Immigrant Songs

Folk musician Ben Caplan on co-creating Old Stock with the hottest team in Canadian theatre.

By John Threlfall / February 25, 2019


While the names of Canadian theatrical luminaries Hannah Moscovitch and Christian Barry may be familiar from past Belfry hits like The Children’s Republic, What a Young Wife Ought to Know and The God That Comes, you’ll be forgiven if Ben Caplan doesn’t ring any bells. Unless you’re into klezmer-based folk music — in which case, he’s the star.

Caplan — currently nominated for six East Coast Music Awards — was instrumental in the creation of the new musical Old Stock: so much so that he was shortlisted in 2018 for a prestigious New York Drama Desk Award following the show’s Off-Broadway run, one of six noms the show received alongside the multimillion-dollar likes of the SpongeBob SquarePants and Mean Girls musicals. But when asked whether his music was influenced by the story or whether the story was inspired by his music, Caplan admits there’s no easy answer.    

“Christian reached out to me specifically because he was interested in my aesthetic and output as a songwriter, but when we started collaborating together . . . then the material and the process influenced the sound of my music,” he says.

Clearly, the creative pairing is working: since its 2017 Halifax debut, Old Stock has charmed audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe and Ottawa’s National Arts Centre, as well as in select cities across the UK, US, Netherlands and Australia. And while Moscovitch’s script and Barry’s direction have earned critical acclaim, it’s Caplan’s klezmer-based feature performance that has audiences on their feet.  

“Klezmer has this unresolved complexity between joy and sadness, and there’s something very reflective of the human experience in that,” he explains. “But at the end of the day, it is party music — it’s music that was created to get you off your butt and start dancing.”

Which, simply put, sounds a lot like the creative and social contradictions that fuel Old Stock itself. “As an artist, I’m interested in asking questions with my work, not providing answers,” says the Halifax-based musician. “That’s something klezmer does, but it’s also a great strength of Hannah as a playwright — exploring questions that cannot be answered easily, or well.”

Aptly subtitled as “A Refugee Love Story,” the genre-blurring Old Stock was inspired by the true story of Moscovitch’s great-grandparents, who met in 1908 when they arrived separately as Jewish Romanian immigrants in Halifax.

“It’s very much a Canadian story . . . there’s an exploration of the tension of what it means to be a society composed of immigrants, which is an important part of Canadian history, the Canadian struggle and the Canadian identity,” he explains. “It’s something we have been forced to deal with frequently, but perhaps don’t have enough of a vocabulary around. Part of the brilliance of Hannah’s writing is that you can just watch this show and read everything as literal, or tap into that other level where everything is a symbol and metaphor.”

One thing that’s literally true, however, is how thrilled Caplan is with Old Stock. “I feel like I won the artist’s lottery, where I was invited by a very well-respected and technically proficient theatre company to create a work whose creative structure would play to my strengths,” he concludes. “This is a show none of us could have made on our own: it’s very much reflective of all three of our tastes.”

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John Threlfall

John Threlfall

A longtime freelance writer and arts & culture specialist, John Threlfall has been actively covering Victoria’s theatre scene for the past 20 years. By day, he’s the communications officer for UVic’s Faculty of Fine Arts; by night, he's the co-creator and co-host of the local arts podcast, Check the Program.

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