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Leslie Arden: Composer of The Last Resort

September 11, 2013

Conventional wisdom says the words “murder mystery” and “musical” should NEVER appear in the same sentence unless the sentence concludes with the phrase “Nope, it can’t be done!” The reason for this is simple. How in the world can a plot built on suspense move steadily toward its dramatic climax if every five minutes the story is interrupted by people who burst into song and dance?

 It’s a good thing for Canadian theatre that playwright Norm Foster and his composer-collaborator Leslie Arden don’t always adhere to conventional wisdom. If they did, you and I would be talking about something else right now. We certainly would not be discussing The Last Resort, as opening night at the Globe approaches. To their credit, Foster and Arden not only attempted a “murder mystery musical,” they made it work!

Probably, that challenge alone was enough to prompt Arden to accept the invitation to form this artistic partnership, but it was also an opportunity to work with Foster, who, up to that point, was known to her merely by reputation and by a production she had seen of The Melville Boys. The two have become good friends as well as collaborators and worked together a second time, on Ned Durango, which tells the tale of a cowboy television star who rides to the rescue of a small town that has fallen on difficult economic times.

No doubt, they will write again together at some point, Foster and Arden. “He’s a really hard worker,” she says. “He’s a delight. An ideal collaborator. I like him, a lot. I’m a huge fan.”

Ironically, considering the heights she has reached and her current lofty status, Arden is not, generally speaking, a fan of musical theatre. At least, she doesn’t care for the cotton candy shows (all taste, no substance) that proliferate in the genre. “I like musicals with high stakes,” she says, “and I feel music raises the stakes.”

Born in Los Angeles, and raised in Toronto, Arden cites the immediate family as the greatest influence in determining her future. This is true of her mother, in particular, a veteran of the Charlottetown Festival in Prince Edward Island, where she performed for many seasons in a certain Canadian classic called Anne of Green Gables. “She liked to say she played every role except Gilbert,” Arden says with a laugh.

Still, when it came time to make a career choice, Arden’s family did not exactly provide an unconditional endorsement of the performing arts. Quite the opposite, in fact. And so, Arden enrolled at the University of Guelph, as a science student. It lasted all of one year. An academic advisor informed her that job prospects were actually no better in physics, “and I thought, if that’s the case, I might as well be in music,” she says. “Besides, I could always go back to the science thing, if music didn’t work out.” It’s a moot point now, of course. That was 20 years ago.

All along, Arden had been studying music privately, beginning with the woodwind instruments as a child, and adding piano at the age of 24. She also took lessons in singing, dancing, and acting, and went as far as to seek instruction in recording technology. “Anything at all that had anything at all to do with music,” she says.

Here, too, Arden was the beneficiary of some very good advice from her family. If she was going with music, that’s fine, they said, but she should approach her education with the same level of commitment and the same determination to be thorough as she would if she were in law school or medical school.

Growing up in that sort of family culture had another advantage, as well. There were no misconceptions about what a life in performing arts might entail. “I didn’t have stars in my eyes,” she says. Or regrets, either. “None. Absolutely none.”

The Last Resort runs from September 18 – October 6, 2013. Visit the Globe Theatre website for more details, cast information, and to purchase tickets.

Nick Miliokas is a freelance writer and editor based in Regina. You can reach him by email at rozenstern@rocketmail.com.

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