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Philip Glass/Leonard Cohen’s Book Of Longing (June 1, 2007)

It’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts about this show, partly because there was so much to note about it, but also because I was partly troubled by it. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it very much, and I consider myself privileged to have been there, but…

Part of the inaugural 10-day Luminato Festival of Arts and Creativity in Toronto, this once-in-a-lifetime show featured brand new music from Philip Glass, and Leonard Cohen’s recorded voice reading poems from his most recent collection, Book Of Longing. Recorded, you say? Yes, indeed. But what could possibly go wrong? The work of two great artists, and it took place in Toronto so it must be a World Class event (the joke being that Toronto says every event in their city is World Class). Well, we’d soon find out.

Now, we consider ourselves very fortunate indeed to have been there at the World Premiere of this Glass/Cohen collaboration at the Elgin Theater. To be in the first audience to hear newly composed Glass music is an honour. And my wife & I are huge (HUGE!) fans of Leonard Cohen. We’ve always loved him – the poems, the music, the novels, everything. I’ve often said that classrooms should have his picture on the wall (where the Queen used to be), and every home should have a little shrine with a candle, a bottle of something tasty, and a copy of Stranger Music in it. When we lived in Montréal we used to walk around his neighbourhood, calling his name, hoping one day he’d be there when we were. Yes, we’re geeks. So what of it? Anyway, this was our first good chance to maybe be in the same room as our hero, given how rarely he has toured in the past couple of decades.

We stood around outside the theater before the show because they had a red carpet set up, and TV cameras there waiting for a car to arrive. We knew this might be an opportunity to see Leonard up close. But then I overheard a CITY-TV cameraman say he’d been told that things had been switched to the back entrance, and by 7:45 before an 8:00 show Leonard had not arrived out front, so we gave up and went in (right up the middle of the red carpet, of course) to find our seats. My wife did point out a guy in the lobby who looked one helluva lot like Ashley MacIsaac, but we’re not completely sure if it was him or not. Sure could’ve been, with the ripped jeans, leather jacket, bleached blonde hair and all.

Our seats were in the top balcony, almost at the back, and still these were not bad. I’d never been in the Elgin Theater and it was very ornate and lovely. The stage had a simple set-up, two pianos facing each other from about 15’ away, and behind them each of the other instruments had their own, individual raised diases. And there were  four microphones in the center, but I’ll get to the problem with those in a moment.

There were awkward moments, as there will be at any opening night performance, though most of those came from the crowd’s not knowing where to clap. Should we wait ‘til the end of the section (and when is that)? Clap after every solo? After every song? As with any large crowd (the place was packed on this night), once one person starts clapping everyone joins in. Fair enough, but there were a couple of points where we missed some of the recorded Leonard’s next bit because the crowd noise hadn’t yet subsided.

So basically, how it worked was that Philip Glass and Michael Riesman led a small collection of excellent musicians (cello, drums, violin, sax, etc) through the music from their seats at the pianos. At strategic points the recorded voice of Leonard would waft from the speakers, it’s low rumble offering us truths and laughter and sorrow like any poem of his can and always will do. The backdrop was a wall made up of frames containing artwork by Leonard blown up big, with one in the center being a screen onto which were projected varying images, self-portraits and nudes also drawn by our hero. The screen was slightly distracting, and unfortunately whoever put it together didn’t choose pieces that went well with each song. But no matter, it was what it was.

And now we reach the microphones, and my problem with them. You see, I’m actually a bit of a snob when it comes to Leonard Cohen. I think he should sing, read aloud, fart, whatever he wants to do… by himself. When he does it, it is right and all is as it was meant to be. I have never liked anyone’s covers of his songs (especially yours, Bono, you dick! Leave Leonard alone!) and I really don’t even like his back-up singers. Just let Leonard do his stuff, solo, and the world is fine. The rest of you, stay out of it!!

Anyway, The four microphones were there because the other part of this production involved these four Broadway-rejects actually singing poems from the book, to the music from the band. Oh Lord (as a concept) help me, it was awful. These people sounded like they were only here doing this because they couldn’t get into the We Will Rock You production of Queen’s music further up Yonge Street, or maybe they didn’t quite make the cut for Fame or Grease somewhere else. You know that kind of over-the-top enunciation and singing I’m talking about, the stage affectations. Ugh.

It may partly have been the songs that were composed (but I doubt it), or the way these ponces flounced their way through them (more likely), but it was disgusting from start to finish. It just didn’t match the grandeur, humour, Humanity and power of Leonard’s words at all. Remember, I think that the only person who should sing Leonard is Leonard, but this was atrocious beyond imagining. They sounded like some bad high school stage show, and they swaggered around like they believed they were great performance masters. Trust me: they really, really weren’t.

And then there was this annoying staging order wherein the person singing would walk from backstage, through the tangle of musicians, sing, and then walk off-stage again. They did this even if they only sang harmony on four lines of a song, and they did this if they were on more than once within one song! It was way too much coming and going, completely distracting. Every time they left the stage I felt like cheering, but then one or more of them would come back again. Blah.

So, Leonard didn’t have any actual real-time involvement in the production, only his voice on tape in the sound booth. But he was, after all, in the building because at the end of the performance he came out and took bows with the rest of the cast and the musicians. There he was!! He took one bow, left the stage, came back for a second bow and then he was gone. A total of maybe 30 seconds that we were in the same room and in direct eye-sight of our hero. And believe me, even that short moment from way up in the rafters was enough to wash away the rest of the problems with the show. There he was, sharply dressed in a suit, waving and smiling. And then he was gone. It was beautiful. Yes, we’re geeks. So what of it?

As the players left the stage, and the clapping subsided a bit, some woman down front yelled out (really loudly) “We love you, Leonard!” which drew more clapping and cheering. Because we do. He is a national treasure for Canadians, a living legend, and you should all immerse yourself in his works. My wife pointed out, though, that that little moment of shouting probably hurt Philip Glass a bit, given all the work and thought that he put into this production and the music, which was massive. True enough. But I also believe he should remember where he was, the history involved, and because of these things Leonard would be the star with home turf advantage.

On the way out I snagged a libretto (which they had not had out before the show, which isn’t really very helpful at all) as a souvenir. The pimple-faced usher told me they were trying to save as many of them as they could, so I only got one. What are they saving them for, Christmas? eBay? Perhaps they want to make sure they have enough for the rest of the show’s run, but you’d think they’d make enough to cover that. Anyway, I got one and it’s a neat little momento.

In sum, I am totally glad we went to this show, no matter what I might have said and thought about parts of it. It was a rare opportunity, completely unique and not likely to ever happen again in my lifetime. I sure would have done things differently if I’d been artistic director, but putting aside my gripes I still wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

We love you, Leonard!

Poem Listing:
Prologue – I Can’t Make The Hills
I Came Down From The Mountain
A Sip Of Wine
Want To Fly
The Light Came Through The Window
Puppet Time
G-d Opened My Eyes
You Go Your Way
I Was Doing Something
Not A Jew
How Much I Love You
I Enjoyed The Laughter
This Morning I Woke Up Again
I Want To Love You Now
Don’t Have The Proof
The Night Of Santiago (after the poem by Lorca)
Mother Mother
You Came To Me This Morning (for Sandy 1945-1998)
I Am Now Able
Roshi’s Very Tired
Epilogue – Merely A Prayer

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