Uncovered: Queen & Bowie puts musical director Reza Jacobs under pressure
by Drew Rowsome
Pressure pushing down on me
Pressing down on you
Reza Jacobs is under pressure. Uncovered: Queen & Bowie opens in a few days and he, the cast and the band are hard at work. Jacobs is music directing the production that "reimagines" the songs of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury. "It's a delicate balance to achieve," he says. "Having respect for the music and trying to own it."
Jacobs is well known for his stellar music direction - The Wizard of Oz, Falsettos, London Road, Assassins and Same, Same but Different to name just a few - in the theatre world and in previous Acting Up Stage Uncovereds, but does he have a latent rock n roll past? "We all have so many sides to ourselves," he says. "When working on different material it awakens different parts. It's like a relationship, alchemy. I discovered Queen first and then came to Bowie later on. Those guys could really hold the stage."
And both men are gay icons for their brave flirtations with then taboo sexuality and, while never quite being out or activists, they both did a lot to kick down firm closet doors. "I dig what both men stand for," says Jacobs. "Outside of the music itself they were both fighting to live by their own rules and just being themselves. Keenly themselves." That characteristic is what Jacobs believes leads to true stardom when, "Someone being robustly themselves is also what the people want." Though, knowing both men were canny tacticians, "I sometimes wonder if they tried to figure it out . . ."
Uncovered features some extraordinarily talented vocalists: Brent Carver, Divine Brown, Melissa O'Neil and two actors portraying the non-musical versions of Mercury and Bowie, as well as "Three back-up singers who are also soloists. I love working with them all, they're top quality. They're deep people, they know that the words matter. It's not about sounding good or pretty, it's the words dictating what you sound like, what you're trying to say. The songs as recorded are so completely and perfectly produced, so we're trying to unpack them a bit. Trying to find the narrative and tease out the stories."
The production values of the recordings we all know, present an expectation that Jacobs is well aware of. "The challenge is that there is such an electronic quality to the recordings, a glam-rock sound. And Koerner Hall is a beautiful acoustic space. The band consists of a cello, violin, bass, percussionist and me on piano. We're trying to find a balance between the fluidity and emotion of chamber music and something with a bit more punch." To that end, the percussionist has added electronic drums to his arsenal.
Uncovered: Queen & Bowie was already in the works before Bowie's untimely passing. Jacobs sighs heavily, "It didn't change our approach. He was such a powerful personality that I still feel his spirit hanging around." That is intimidating but also a guideline. "We're doing this with gratitude and respect, treating each song like a person I'm getting to know. Like a puzzle. Through doing the arrangements I understand the songs." With that Jacobs is obviously eager to get back to work. "There's a lot of things to hold on to," he says about the pressure. "It is almost painful. In a very glorious way."
Uncovered: Queen & Bowie runs Tues, Nov 1 to Thurs, Nov 3 at Koerner Hall, Telus Centre, 273 Bloor St W. actingupstage.com