Remaking a classic: The presenters of Onegin dare to put modern twist on an old story

The cast of Onegin. Photo: Racheal McCaig Photography

If Amiel Gladstone had been otherwise engaged a few years back, Onegin, the hip musical opening the new theatre season at the National Arts Centre next week, might never have happened.

Playwright/director Gladstone together with musician/composer Veda Hille created Onegin based on Tchaikovsky’s popular opera Eugene Onegin and on the serial poem of the same name by Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, which inspired the opera. The story, in a nutshell, involves a bored bad boy named Evgeni Onegin, lousy choices and unrequited love in 19th century Russia.

Gladstone and Hille, together with others, had already collaborated on the hit Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata, which played the NAC in 2014, and the first couple of shows by East Van Panto.

The two Vancouverites were casting about for a new project when Gladstone, who had previously assisted with a Vancouver Opera production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, suggested doing something fresh with the famous story. “Assisting with the opera, I had a lot of time just watching and thinking about it,” he says. “As I watched, I thought, ‘Oh, this story is very relevant to today, and the characters are very much like people we all know.’ And it was one that hadn’t had a new musical version yet. All those things appealed to me.”

Hille’s initial response was less than exuberant – “Part of our process together is me convincing her,” says Gladstone with a laugh – but she eventually clambered aboard.

The show premiered in 2016, but only after its co-creators had overcome challenges like reducing Tchaikovsky’s tragic opus to a manageable size. “How do you take this big story and get it down to something closer to a chamber musical?” asks Gladstone, who also directs Onegin. “(Our show is) seven actors and three musicians, so there’s doubling all over the place. There are party scenes, and sometimes I had to tell the ensemble, ‘Okay, just imagine you’re 12 people.’”

He adds that those familiar with the opera will recognize musical “Easter eggs” culled from it and sprinkled through the new show.

Putting your own spin on revered works is risky business, at least artistically. You’re messing with the Russian equivalent of Hamlet, says Gladstone. That struck him forcibly one night when he ran into some Russian businessmen at a bar and told them what he was doing. “’It will never work because you will never understand Russia the way we know Russia,’” they warned him sternly.

Cautioned but uncowed, he and Hille soldiered on. “Ultimately, the response from the Russian community has been really heartening,” he says.

The story itself is dark. There’s wealth, property and the empty swirl of social life. There’s a duel, and duels, as you know, often go badly. At the heart of the tale there’s a passionate young lady whose affections Onegin rejects, much to his subsequent chagrin.

Pushkin’s story may be almost two centuries old – it was published as a serial work between 1825 and 1832 – but its concerns resonate powerfully today according to Gladstone.

“The idea of young love and falling in love with the wrong person (is timeless) … That feeling of teenage love may be the strongest emotion we have. It’s unstoppable. There’s nothing you can do to contain that.”

That notion hit home with Gladstone and Hille, convincing them they were on the right track in updating and adapting the old story.

“It started to feel like more and more audiences wanted a love story right now,” says Gladstone. “The chaos of politics and the environment and all that – it felt like people wanted to come to the theatre and be lost in a love story and reminded of what’s important.”

Onegin plays the NAC’s Babs Asper Theatre Sept. 13-30 (previews Sept. 13&14; opening night Sept. 15). For tickets and information: NAC box office, 1-888-991-2787,

Three more theatre picks for the fall

Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion by Drew Hayden Taylor. World premiere of a sesquicentennial comedy about the medicine bundle of an Indigenous man, our first prime minister and three guys intent on payback. National Arts Centre, Oct. 3-14.

Ordinary Days, music and lyrics by Adam Gwon. Embracing change, hope and belief in human goodness isn’t easy in our troubled world. This contemporary musical says to go for it. Great Canadian Theatre Company, Oct. 31-Nov. 19.

Building the Wall by Robert Schenkkan. Year: 2019. Situation: millions of illegal immigrants rounded up in the U.S. Theme: the nature of complicity and the power of fear. The Gladstone, Nov. 29-Dec. 9.

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.