Montreal musical celebrates smoked meat

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Renowned delicatessen Schwartz’s gets the star treatment

Adam Avrashi
CUP Arts Bureau Chief

MONTREAL (CUP) — “Smoked meat: Can you write a play about it?”

That’s what everyone in Montreal has been asking themselves for the past week while scratching their heads in awe. It also happens to be the opening remarks in Schwartz’s: The Musical.

Schwartz’s is one of the most famous eateries in Montreal, world renowned for its smoked meat sandwiches. Smoked meat is one of the city’s gluttonous staples – along with poutine – but this past week it was brought to a whole new level of reverence as the sandwich made its way to centre stage.

“A lot of people were skeptical at first, “said Holly Gauthier-Frankel, one of actresses in the show. “People don’t know what to make of it, but it’s one of those things you have to see to really get.”

Schwartz’s has been a local hotspot since it opened in 1928. The Hebrew delicatessen is known for serving smoked meat on rye with a bit of mustard, and a pickle and coleslaw on the side. The no-frills restaurant is always crammed full, so much so that patrons are usually seated at tables with complete strangers. It’s that hard to get a table.

With such a rich history, and enough kooky customers to draw inspiration, no wonder the delicatessen was chosen as the subject for a full-fledged musical, reportedly costing nearly a quarter of a million dollars to produce.

The musical is loosely based on a series of short stories written by local newspaper columnist Bill Brownstein, who had been frequenting the delicatessen since the age of five.

The short stories were then adapted by musical-comedy duo Bowser and Blue, who wrote 18 original songs, mostly dealing with smoked meat, Montreal living and the city’s everlasting competition with Toronto. For instance, there is a cheerful Act 2 number called “Like Smoke Meat and Rye” as well as a comparison song, “What’s Toronto Got?”

The plot of the show is as simple as they come. A businesswoman from Toronto is looking to buy the popular Schwartz’s, hoping to make a nice turnover when she turns the joint into a Canada-wide franchise. But before finding out the secret to the delicious meat, she succumbs to the charm of the greasy spoon and its patrons. Not to mention a bit of a love connection with the head waiter.

Although the actors eat fake smoked meat sandwiches on stage, the real question is whether the actors have been indulging in the real thing?

“It’s funny, I was a vegetarian [or] vegan for years, but for medical reasons I’ve been incorporating meat back in my diet,” revealed Gauthier-Frankel, who plays many characters within the show, including an elderly Jewish grandmother who loves smoked meat. “The month before we started rehearsal I started eating meat again and then suddenly we were being taken out to Schwartz’s all the time. So I nibbled a bit on smoked meat, and it was exactly how I remembered it from when I was a kid.

“But I’ve probably eaten my quota for smoked meat. It’s lovely, but my stomach is kind of like, whoa.”

Even though it’s only played a few performances, the four-week run is nearly sold out and there is talk that a cast album is potentially in the works.

As for the query regarding writing a play about smoked meat, the question should be rephrased to: Can a musical about smoked meat be successful?

As of right now, all signs point to yes.

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