Jaques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was the surprise hit of the the 2010 Stratford season. Of the 4 phenomenally talented performers who held down the show, Jewelle Blackman stood out for her beautiful voice and palpable emotion, earning her a My Theatre Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress..
Read on for my full conversation with Jewelle:
You’re a singer, songwriter and violinist. How old were you when you first got into music?
I did ballet, tap and jazz starting from when I was about 5 years old then I started playing the violin when I was 8. Singing came in elementary school, teachers would say “Jewelle has a sweet sounding voice”, Then in high school I started taking part in concerts and I sang with the jazz band a few times, stuff like that. I did a little bit of musical theatre when I was in elementary school as well but I never really thought about it as a career thing, it was just something fun to do… In university I was doing A Chorus Line, I was in my third year at Queens, and somebody who used to go to the school who is currently with Talent House came and saw the show and suggested I audition for The Lion King. So their agent contacted me and got me an audition. I didn’t get it, which was fine, I was like “it was just something fun to do anyway”, but it gave me the idea that maybe I could do this for a living. So then I auditioned the following year again. And I didn’t get it, but now I wanted it. I’d seen the show and thought “this could really be something”. So I auditioned a third time and, after about 7 callbacks, got the call that I got into the show.
That was probably the best theatre experience that I’ve had. I learned a lot, grew a lot. I actually got hired as a swing so that was a little bit daunting, not only because I had to learn and cover 7 female roles, I was also understudying 3 of the leads. Lion King‘s also not all in English, parts are in Swahili, all these other languages I had to learn how to sing. So it was a crazy learning curve but it was a lot of fun. I was there for 2 and a half years.
I eventually took over the role of Nala and played that role for a year. Then after Nala I became Shenzi, the crazy hyena. And I closed the show as Shenzi. So in terms of growth you can see how much stuff I had to learn and do so it was a wicked time. I pretty much learned theatre on stage.
Me and my producer (we don’t work together anymore because we’ve both kind of moved on), we wrote them all together.
When I was little I had a little keyboard and I’d make up little ditties. And I’d always written a lot of poetry when I younger. When I was in university I got together with a couple of friends who were really into music, had all their own equipment and stuff. They were more into rap though, so they’d say “can you sing a hook on our song?” and that’s actually where it came from. After that I thought maybe I should actually work on my own stuff.
I love the violin and thought “how do I incorporate the violin and my classical training with my R and B flavour” and what I thought was cool was that a lot of artists at the time were sampling classical sounds and I thought “well, I can just play my own”. So I played the first and the second violin part and threw a little chorus on there and it really sort of just came together. But I was adamant about having some kind of classical theme song on the album.
I think one of the first ones I saw was Annie. I loved Annie, saw it in the theatre when it first came out. I actually think one of the first movies I saw when I was a child was Annie. The Wiz, which I’ve never done but would love to someday do. A Chorus Line, one of my all-time favourites. Dreamgirls, loved doing it, I didn’t know very much about the show until I did it but it’s a really, really cool musical. And there’s this one called The Life all about prostitutes and stuff, it sounds really seedy, but the music is awesome. I think those are my favourites.
That was great because I’d never been in such a big show. Lion King was big but to be in an original cast is a complete different experience. Even auditioning was a different experience. I had the opportunity to actually audition for Queen- Brian May and Roger Taylor were right there sitting in front of me at my final callback. And it was awesome because at the end of it they clapped, that’s not common in any kind of audition, it was awesome that they did that. You just get all the special treatment, I guess, when you’re in an original cast- we had the special opening party at the Sheridan Hotel. Just putting a show together from conception is a really interesting experience. They added some things, took other things away, and you see the whole thing finally come together. That was a really fun experience.
I think it would have to be when I did Nala. I wish I’d been able to enjoy it more. There was a lot of stress, me being new to the business and it being a lead role, it came with a lot of responsibility and the directors being on you all the time. So I don’t feel like I truly got to enjoy the role as much as I could have because of the added pressure that I put on myself as well. But that definitely is one of my favourite roles, and it’s a role I didn’t think I’d ever get the chance to do, so that was my favourite.
I would love to do Aida. I saw it twice when the tour came through here however many years ago that was. Love the music… I just see myself as Aida, somebody in Canada needs to do Aida. There’s that. And then Sunday in the Park with George, Bernadette Peters’ character, I forget her name, but that role, completely not my type, but it’s a show with singing and dancing, why couldn’t I do it? That’s another one, they wouldn’t typically cast someone like me but if I could do it, that would be amazing.
Nina Simone was huge. I love the fact that she’s political in her messages in her songs, you rarely hear a voice like that, it’s so low. I love a low, deep, rich female voice. In terms of singers- Lauryn Hill, I love that whole vibe, Mary J Blige, Jill Scott. Norah Jones, I think she’s great. In terms of actors I think I need to pay a bit more attention. I really like Thandi Newton, she’s relatively young and new and she’s done a lot of great stuff. When I see a great actor, like Seana McKenna, I’m like “wow”. I should pay more attention but when I see it I know it, I think wow “they’ve got a gift”.
