Holding Company concert here in Vancouver at the Coliseum in October, '68. The band formally dissolved at midnight. Warm-up for them that night was a newbie group called Chicago Transit Authority. Their big-band instrumentals, reminiscent of David Clayton Thomas's Blood, Sweat & Tears, excited the crowd. Soon CTA would become, simply, Chicago, after the actual bus & elevated train company CTA sued them over name copywright. Personally I enjoyed the band CTA much more than I did Big Brother : Janis was uber-pissy on a quart of Southern Comfort bourbon, a x3 or x4 margin above her normal altitude and cruising speed. I can still hear the words "Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz" : they sounded mushy, sort of like "Lorne, wonja buy me a moozhiging frien'?". It wouldn't be long before 27-year-old Janis's last gig was a heroin needle stick in Room 105 of the Landmark Hotel in L.A. -- pictured below -- the most notorious landmark it ever "enjoyed" before it changed its name to Highland Gardens.

Backdrop to the show's title

The Chelsea Hotel in NYC has been a famous and favourite drop-in home for artists of all sorts ever since it opened back in 1885 and was, for one brief shining moment, NYC's tallest building. Joni Mitchell's chipper & cheery "Chelsea Morning" gave the place rock star status, though its fame had earlier been marked, darkly, when poet Dylan Thomas died there on a grey November day in 1953 after bragging about the 17 or 18 or 19 whiskies he'd just finished polishing off at his favourite watering hole the White Horse Tavern up the street. Wikipedia cautiously? euphemistically? lists pneumonia as his causus demiso.

The 250-room 12-storey Victorian gothic with iron brocade balconies gained further notoriety when punk rocker Sid Vicious of the Sex Pistols allegedly stabbed his girlfriend Nancy Spungen to death there in 1978. (Out on bail, Vicious himself would die in Greenwich Village of a heroin overdose just five months later. The investigation into the murder in Room 100 at The Chelsea was promptly abandoned by NYPD and never proven or solved.)

Cohen stayed at The Chelsea in the late 60's along with Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, among others, when Cohen was chasing them around The Big Smoke to absorb their genius. This was around the time the Canadian National Film Board championed the emerging Montreal persona. His metier was poetry in those days that he shared both in books and in coffee house gigs. The NFB put out a 16mm black-&-white bio-pic I used to show my senior high English students, Ladies and Gentlemen : Introducing Mr. Leonard Cohen. Clever and amusing, the flick includes Cohen bathing in a clawfoot tub at a seedy Montreal hotel while he smirks at the lens and writes the words caveat emptor on the bathroom wall as a kind of warning to viewers about all this precious fooferaw over him. But music was bursting in Cohen's breast, too, not just poetry, and NYC was where those times were a-happenin' and a-changin'. 

Best description of the hotel from Cohen's time there came from someone named Nicola L. in a 2013 Vanity Fair article by Nathaniel Rich entitled "Where The Walls Still Talk". Quoth she : "Anything could happen... It was either Janis Joplin or the big woman from the Mamas and Papas who tried to kiss me in the elevator. I can't remember which. It was a crazy time." 

"Hallelujah" out-take : 

Cohen's iconic 1984 spellbinder "Hallelujah" reportedly had some 80 (!) original verses to it. After years of slashing and re-writing, Cohen managed to bring it down to just seven. Its final two verses perhaps say all Cohen himself might, ultimately, want to conclude about his life as a writer and performer:

"There's a blaze of light in every word / It doesn't matter which you heard / The holy or the broken Hallelujah.../ I did my best...I've told the truth...And even though it all went wrong / I'll stand before The Lord of Song / With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah."

k.d. lang's performance at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver is probably unmatchable among some 300 other covers of the song that media journals report as having been recorded, one of the more recent by Rufus Wainwright in his best-hits album "Vibrate" from lastyear.  

From Rolling Stone magazine  [re-printed verbatim sans permission]

By Daniel Kreps
August 7, 2016

Leonard Cohen penned an emotional final letter to Marianne Ihlen, the woman who inspired his "So Long, Marianne" and "Bird on the Wire," just days before her July 29th death, Ihlen's friend Jan Christian Mollestad revealed to the CBC

According to Mollestad, after he informed Cohen of Ihlen's looming death from leukemia, the legendary singer-songwriter-poet responded two hours later with a "beautiful" letter, which Mollestad then read to Ihlen.

"It said, 'Well Marianne it's come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine," Mollestad told the CBC of Cohen's letter.

"'And you know that I've always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don't need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.'"

Two days later, Ihlen "lost consciousness and slipped into death," Mollestad said. Her funeral was held Friday in her native Oslo, Norway.

Cohen met Ihlen in the Sixties while vacationing on the Greek Island in Hydra; he ultimately invited her and her infant son to live with him in Montreal. Ihlen and Cohen remained together for the next seven years, with their relationship serving as Cohen's inspiration for Songs of Leonard Cohen's "So Long, Marianne" and "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye" and Songs From a Room's "Bird on the Wire."

Cohen's verified Facebook page also remembered Ihlen with a series of written tributes from her friends and Cohen biographers as well as a letter Mollestad wrote to Cohen informing the singer of Ihlen's death.

"Your letter came when she still could talk and laugh in full consciousness. When we read it aloud, she smiled as only Marianne can. She lifted her hand, when you said you were right behind, close enough to reach her. It gave her deep peace of mind that you knew her condition. And your blessing for the journey gave her extra strength," Mollestad wrote.

"In her last hour I held her hand and hummed 'Bird on a Wire,' while she was breathing so lightly. And when we left he room, after her soul had flown out of the window for new adventures, we kissed her head and whispered your everlasting words: So long, Marianne.

My personal favourite

Of all the Cohen I have heard & read, here remains my personal favourite, Poem #339, The Music Crept By Us from his 1964 anthology Flowers for Hitler.

The Music Crept By Us
by Leonard Cohen

I would like to remind
the management
that the drinks are watered
and the hat-check girl
has syphilis
and the band is composed
of former SS monsters
However since it is
New Year's Eve
and I have lip cancer
I will place my
paper hat on my

concussion and dance


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