“I think you can tell that a diasporic Somali kid wrote this,” said Fatuma Adar with a laugh. She’s speaking of her musical “Dixon Road,” which is having its world premiere at the High Park Amphitheater as the season opener of Canadian Stage’s Dream in High Park 2022 season.
The show, for which Adar wrote the book, lyrics, and music, is set in the Little Mogadishu neighborhood close to Pearson airport where Adar’s parents settled after fleeing the Somali civil war in the early 1990s. The semi-autobiographical piece is about the struggles and joys of an immigrant Somali family making a new home in the GTA. This staging is co-produced by Musical Stage Company and Obsidian Theater Company, in association with Canadian Stage.
Its mix of musical traditions and styles reflects the “joyful chaos” of the Dixon Road community, said Adar. “A little R&B, a little Disney, a little hip-hop, a little Somali music … I find I don’t have one musical taste, and I think that’s very Toronto,” she said.
The musical’s breadth and eclecticism is all the more impressive when you consider that Adar, 30, does not have formal musical training. She started creating the music for the show by recording herself singing on her mobile phone.
“It’s an inherent way in which I like to tell stories that I will occasionally break into song,” she said. “It’s clearly a reflex that I have. And I’ll watch anything that’s a musical… There’s just serotonin that hits when I see somebody breaking into song. So it’s cool that I got to try my own hand at that.”
While this do-it-yourself approach has been embraced in many parts of the music industry, Adar’s experience is that the world of musicals has remained more traditional. “Outside of musical theater you don’t need to be able to read sheet music to create music,” said Adar.
“I think that’s something that’s specific to musical theatre, that you have to have music theory down lock … I hope that, if anything, people see that a show like this was created through Voice Notes and GarageBand.”
She was full of praise for Adam Sakiyama, who served as the show’s music supervisor. “When you don’t have all the technical skills required to articulate the sound of something, you really need to work with somebody who does have all of those skills. He was also really sympathetic about meeting you halfway about how you create things,” she said.
Adar made the first tentative steps toward writing songs for the show in 2017, around the time that she was accepted into the #BARS workshop in New York City, run by Daveed Diggs, a breakout star of the musical “Hamilton,” and Rafael Casal . The focus of #BARS is bringing verse and theater together, building on the success of musicals such as “Hamilton.”
She enjoyed the community created by the #BARS workshop: “We were all together trying to figure out how to use a prompt to tell a story through verse,” she said. “It was the first time I was immersed with people who are in the in-between like I was, the in-between between musical genres.”
During that time, she got an opportunity to pitch “Dixon Road” as part of an application for a commission from Musical Stage Company. She took the Greyhound bus up from New York and had some of her actor friends sing songs from her show. “It was kind of chaotic,” she said, and did not lead to a commission that year. But Musical Stage invited her to participate in the “Make me a Song” program that it runs with the Regent Park School of Music, in which composers create a song for local kids.
“That was the first time that I was paid to go and write a song,” she said. A year later, she applied again and received a commission.
In the past six months, Adar’s career has picked up significant momentum: Her one-woman musical show “She’s Not Special,” which satirizes the concept of Black excellence, was the breakout hit of the Next Stage Festival in February and had critics calling for Adar to be given her own Netflix special.
It’s an exciting time to be working as a musical theater creator, she said, following on the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” and “Hamilton,” and current Black-led shows on Broadway such as “A Strange Loop. ” It was while watching “In the Heights” — set in the predominantly Dominican Morningside Heights neighborhood in Manhattan — when Adar first realized that “you could do a musical about your block.”
“There are small, small changes happening in representation in musicals,” she said. “I’m excited to figure out what my place is in that. And this is a start.”
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