Leonard Cohen was famously uninterested in dissecting his poems and songs, preferring fans to come at his work in a way that meant something to them on a personal level. That was driven home repeatedly over a career that spanned seven decades, and saw the Canadian poet revered by everyone from Elvis Costello and Lana Del Ray to Nick Cave and Kurt Cobain. To really understand Cohen’s philosophy, think about the lyrics, “Listen to the mind of God/Don’t listen to me,” found in one of his last works, “Listen To the Hummingbird”. The messaging is clear: take my art as inspiration, not as gospel.
That made Steven Charles’ approach to Cohen’s music entirely fitting when, a decade ago, he sat down to interpret the Canadian icon’s songs for the musical Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen.
“It’s a bit like something from a circus—magical, weird, all reharmonized with interesting instrumentation,” the multi-talented Vancouver music and theatre veteran says. “I was actually on tour in England with a company, and there was no internet. I was staying in this little motel, kind of like the character of The Writer in Chelsea Hotel. I wrote most of the arrangements there by myself, kind of the way Chelsea Hotel is built around this writer who’s stuck in a hotel room.”
Looking back, that moment was a blessing—one of those times when artistic inspiration arrives out of nowhere like a gift to be grabbed from the cosmos.
“It was really useful—you know how you’re kind of by yourself and doing a creative thing, and it can get a little bit weird?” Charles asks. “Like there’s no interacting with people—it’s just you. That happened. I look back now and go, ‘Whoa—what was I thinking about those reharmonizations or whatever?’ But somehow it kind of all holds together.”
First mounted at the Firehall in 2012, Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen became an instant hit, eventually making its way across Canada as a touring production. Created by director-choreographer Tracey Power with musical direction by Charles, the show is set in the fabled 12-storey New York City landmark that’s served as a base for creatives ranging from Bob Dylan and Arthur Miller to Sid Vicious and Patti Smith.
A character named The Writer—later seen amidst a mountain of crumpled paper—checks in during a low point, desperately hoping for a creative spark to turn the wreckage of his love life into song. What follows is a tribute to the power of art—its ability to heal and inspire, on both a micro and macro level. Anchoring things are the songs of Cohen, the production spanning the hits (“Hallelujah”, “Suzanne”, “First We Take Manhattan”) and the deep cuts (“The Guests”, “A Singer Must Die”, “Paper Thin Motel”).
Those who first saw Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen a decade ago can expect something a little different this time around, the success of the musical enabling the creative team to create a bigger set and go all in on the costuming. The changes don’t stop there for Charles.
“We’re kind of inhabiting this world of Leonard Cohen,” he says. “As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized you understand his poetry and his songs in new ways. So the show feels more informed and refined. It’s basically the same story, same world, same magic, but maybe, because we’re older now, it somehow means more.”
Like Cohen, Charles is someone whose work moves across different creative worlds. Vancouver music fans know him for projects that include throwback bluegrass revivalists Viper Central and forward-thinking folk fusionists the Fugitives (whose Adrian Glynn stars in Chelsea Hotel). Theatregoers have seen his work as a musical arranger and soundscape creator in productions such as One Hour Photo and Miss Shakespeare.
For Chelsea Hotel, Charles quite rightly took the approach that the world doesn’t need another straight-up rendition of “Hallelujah”. So he set out to reimagine Cohen’s songs, sometimes speeding them up or veering off-kilter in a way that’s been praised as bohemian and carnivalesque. The show’s six performers join him on 15 instruments.
He admits that, when he first began thinking about Cohen’s body of work for Chelsea Hotel, he wasn’t necessarily a fan.
“His recordings sometimes are weird and produced in weird ways—there are stories about his recording sessions where even he didn’t like the production,” Charles says. “Some of his stuff is super cheesy, and he’s got this voice that you have to get used to. Cohen was like that for me. I didn’t really know him or get him before I started working on this.”
The more he immersed himself in the Canadian legend’s world for Chelsea Hotel, though, the more he began to understand the beauty of that world: it can be anything you want it to be.
“Inhabiting his poetry and songs and manifesting them every night, it was like you kind of started to understand his thing,” Charles says. “Now I am a fan. I’ve read a bunch of his books, his biographies and stuff. Maybe it’s prolonged exposure. It’s kind of like reading a book where you don’t quite buy the narrative voice. But then at a certain moment you start to believe it. And then you’re on board.”