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Music, Storytelling, and Wartime Brooklyn: Backstage with Creator of “Bohemians in Brooklyn” Tom Allen

Tom Allen is the host of Shift on CBC Radio 2, hosts concerts across Canada, plays the trombone, creates a series of shows alongside harpist Lori Gemmell called Chamber Musicals (including “Bohemians in Brooklyn”) and is the author of three non-fiction books with a fourth on the way. You could say that Allen does it all, but uniting his seemingly diverse creative ventures, he is a storyteller. Storytelling is what unites all art forms and creative fields: from music to the visual arts, performance, and film, all artistic mediums set out to convey a particular narrative. That said, all creatives could learn a thing or two from Tom Allen’s approach to telling stories, which is why we’re excited to go backstage with Allen to delve into his creative process, the inspiration behind “Bohemians in Brooklyn” coming to the BPAC stage, and advice for the aspiring storytellers reading.

“Tom Allen’s love of history and storytelling bring music alive. He has a natural understanding of the repertoire, is inspiring to work with and audiences can’t help but warm to his enthusiasm and wit” – James Judd, internationally recognized conductor

About “Bohemians in Brooklyn”

“Bohemians in Brooklyn” is unique, compelling, and has the same touch as all of Allen’s works as he skillfully combines storytelling, social history, and classical song. “Bohemians in Brooklyn” is a story about unlikely roommates — poet W.H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten and his partner the tenor Peter Pears, southern writer Carson McCullers, burlesque star turned author Gypsy Rose Lee, composer and author Paul Bowles and his wife, author Jane Bowles, composer, musicologist and writer Colin McPhee and novelist and editor George Davis — as they move into the same house in quiet, wartime Brooklyn from 1939 until the building’s demolition in 1945.

“If you google WH Auden, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers and Gypsy Rose Lee… then take a look at Leonard Bernstein and Salvador Dali, you’ll get a sense of just how much brilliance, ego, intensity and frailty was together under one roof,” says Allen.

Featuring this eclectic group, musical cabaret, social history, and juicy gossip, the show is “beautifully punctuated” as an intoxicating mix of story and song.

I love how you mix storytelling, history, and classical song. How does “Bohemians in Brooklyn” do just that?

The best music always tells a story, and the best stories always have music to them.

In Bohemians in Brooklyn the story introduces you to each of the wonderful artists as they moved into the house at 7 Middagh Street, and the music that follows is either by that artist (composer Benjamin Britten, poet WH Auden, composer Colin McPhee), or tells their emotional story (author Carson McCullers, burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee). As the show goes on, and those relationships become more and more layered and complex, the music does, too.

What did your creative process behind “Bohemians in Brooklyn” look like?

I first came across the story many years ago playing trombone in a wind orchestra that went up and down the American waterways on an enormous silver barge, playing concerts for people on the shore. Strange gig. We played from an enormous library of intense contemporary concert music that had been written for the group, and we always finished with a fireworks display, Pennsylvania Polka and The Stars and Stripes Forever. Then the folks went home happy and we moved on to the next town. Like I said – strange gig. It was kind of numbing at times, but the music that saved my sanity was Concerto for Wind Orchestra by the Canadian composer Colin McPhee – one of the last things he wrote.

It was haunting, delicious and beautiful, and I loved it so much I started investigating his life to see if I could understand where it came from.

Somewhere along the way, I came across a line in a biography that said he’d once lived in a house in Brooklyn with WH Auden, Benjamin Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee and I was like, what? After that, I knew I had to do something more with this story.

Bohemians in Brooklyn is set in wartime Brooklyn and addresses the social history of this period. What drew you to this point in history?

We tend to draw lines between communities. The usual thinking says that a house full of artists isn’t going to be able to mix with bedroom community of workaday middle-class folks.

Well, in 1940 Brooklyn wasn’t the hipster destination it is now. It wasn’t a destination at all, and the people living there would have looked about as “normal” as any people, anywhere. But, you plunk a bunch of brilliant, wayward, struggling, grasping, seething artists among them and the people in that neighbourhood turn out to be as far from “normal” as anyone could be.

Brooklyn stayed a sleepy, middle-class neighbourhood, but somehow this brownstone full of creative seekers managed to attract daily attention from all of the greatest artists coming through Manhattan and that meant that the firemen across the street, the hookers down the block, the carpenters and dock workers and bartenders and businesspeople all were suddenly swirled into a completely different social world, and, mostly, they fit right in.

I understand that you created “Bohemians in Brooklyn” with your partner, the harpist Lori Gemmell. What was it like to create this show together?

Lori is the great inspiration of my creative life. It’s funny. When we first met, I don’t think we realised how much we both loved combining music with stories. Well, I didn’t realise it, anyway.

We both come from families full of preachers, so moving back and forth between narrative and music, and experimenting with the lovely, fertile deltas between them, comes completely naturally.

Bohemians wasn’t our first story and music collaboration, but it showed us just how powerful that combination could be, and we haven’t stopped experimenting with it since!

Editor’s note: Lori Gemmell is the Principal Harpist with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony and often plays with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. She has two recordings of solo harp music, 2 duo recordings, and has also recorded with Feist.

As a seasoned storyteller, what is your advice for creatives who want to create compelling stories?

You need a beginning that starts a journey and an ending that is a reason to get there. The rest, if you can listen to what the story is trying to tell you, will take care of itself.

Tom Allen’s “Bohemians in Brooklyn” will be at The Burlington Performing Arts Centre on Sunday, November 24th, 2019.  See this compelling performance complete with storytelling, history, classical music, and popular song live: