Left to right, Andrew Cohen, Sara Vickruck, David Z. Cohen and Anna Kuman are among the cast of Circle Game: Reimagining the Music of Joni Mitchell. (photo by Tyler Branston)
Andrew Cohen and Anna Kuman, a Vancouver-based husband-and-wife team who are both composers and choreographers, will debut Circle Game: Reimagining the Music of Joni Mitchell this month at the Firehall Arts Centre.
The genesis was Mitchell’s 70th birthday in 2013, Cohen told the Jewish Independent.
“There was a lot of press that caught our attention,” said Cohen. “After that, it seemed like her music started following us around, popping up everywhere. We started researching her – her music, her lyrics, her impact on Canadian art and culture. We opened that can of worms and very much found a spark of something. We decided to see if we could take her poignant and meaningful and topical lyrics and reimagine them.”
The pieces Cohen and Kuman came up with are diverse re-arrangements of Mitchell’s material.
“We sat down on the piano to dissect and distil her songs,” said Cohen. “We threw in some harmony or a different drum beat. We came up with 20 different arrangements. Some are mash-ups, some are whole but more acoustic and unplugged, some are indie rock sounding or Latin.”
“We made a conscious effort to make the songs sound as if they were released today,” explained Kuman. “It’s the music of our parents’ generation, but we realized how poignant it still is for us. The social and political issues are repeating themselves. We wanted to change the sound so people could leave their preconceptions about the music of baby boomers behind.”
Kuman points to “Fiddle and the Drum” as a song that really resonates with today’s news cycle. “In that song, the line, ‘once again, America my friend,’ resonates powerfully,” she said.
The song lyrics include the following lines: “And so once again / America my friend / And so once again / You are fighting us all / And when we ask you why / You raise your sticks and cry and we fall / Oh, my friend / How did you come / To trade the fiddle for the drum? / But we can remember / All the good things you are / And so we ask you please / Can we help you find the peace and the star?”
While working on the project, both had songs they found personally meaningful. A song that sticks out for Cohen is “A Case of You.”
“The way we do it is very unique and will be unlike anything you’ve seen or heard before,” he said.
For Kuman, it was “Down to You,” which she described as “a story song.” In the lyrics, Mitchell “really painted a picture, a specific narrative. The way that we staged it in the workshop is that movement really evokes the emotion of the song. The arrangement that Andrew came up with is totally a cappella, yet really full.”
Cohen and Kuman are both in their 20s and are “proud East Vancouverites.” Cohen grew up going to Congregation Beth Tikvah in Richmond, and his parents were longtime members of the Beth Tikvah choir. Both he and his brother were in Perry Ehrlich’s ShowStoppers.
“We grew up at the JCC,” Cohen said, referring to the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver. “Anna taught tap at the Dena Wosk School [of Performing Arts], and we both taught there for years at Gotta Song! Gotta Dance!”
Both Cohen and Kuman are members of Temple Sholom, where they were married by Rabbi Dan Moskovitz.
When Cohen and Kuman started the process of composition, they were dating and not yet married. They did a workshop together, pitched it to Capilano University and were given a three-week residency and the time and space to experiment. This is their first foray as co-directors and co-collaborators.
“We got great feedback from the musicians and did a workshop presentation and invited people in the industry that we respect and we wanted to hear what they thought,” said Cohen. “The feedback was overwhelming and amazing. We knew we definitely had something – the spirit of our generation with the words of Joni Mitchell. There was some constructive criticism that we took and incorporated, too. It was great to have the roses and the thorns of a feedback session.”
“We will be the first to tell you how lucky we feel to be able to work with this calibre of talent,” said Kuman, referring to the musicians they are working with. “They are all multi-instruments who wail like nobody’s business and will sing to break your heart. We had a fairly extensive audition across the country, a ton of incredible talent came out for the show, but we settled for this six because they have the right skills and the right mix.”
The ensemble features Rowen Kahn (Superman: Man of Steel), Scott Perrie (Godspell), Adriana Ravalli (Rock of Ages), Kimmy Choi (Avenue Q), Sara Vickruck (Love Bomb) and David Z. Cohen (Heathers: The Musical). Together, they will play 18 instruments.
“We’d both like to encourage everyone to come out and see the show, whether you’re a Joni fan or not, or whether your mom is a Joni fan or not!” said Kuman. “We think it will be a great way to bridge the generation gap. What we hope we’ve accomplished is making the hits of 30 or 40 years ago sound like the hits that you’d hear on the radio.”
Circle Game runs April 29 to May 20. For tickets and showtimes, visit firehallartscentre.ca.
Matthew Gindin is a freelance journalist, writer and lecturer. He writes regularly for the Forward and All That Is Interesting, and has been published in Religion Dispatches, Situate Magazine, Tikkun and elsewhere. He can be found on Medium and Twitter.