I did it first in 2008 right after We Will Rock You. It was just an opportunity to go and do a show I’d never gotten to do: Cabaret. I’m not the strongest dancer but they were specifically looking for people who could play instruments. I could sing and act and play an instrument and dance well enough. So that got me into Stratford. I didn’t have a huge part or anything but I wanted the experience and I’m glad that I did it. After that year, just because I was an ensemble part so I wasn’t doing a lot, I wasn’t sure I wanted to go back to Stratford in that kind of capacity.
Then last year came around and auditions for Jaques Brel is Alive and Well... I had no idea what the show was at all, I heard the name and thought “what is this?”. So I tried doing some research, not exactly the easiest show to research online as well- basically a collection of songs by this Belgian troubadour. So okay, that really helps me- how do I fit into that mix? I don’t know. But the music director Rick Fox, I’ve been working with him since I did Lion King, suggested that they see me because he’d worked with me before. The note I got from my agent was “try and find a french song, two contrasting songs with one preferably in french”. So I’d had the song “Ne Me Quitte Pas” in my repertoire, had no idea it was by Brel, never really looked at the composer’s name on the side, I just knew that Nina Simone had sung it and I loved the song. So it was actually the perfect song so I went and sang it for the team and I knew I had a great audition. But you have that feeling a lot of the time, you walk out and you’re like “I did my best, yay. If they call me, great, if they don’t, oh well”. But they actually called me and said “Jewelle, you’ve been cast” and I thought “oh, I’m the swing”, don’t know why I would immediately think that, but “No, you’re woman number 2” and I asked “how many women are there?” and they were like “2”. So this is great, I was ecstatic. And when I heard who else I was going to be playing with- like Brent Carver, a Tony winner- so playing a lead at Stratford after just one year of being an ensemble member- it was like I just put it out there and it happened. So it was amazing.
You go through the initial meet and greet with the design team and everyone and they show you all the elements, how it’s all going to be put together. Stafford [Arima, the director] was very open and stuff, so initially there was a lot of talking about the songs- what we knew of it, what it invoked in us. And after we got our song list, we would each have individual time with our director, we’d talk about how we felt about the song, how it made us move. So we had a lot of input into what went up onstage. If he gave us something that didn’t feel right, we could clearly tell him that. So the first few days was a lot of exploration. He had a groundwork but it was a lot of exploration including whatever thoughts we had.
I can tell you for one thing the song order changed about 20 times. “Alone”, we had a lot of trouble finding out where that would be placed. It ended up second but Stafford originally had placed it in the middle of the first act. For the first three weeks, trying to put that together it just wasn’t working because of what the song is talking about and what song do we come out of into “Alone” what do we go into from “Alone”? So it ended up finding it’s way to being the second song in the show, which seemed to fit somehow. I’d never experienced that before, having the song structure completely change.
People singing songs was changing as well. Originally “Le Moribond” wasn’t in the show. When they first put it in it was supposed to be me and Brent singing it and then it changed to me and Nathalie [Nadon]. So those kind of things, actually putting the show together. “Brussels”, there were like 25 different versions of that number. It originally started with tambourines then we realized that it was making too much noise and you couldn’t hear the lyrics properly, so we had to cut those. I guess, in a way, the easiest part of the show to put together was the end of the second half where it was each of us with a mic. That was the easiest thing for us to put together, but all the rest of the stuff before that changed. Even “Timid Frieda” changed somewhat. We always had the umbrellas but I wasn’t originally in it, it was only Nathalie and the two men.
Each song was a completely different character trying to evoke a different feeling or a different message. We were never the same people twice, let me put it that way. We’d begin the show as different people and end it as different people.
Exactly, but it could have been “Jewelle portraying so and so in this particular song”, “Brent portraying so and so” and so on.
I was lucky, I am actually fluent. I did French Immersion so learning the french actually was not an issue for me at all. I think Mike [Nadajewski] is the only one who got away without having to sing any other language. Because Brent did the Flemish and me and Nathalie did the French.
I loved “Carousel” but “My Death” became one of my favourites as the show continued. In terms of group numbers I loved “Alone”, I thought “Alone” was awesome.
It’s cool because he’s so personable. You think celebrity, you hear someone’s won a Tony and you think “big star”. But I remember he actually introduced himself to me. We were at an As You Like It rehearsal, we started rehearsals for that first, and he came to me and he said “Jewelle, I’ve been following your work, fantastic, great to meet you, I can’t wait to work with you” and I was like “You’re Brent Carver, this is amazing”. So yeah, he’s very personable. He’s very organic as an artist, you see it going through him, the music is so visceral in his body. It was true of all of us, but especially Brent, it wasn’t like some shows where if you’re having a bad day you can sort of just fake your way through, with Brel’s music you can’t. It just kind of takes over you and you could see that especially with Brent’s performances. So that’s definitely what I learned from working with him.
