Yes, Toronto’s Ward was a slum; it was also a source of cultural riches, as evidenced in ‘The Ward Cabaret’

David Buchbinder has translated a compelling perspective on people starting a new life in a new land into music.

“It’s so easy to focus on the struggles,” says the trumpeter and impresario of the stories behind arrivals from faraway places in Toronto. “But there’s more here. These are a self-selected people who are go-getters. Whatever the situation, whatever they’ve suffered, they’ve said, ‘Let’s do it.’ ”

That optimistic, forward-looking perspective propels “The Ward Cabaret,” a partylike stew of words, music and movement that Buchbinder and an eclectic collection of music and theatre artists have put together.

If the show seems familiar, it’s because this is the fourth outing in an ongoing evolution. Its last time onstage was a sold-out run at Luminato 2018. Now it gets a stand-alone 10-performance run at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, starting Thursday.

And if the title rings a bell, that’s because it references the now vanished slum neighbourhood once bounded by Yonge, Queen, University and College Streets. Immortalized by “The Ward,” a 2015 book by Torontonian John Lorinc, this was the place where fresh-off-the-boat Jewish, Chinese, African and Irish immigrants settled in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The housing was terrible and cramped, but cheap. And thanks to a row of burlesque houses along Queen St., speakeasies, and countless little bars, coffee houses and restaurants, the Ward was also where Toronto the Good went to have a good time.

“People in this place crossed boundaries,” says Buchbinder. “Because everyone was so tight physically, people learned from each other and connected.”

Besides being a two-hour-long musical party, “The Ward” is a celebration of those connections. “You can experience African culture or Chinese culture or any other immigrant culture in Toronto, but it’s rare to have them all come together,” Buchbinder adds.

The show’s music and performers represent a wide cultural spectrum as we go from an Italian folk song to Peking Opera to African Gospel to Yiddish Klezmer. The cast is an energetic and talented group that includes Aviva Chernick, Cara Krisman, Derek Kwan, Kaisha Lee, Mitch Smolkin and Jeremiah Sparks.

Buchbinder’s trumpet blasts come alongside hot young clarinet player Jacob Gorzhaltsan, guitar master Michael Occhipinti, Cynthia Qin playing the zheng and multi-instrumentalist Louis Simao.

Leah Cherniak and Marjorie Chan have helped shape the musical collection into a compelling narrative.

Everything behind the show has a story, like the big musical number that started off as a scrap of paper containing a chant for use in Goel Tzedec, one of Toronto’s oldest synagogues. Or the American slave who found freedom in Canada and sang his tale to the tune of “O, Suzanna” at a Methodist conference in England.

There is more recent stuff, too. Buchbinder discovered there was a rage in the 1920s in the African community for a tune called “Mandy.” He laughs. “We looked it up and discovered it was by Irving Berlin, so we’re doing that.”

And no matter where people were from, if they put aside a little money they would buy a gramophone in those days. “And everyone who bought a gramophone in 1920 bought a Caruso record, too,” says the trumpeter. So there’s some Enrico Caruso in this cabaret, as well.

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“There’s so much riches, so much to explore. In a way, we’re just scratching the surface,” Buchbinder says. “There’s something so satisfying and so powerful in looking into the lives of these people.”

It’s also a powerful celebration of the value of diversity and immigration at a time when openness is under threat.

“The Ward Cabaret” is at Harbourfront Centre Theatre, 231 Queens Quay W., Dec. 12 to Dec. 22. Visit wardcabaret.com for information.
John Terauds

Classical music writer John Terauds is a freelance contributor for the Star, based in Toronto. He is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JohnTerauds

TORONTO STAR

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