When it comes to the performing arts, Cynthia Dale would be considered Canadian royalty. Over her long and distinguished career, (she was five when she first appeared on stage), Dale has established herself as an actor, singer and dancer for stage, screen and television. It seems that there is nothing the lady cannot do. In truth, Dale is a veritable Canadian icon and living legend.
Her latest venture is her brand-new one-woman show, Take the Moment, which opens tonight at the Winter Garden Theater for a three-day run. To say that the show is widely anticipated is an understatement.
The candid interview with Dale took place over Zoom, where she didn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics. As hard as it is to believe, the star is 61 years old, and has hit the brick wall of ageism.
How did Take the Moment come about?
I was sitting in our house in Scotland, thinking that I had the rest of my life off, when Ray Hogg, the artistic director of the Musical Stage Company, contacted me about doing a one-woman show. I knew Ray because we had worked together at Stratford. His idea was to make it about the big moments in my life that involved major shifts. He stressed he wanted it to be raw, and not a concert with me in a ballgown, going down memory lane between songs.
What was your reaction?
It took me days to make a decision. I kept asking myself, can I do this? Can I hold the stage?
I’m a hunter-gatherer, and I collect things on the beach. On one walk, I saw a metal arrow on the sand that was pointing to the sea, and that was my sign. That was my arrow. I had stood under the Milky Way in Scotland, and asked the universe, what’s next in my life? And you can’t say no to the universe. You have to step up. Still, I kept giving Ray chances to back out.
What did your friends and family think?
They were shocked. You’re really doing it, they asked? And then there were comments like, I had had my time, implying my performing days were over. Nonetheless, I had the cojones to go forward, even if it costs more to be brave when you’re older.
How did you build the material from scratch?
I started in November, 2021. I had written stories before and I kept digging things out of my memories, writing them down. The process was reading through those many stories and winnowing them out. I also decided that I just wanted to sing Sondheim. The songs of Stephen Sondheim are about life, and I knew I could find songs in his canon that would fit my stories.
Sondheim seems to have a special place for singers.
In my 20s and 30s, I realize I didn’t really understand him. Now that I’m older, I understand him better. As a songwriter, he gives you so much and requires so much. I’m crying a lot in rehearsals. You have to understand the white part of the page, not just the black notes. He’s never shallow or casual, so you have to be prepared. Every singer has their own personal reaction to his music.
How did you choose the Sondheim repertoire for the show?
Director Richard Ouzounian, music director David Terriault, and I, all had songs on our lists, and we listened to lots of music. I had sung a lot of them before, but some were virtually unknown to me. We don’t necessarily do whole songs. Sometimes it’s just the relevant bits. We also blend some together. We are literally taking the songs out of the shows and creating new contexts for them, and it’s working perfectly.
Where does the title Take the Moment come from?
It was Richard’s suggestion. It’s the Act One finale from the musical Do I Hear a Waltz? that Sondheim wrote with Richard Rodgers. It’s perfect because it describes what I’m doing in the show – taking the moment. It also talks about all the noises buzzing in your head, which describes me.
Your musical accompaniment is different for Take the Moment. For example, you don’t have the usual small stage band.
Piano, bass and drums didn’t feel right. Instead, I have two grand pianos.
Most people would say that your role as Olivia on the long-running TV series Street Legaland your many hit performances at the Stratford Festival, were instrumental in making your career.
That’s probably true, but I don’t talk about them in Take the Moment. There are also Sondheim love songs, but I don’t mention any names. None of the obvious is there.
I have to say I’m shocked about no mention of Stratford and Street Legal. What exactly is in the show? It’s supposed to be about big moments in your life?
And they’re there. Tectonic plates did shift. Living with an overbearing mother. My mother dying. Scattering my father’s ashes. Getting old in the business. I also didn’t want to personalize stories about love. Rather, I wanted to include love stories that people could relate to – like being kissed for the first time at 14. I didn’t want to create a show that was gossipy or smutty. I didn’t want it to be an ego trip. The mandate was to connect to other people. It is a very personal show, and yet it is not.
So how would you describe Take the Moment?
