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The Magical Mystique of Chelsea Hotel

Like Leonard Cohen’s music, what this celebrated theatrical music production means is up to you. 

by Yasmine Shemesh

Photos by David Cooper

The story goes that Leonard Cohen wrote “Bird on the Wire” in the 1960s while he was living on Hydra, an island in Greece. Telephone poles were being installed on the street outside and Cohen noticed birds perched on the wires. It moved him. His girlfriend, Marianne Ihlen, handed him a guitar and he began composing the song.

Like that scene did for Cohen, “Bird on the Wire” is what inspired the idea for Tracey Power’s stage production, Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen—a celebration and interpretation of Cohen’s life and work told through the story of a writer, haunted by his past relationships, checking  into the notorious New York hotel to try to find the words for his next song. 

“I think it always starts with the lyrics for me, with Cohen, and interpreting what he’s saying and what he means,” Power tells RANGE. Cohen’s language is famously cryptic—left open-ended for listeners to decipher the meaning for themselves. The song led Power to consider that point in life where we begin to question who we are and what we’ve done, and attempt to come to terms with the choices we’ve made. 

Chelsea Hotel, which runs at the Firehall Arts Centre from February 3 to March 3, is structured like that, too. While there is indeed a story running through its poetic combination of dance, theatre, and Cohen’s music, what it offers is up to the receiver. In this way, the production honours the spirit of Cohen’s body of work. 

Adrian Glynn and Marlene Ginader star in the Chelsea Hotel.

“What I love about Cohen is his words can mean something different to everybody, depending on where they are in their life,” says Power, who directs and choreographs. “And I think the show does that same thing. Depending on your life experience, the show touches people in different ways.”  

Since it first premiered in 2012, Chelsea Hotel has revealed new meaning to Power and her collaborators, which include musical director Steve Charles. .  

“We’ve grown up together as artists and have seen each other go through different things in life,” Power says. “So, I think we bring a lot of our personal lives to this show. It’s hard not to when you’re doing a show about relationships. But also, over the years, because there’s been new artists that have come and gone, it makes us explore new things each time. And yes, we hold on to the things we love, but we’re also not precious in that we have to keep everything… It breathes new life into it. And I think it means more to us even now than it did then.”  

Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen runs at the Firehall Arts Centre from February 3 to March 3 | TICKETS & INFO