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How Alligator Pie creator Dennis Lee found the ‘lost songs of Toronto’

Writer Dennis Lee, whose Alligator Pie will be performed by Soulpepper, is photographed in Toronto, Thurs., Oct. 11, 2012.

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Toronto has a lot going for it. One thing it doesn't have, though, is songs – songs, that is, in which the city, its inhabitants or its landmarks are front and centre in the lyrics. Yes, we've had Murray McLauchlan's Down by the Henry Moore and Spadina Bus by the Shuffle Demons. But where, 178 years after incorporation, is our London Bridge is Falling Down, our Streets of Laredo, songs with what Dennis Lee calls that "weathered, passed-down-through-generations-as-part-of-the-common-culture effect … that folky, anonymous feel?"

We don't have any, the Toronto-born Lee, 73, contends. But it's a situation that stands to be rectified this weekend. The award-winning poet, Alligator Pie creator and House of Anansi Press co-founder has spent the past several months with composers and performers, colleagues all in the Young Centre's resident artists program, working up eight Lee lyrics into Toronto-centric songs he thinks can withstand time's test. Loosely (and lightly) called "the lost songs of Toronto," the compositions are having their premiere on stage Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening in a 55-minute revue titled Dennis Lee's Toronto.

While some of the songs have decidedly old-timey-sounding titles like Rosedale Mansions, The Ghostly Grenadier and The Sun Comes Up in Scarborough, Mr. Lee is quick to stress that he and his collaborators – Mike Ross, John Millard, Patricia O'Callaghan, Waleed Abdulhamid, Suba Sankaran – had no interest in "laboriously recreating, say, a street chant from 1841." Rather, the challenge was to marry lyric with melody in such a way that "it had that feel of being around for decades but somehow also had the overlay of today's Toronto, where there are these musical traditions from all around the world that weren't here in 1820." .

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Mr. Lee is no stranger to the lyric side of song-writing – he collaborated through the eighties with Phil Balsam on material for the Fraggle Rock TV series – but easily acknowledges he has "no gift for melody" and a bad singing voice. Hence, the reliance here on established talents like Mr. Millard, Mr. Ross (who, while living in PEI 10 years ago, began, unprompted, to set Mr. Lee's poems for children to songs) and Ms. O'Callaghan, each versatile as singer, composer and musician.

Notes Mr. Ross, who has three new songs in Dennis Lee's Toronto: "Dennis has such an amazing sense of rhythm and image that it jumps out immediately what the temperature of the song wants to be, what the feel of it is." At the same time, he understands "the energy of collaboration so that no matter how much he knows how words work, he's really keen to hear what you as the music-writer have to say how something scans. He's open to the idea that something on paper might not scan as well when it comes out of somebody's mouth."

Other times Mr. Lee was adamant about his likes and dislikes. Mr. Millard, who also has three songs in the production, remembers his original melody for The Sun Comes Up was "this steamy Argentinian kind of salsa thing that [Dennis] actually just hated the very first time and so," he laughed, "he slapped me down. … He's such a craftsman and he really knows what he wants."

Note to readers: This story has been updated to incorporate the following two corrections: Patricia O'Callaghan is one of the collaborators in the project. An incorrect spelling of her last name appeared in an earlier version; the composers and performers involved in the project are colleagues in the Young Centre's resident artists program.

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James More


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