It’s an intimate evening of stories and song, and not a retrospective. It’s something that gets to the marrow rather than being a list of my credits. It’s not a concert and it’s not a cabaret. It’s rawer and funnier than the usual one-woman shows.
What has been your biggest challenge?
I’m not playing a character so I don’t have that to hide behind. There are no dancing boys to back me up. It’s just me, and you wonder, can I hold the stage?
If you’re not wearing a ballgown, what are you wearing?
A little black dress. I have to feel comfortable because I’m performing. I’m not just standing around.
You mentioned getting older as being one of the tectonic plates.
I do talk about getting older and feeling older in the showbiz world. Getting rejected is hard, but it’s part of life to be told you’re done. My attitude is, okay, I’ll do other things. I love to paint and I’ve even sold some of my art. If I can’t be a performer, it’s not the be all and end all. After Take the Moment closes, I’ll have the rest of my life before me again. All I know is that I’ll be singing and dancing forever. I just don’t know where.
Now that you’ve created the show, how does it feel?
I would never have thought of the idea if Ray hadn’t asked me, but it has turned out to be the greatest gift, because I realize that I now want to do things that are more meaningful. It would also have been a different pre-pandemic show. I wouldn’t have gone so deep, but the last two years have shown that the world is hard. Before creating the show, I was too sad to sing, but I’m a different person now than I was two years ago. I hope people think that the show is beautiful.
How did Richard Ouzounian get involved in the show?
I’ve known Richard since I was a teenager and he hired me for a show at the Young People’s Theater. He also reviewed me when he was a theater critic. He knows me really well, so I knew he wouldn’t let me fall back on tricks. I’m a rehearsaholic. I don’t leave things to chance. I don’t riff. Richard would let me know what I can or can’t do. He also has skills as a director and producer, so I suggested that we do this together. Also, Richard knows theater music.
In conversation with Richard Ouzounian
Richard Ouzounian, the director of Take the Moment, was reached by phone in Boston.
I understand that you first met Cynthia when you hired her for a show at YPT.
It was 1980, and the show was called Everything But Anchovies.
How do you interpret Ray Hogg’s instructions to Cynthia about the show?
He didn’t want it to be some enchanted evening in a ballgown. He wanted it to be about lifechanging moments. In other words, it’s not a parade of anecdotes and hit songs.
Tell me about Cynthia’s stories that make up the script.
She had written stories about important moments in her life, mostly centring around her parents, but I want to make something very clear. Cynthia wrote every word of the show herself, and she has done a brilliant job.
What’s the structure like?
It’s not chronological. The stories come from different places, but the totality is Cynthia looking at key moments in her life. She was inspired by the pandemic to look at life deeply. There are no showbiz stories, no Stratford, no Street Legalno Tamara. She has included things that the audience can identify with, like her mother having dementia, or a love affair ending badly. Take the Moment is radically different from what you’d expect, and a real stretch for Cynthia. Scenically, it’s a bare stage, one stool and two grand pianos,
What about the music?
We decided early on that it wasn’t going to be song / story / song / story, and Sondheim’s name kept coming up. Then we decided to go with only Sondheim. The show is stylistically different from other one-person musical shows. No piano, bass and drums. Just two grand pianos.
Cynthia would read me one of the stories she’d written, and we’d talk about the song, if any, that should go with it. Sometimes there is no music. Sometimes it’s just instrumental. Other times, we have a mashup where we’ve married songs together. Entire songs get sung as well. That’s why we don’t list the actual songs in the program. We just list the shows that the songs come from. People who know their Sondheim will recognize the Easter eggs. There are ten complete songs and 15 fragments.
Our amazing music director, David Terriault, arranged everything for two pianos. People are going to be surprised by the placement of the music. A lot will be saying, they’re singing that there?
You didn’t workshop the show.
No, but we invited a few friendly people to rehearsals, and everyone said it wasn’t what they expected, but they loved it. The best was when Ray Hogg told us it was exactly what he wanted.
You’ve directed so many shows. What did you like about this one?
I loved the chance to dig deep. Usually, you have a short rehearsal period so your concern is to just get the show up and running. For Take the Moment, we had the luxury of working on the fine details. It was a purely creative experience.
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