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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 5 February 2008

The Magic of Houdini Dazzels at the Segal

by Kristine Berey / February 12, 2008

Next Hallowe’en will mark the 82nd year since Budapest-born Erik Weisz, better known as the great magician Harry Houdini, performed his final illusion on earth. Yet his mystique and legacy are still embedded in the popular imagination. Even today his name is familiar to many, and on the anniversary of Houdini’s death, inveterate believers traditionally conduct séances, hoping to communicate with his spirit on “the other side.”

Although mostly remembered as one of the greatest showmen of all time, whose spectacular escapes from chains, straitjackets, packing carts and coffins—with an undercurrent of violence and eroticism—thrilled millions, Houdini was a complex, driven personality.

“ He was a fascinating figure in his time,” says Ben Gonshor, author of the story and dialogue of a new musical based on Houdini’s life, opening at The Segal Centre for the Performing Arts on February 10. “He had an ego the size of America, but if he hadn’t he couldn’t have accomplished what he did.”

Although a previous musical production about Houdini graced the Segal stage eight years ago—in 2000 Bryna Wasserman directed The Great Houdini in Yiddish, winning the Montreal English Critics Circle Award—this upcoming production is completely original, with new music and lyrics by Montreal composer Elan Kunin, as well as a story with a different angle. A cast of 21 from Montreal, New York and Toronto has been assembled and includes dancers, circus performers, actors, singers and musicians.

“The previous script emphasized the relationship between Houdini, his Jewish mother and his non-Jewish wife,” Gonshor said. “We wanted to bring the play to a wider audience, and rather than just translate into English, we decided to rewrite it from scratch.”

The play doesn’t follow Houdini’s biography chronologically, but rather highlights certain moments throughout his career. “We chose three aspects of Houdini’s life; the great entertainer; his family life and his relationship to the spiritualist movement, which was popular at the time,” Gonshor said.

The spiritualist movement, with its basic belief that one can communicate with the dead, began in the second half of the 19th Century. After 1900, with so many mediums and psychics being exposed as frauds, the movement almost died out. However, after 1914, it was revived with a vengeance. “With hundreds and thousands of young men and boys dying in WWI people wanted to believe that they could communicate with their loved ones,” Gonshor explained. The play looks at Houdini’s friendship with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who, despite having invented the infallibly logical Sherlock Holmes, devoutly believed that communication with the dead was possible. Houdini, on the other hand, publicly debunked and exposed psychics who, as he saw it, took advantage of the bereaved. “He was a man of science,” Gonshor said. “Especially after the death of his mother, he wanted to believe [that other-worldly contact] was possible, but he had to have it proven to him.”

Elan Kunin wrote the music and did the orchestration to the 2000 production but chose to use completely new material in the upcoming show. “Nothing at all is the same musically,” Kunin said. “Eight years to grow is a long time. My writing’s gotten better and I’ve had a lot of time to think about certain aspects of the music of the time.”

It was the era of vaudeville, ragtime, New Orleans jazz bands and blues singers. Rather than using actual pieces from the time, Kunin says he tried to evoke the flavour of what people listened to. “It’s not a pop musical like Hairspray; I really tried to capture the era.” Kunin says the rhythms in the music reflected the rhythms of the time, which are very different today. He says audiences expect to listen to music that is both shorter and more complex than music of the past. “I took the feel of the time, the entertainment aspect, but the language and grammar of music have changed so much it’s very difficult to stay just with the music of that time. So writing Houdini involved taking some language aspects of modern music and combining them with the language most easily understood; tonal but without throwing the audience into a weightless environment.”

Kunin looked at 19th Century classical music as well. “The one composer who inspired me is Chopin. He was a pioneer in writing chromatic music,” Kunin said. “The idea of using chromaticism to amplify the difference between the normal and paranormal was interesting.”

Kunin guesses that if Mozart were alive today, he’d be doing pop music on a sophisticated level. In the past, he says, music was entertainment for all. “If the music doesn’t reach the audience I feel something is missing. If there is no connection you’re doing it for yourself, and then what’s the point? I wrote to entertain, to create familiarity, but I also satisfied myself on an artistic level in some modulations and chord choices like 7th and 9th chords, even polytonal [harmonies].

Director Bryna Wasserman feels there needs to be a bigger place in Montreal for musical theatre. “Through Yiddish Theatre, because it’s a community theatre, we managed to have a large enough cast. We produced at least one new musical every year. But there seems to be a self-consciousness in producing musicals, perhaps because it’s an American art form.”

This is the Segal’s first professional musical production, Wasserman says. “It requires a special talent to create musical theatre, which is a synthesis of all arts; music, art, dance and drama. You need a musical director, choreographer and a director with synergy between three people at the helm.”

Wasserman says that musical theatre is to theatre what poetry is to a novel. “As in poetry there is an economy of language and because of the music you get to the emotional state much faster than you do in a play where things are laid out and explained.” n

Houdini runs from February 10-March 2 at The Segal Centre for the Performing Arts. Box Office: 514-739-7944

(c) La Scena Musicale