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Feb. 10, 2012

Cohen music resonates

Check into The Chelsea Hotel for a treat.

There are many words to describe award-winning Canadian icon Leonard Cohen: poet, novelist, musician, songwriter, artist. Today, at 77, with his signature fedora and gravelly voice, Cohen can still wow crowds, selling out concert halls the world over with songs that resonate for his all-ages audiences. How do you pay homage to a legend?

That is the question pondered by local thespian and Cohen admirer Tracey Power, who wrote, choreographed and, now, directs the world première of The Chelsea Hotel, a musical that runs until March 3 at the Firehall Arts Centre.

In an interview with the Jewish Independent, Power could not contain her enthusiasm. “I had workshopped a play a few years ago that used just music and movement to tell the story. I was inspired by that experience and thought what would happen if you added text to the mix. My next thought was what if you took Leonard Cohen’s lyrics and music and put them together with movement and dance to tell a story – that of a frustrated young writer who moves into a hotel room to find inspiration for his work from his life memories? I ran the idea by my musical director, Steve Charles, and he loved it. We then got the Firehall’s artistic director, Donna Spencer, on board and my idea became a reality.”

The real Chelsea Hotel, a Manhattan landmark, opened in 1884, and became a bohemian enclave to many of the world’s great writers, artists and musicians, including Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Bob Dylan, Jimmie Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Cohen, who stayed there for a two-year period.

However, Power said, “I want to make it very clear that the play is not about Cohen’s love life.” (Cohen’s song “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” is about his tryst there with Janis Joplin.) “I chose Cohen’s work because he touches on so many topics – love, loss, sex, religion and politics – but in a spiritual and introspective way.   I chose the hotel because it seemed to me that the setting of a hotel room was perfect for my script, as it speaks to a certain kind of loneliness, a suggestion of things that happen behind closed doors. Yet, at the same time, it provides the opportunity to move different characters in and out of the room to interact with the writer,” she explained. “I also liked the irony of the image of an old, rundown building with paint peeling off its walls being the inspiration for someone trying to find new meaning in his life.”

Asked how she would categorize the play, Power replied, “I see it as illusionary, a memory play. All the action takes place inside the writer’s head as he examines his life, looking back on the past and all the mistakes he made so he can move on to the present. That journey is achieved through a fusion of theatre, music and dance. I use dance to tell the story in a theatrical but surreal way.”

The cast of six includes community member Rachel Aberle (“Simply, a lot of theatre fun, Dec. 3, 2010, Jewish Independent), Lauren Bowler, Steve Charles, Benjamin Elliott, Marlene Ginader and Adrian Glynn McMorran as the Writer.

“I am so grateful that I am surrounded with such talented actors, all of whom have dance training. We use 15 instruments, ranging from a bass to a banjo to an accordion and perform 30 of Cohen’s songs.

“As this is the first time the show will be staged, I encouraged the actors during rehearsal to be as creative as possible so we could get to the depth and feeling of the piece, so it has been a very collaborative effort. To make it work, we had to vary a lot of the tempos of Cohen’s songs, which are generally kind of slow. The whole concept was a challenge, but it will be exciting to take the audience in and out of the Writer’s life against the backdrop of such memorable music. To me, the best part of the production is that everything is live and 100 percent Cohen,” she added. “There is not one word or note in the entire show that is not an original Cohen.”

The set is a “paper world,” Power explained, in which the walls and floor will be covered in paper. Even the actors’ costumes will appear to be made out of paper with writing on them – a metaphor, Power said, for the Writer’s cluttered mind.

“It will be a very different theatrical experience for the audience – a fusion of dance and music and words, and I want them to experience the joy of that mix and the journey to personal insight and fulfilment,” said Power of the production. “There may not be resolution at the end of the play but people should leave the theatre satisfied. The Firehall is a great space and its intimacy will enhance the overall effect.”

Running concurrently with the play, the theatre lobby is displaying an exhibition of Cohen’s art prints, including self-portraits and other illustrations (featured in “Beloved Bard shares his art,” Dec. 10, 2010, Jewish Independent).

Tickets to The Chelsea Hotel are $12-30 and are available by phone, 604-689-0926, or online at

Tova Kornfeld is a Vancouver freelance writer and lawyer.