Jason Cannon has directed dozens of shows, including the hit Mainstage production of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, at Florida Studio Theatre. But this Season marks something new for the theatre director—he worked with members of FST’s artistic team to develop the popular Cabaret, A Place in the Sun: A Tribute to Stevie Wonder.
We sat down with Jason to talk about the power of Stevie Wonder’s words, what he hopes audiences will take away from seeing the show, and what songs he wished had made the cut.
Wonder’s songbook spans six decades and multiple musical genres. What was the song selection process like? Were there any songs that were particularly hard to say goodbye to?
It was a lot of trial and error. It wasn’t difficult in the sense of having to try to find more songs, but rather in deciding what to leave out. It started to feel like we could almost make a whole other show from the songs left on the cutting room floor!
“Yester-Me, Yester-You, Yesterday” was one of my favorites that didn’t make it in, and I’m still so ticked that I couldn’t find a way to include “Overjoyed.” But also “Lately,” “Master Blaster,” and “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” argh! What that tells you is that pretty much every song in the show is a knockout, and that’s a testament to Stevie for sure.
As you started to research Stevie Wonder and his music, what really stuck out to you?
The longevity of Stevie, himself! Younger artists today still seek him out to collaborate because he gives them instant credibility. I can only imagine that, in the studio, he gives them priceless coaching and advice. He’s been cranking out music for over 60 years. He’s iconic and ubiquitous. His music is timeless. As I was digging in on the show, I realized just how many hits there were. And not just hits, but songs that are woven into our lives and cultural identity.
Did you learn anything about Stevie Wonder and yourself as an artist during the development of this show?
I knew Stevie was an activist, but I hadn’t been aware of just how powerful his advocacy had been. It was especially inspiring to see how he didn’t let fame knock him off that course, either. He walks his talk.
Was there anything that particularly surprised or challenged you during the development of this show?
How many times I thought I had cracked the code, but when we sang through the show, it was clear I had another draft to go! It’s amazing how simply reversing the order of a couple songs, or using “Song A” to button a moment instead of “Song B” can fundamentally alter the experience of the show. The other thing I had to keep reminding myself was to get the heck out of the way of the music. Richard Hopkins, one of the show’s other developers, had a great metaphor he used in a note: think of the song as the jewel, and the book as the setting. The song is the picture and the book is the frame. Keep the focus on the thing that really matters.
What is the process like to give birth to a new Cabaret?
It started with a ton of research. Reading everything. Researching everything. My Motown encyclopedia is totally dog-eared. No joke, I visited Hitsville in Detroit and got the official Motown encyclopedia.
I saw the very candy machine that Stevie would pull his Baby Ruths from. And, of course, listening and listening and listening to his music. Following along with the lyrics while listening. Basically, marinating myself in all things Stevie. Now, most of this happened during lockdown, so I actually had the time and space to do this.
Then it turned into a puzzle, putting songs in different orders, looking for themes, tying things to his life but not getting stuck following a biography or set timeline. Letting the songs be in conversation with each other.
I would get a draft together, give it over to Jim Prosser, FST’s Resident Pianist, to sing his face off, so we could hear it all in order. Then I would go back, fiddle, move things around, take that song out, put that song in. Like I said, it was a lot of trial and error.
What is your hope for this production?
First and foremost, I hope that everyone has a rollicking good time. Second, I hope that everyone leaves with a recharged appreciation for Stevie. And third, if the moment is right, that people as they listen get challenged or inspired to go make a difference, whatever that means to them. Stevie is genius at using upbeat, positive music to approach difficult ideas. Not only are his song’s hooks timeless, but he leaves you feeling hopeful. Even if the path you have to walk is difficult, Stevie reassures you that it’s all gonna be okay. His life is a prime example, and he infuses that hopefulness and love into his music.
Due to continued audience demand, A Place in the Sun: A Tribute to Stevie Wonder has been extended twice and will now play through April 9, 2023, in FST’s Goldstein Cabaret. For tickets and more information, click here.
Header Image: Joshua Pyram and Madalyn McHugh. Photo by FST.