That was awesome because I didn’t expect that. I didn’t really know what I was going to be doing in As You Like It. I was excited because it was my first Shakespeare but I was so hyped about Jaques Brel that it almost didn’t matter what I was doing in As You Like It, I was just happy to be there. And that all came about, it’s funny, on the second day of rehearsal they asked “who plays an instrument?”. Now, I’ve kind of become known as the girl who plays the violin, so I tried to take a different route and not put up my hand to say I played an instrument. But everybody else knew that I did, so that happened. And then Abigail, who I sang the song with, she also played, so Michael Roth, the music director said “I want to get you guys doing this song together”. And when we first heard the song, we were like “okay, it’s kind of cute”, by Justin Ellington and Michael Roth (he did some arrangements on it as well), but he was open to our input and how we wanted to play stuff. He actually wanted us to play a lot more and sing at the same time. So I’m like “Michael, it may look easy, but it’s not, so let’s pull back a little bit”. So we worked a lot on that together and it ended up being the really popular song of the show. It really was a cute song and made everyone kind of happy in that moment. So that was very exciting, I wasn’t expecting that, I was able to have a little moment in As You Like It as well, which was cool.
I think Seana McKenna is awesome. Ben Carlson is a very talented man. Tom Rooney! I think he’s very understated, I don’t know if people get the talent that that man has. And he’s also one of the nicest people that I met while I was there. Also, Brian Tree, I love Brian Tree. And Randy, who played Corin, he’s fabulous and a fabulous musician, we would talk everyday. In terms of women, I’ve said a lot of men, I think Yanna McKintosh is quite brilliant. Lucy Peacock is a very natural kind of performer. And I think Cara Ricketts has a great natural humour, great timing. Oh and Tom McCamus, Dangerous Liaisons, it was amazing to me. To see him go from doing Captain Hook to that character, I think Dangerous Liaisons was phenomenal. It’s funny because I didn’t know who he was, so it was an awesome introduction to a phenomenal talent.
I missed Two Gentlemen of Verona and I’m very sad to say I missed For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again. Everyone told me about it and by the time I went to go see it they were all sold out. It gets to a point in the season when you run out of time. Dangerous Liaisons was one of my favourites. I don’t really enjoy watching plays. It’s the musical thing in me, I get bored. But that one, I was watching it from the get go, loved it. I saw Evita twice, for me it was more about the staging, it was a really shiny production. I thought Chilina was good. It’s just not my favourite musical though.
I actually preferred the TP and I didn’t think that I would. That intimate space, at first it can freak you out because you can see the audience, when you’re looking out into the audience you’re not looking into a light or anything, you’re actually connecting to these people. So I’m glad we had such a long preview period because we’re able to adjust to that. Because I’m quite used to the big houses, playing in the Canon and the Princess of Wales, having that massive audience you can become kind of lost in the theatre in a sense, in the world that you’re trying to portray, so I don’t always know that a connection is being made.
But what’s hard about the thrust stage is angles. If you’re standing at one particular point no one can see you. I find that so strange in such a large space, but it really is true. Seeing The Tempest (we sat at the side), if an actor is two steps in the wrong direction you can’t see them. And also in terms of projecting your voice. Other places I’ve worked in, places that big, you’re mic’ed. Whereas on the festival stage, a lot of the time they try not to even have stage mics. Without that it would be really hard for some actors to be heard. Then there’s that whole thing of still appearing natural but speaking at a volume where everyone can hear you, that it still comes across natural. They have their advantages and disadvantages, both of them, but I think I prefer the TP space. I don’t think we even really needed mics in that space but it was nice to have them.
I think it would actually be the experience of doing Brel because I was pregnant the entire process. Sharing that with my little boy inside me was something I’ll never experience again, with that show. The journey… I don’t even know how to explain it. Sharing that music, sharing that artistry with someone inside of you I think is kind of… he was the Brel baby, that’s what he was called around the theatre. It was funny because he would kick at certain songs. And after I was done the show and I came home and played Brel he would kick at those particular ones. He loved “Amsterdam”, I would tell Brent “guess what, the baby kicks during your song” and he got all weepy. I remember the day I told them at Brel, I told them all onstage, Brent cried. I’ll never forget that, I was touched.
Raising my little boy. Then hopefully I’ll be back at it within a year, in Toronto, doing television, some more theatre, stuff like that. I’m trying to work on my own stuff as well. We’ll see what the future holds.
Yes, eventually, in the next couple years. More of a jazz influence, even torch song. Hearing Brel’s stuff really opened up my ears I think to music. Because even though it was written back in the day it sounds like it could be the popular music of today, in a way. They’re so relevant, those songs never lose relevance. So I will for sure.
Thanks for the nomination, that’s awesome.