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Make way for Socalled’s Yiddish gangster musical at the Segal Centre!

Josh Dolgin, aka Socalled, recently took a break from klezmer hip-hop—to make a Yiddish gangster musical, naturally. Tales of Odessa, playing soon at the Segal Centre, is based on Russian short stories by Isaak Babel. Dolgin wrote the music and lyrics.

The story is set in the underworld of Ukraine’s Odessa ghetto, circa 1917; but don’t think Guys and Dolls. Think The Godfather: "I always wanted to try my hand at a gangster film", Dolgin said. "At the heart of it is a weird love of gangster movies. I identified with Babel, for some reason. I would’ve loved to have hung out with him, the way he told stories with this sense of humor, irony and darkness."

The Season, Dolgin’s first musical, is a modern Muppet fairy tale. It had a one-night run at 2011’s Pop Montreal; the soundtrack was released last year. Segal Artistic Director Paul Flicker was in the audience. Impressed, he went up to Dolgin after the show and offered him a production. Dolgin had been reading Babel since coming across his work at NYC’s Strand bookstore. So he pitched Tales of Odessa. He even went to Ukraine for research.

The musical will feature shadow puppeteer Clea Minaker and a band of expat Eastern Europeans living in Montreal. "It’s this sort of dream band of mine. There’s a cimbalom player from Romania, a Moldavian accordionist, a Bulgarian flutist..." Unlike The Season, which "was really a crazy labour of love done in one week, basically, this is a full-on, realized situation with 35 musical numbers" Dolgin decided to write original songs instead of finding or imitating period music. "I sat down at my parents’ house in the country. There aren’t that many distractions in Chelsea, Quebec. I hung out at the piano and came up with little ideas – the first things that came to my head. I would collect these bits on GarageBand. By the end, I had 150 things called 'Odessa Sketch.' I started mushing the bits together, and I realized it was my hip-hop lineage at play."

So, although musicals might seem like a left turn for a hip-hop artist, Dolgin’s found, in many ways, the genre that brings together all his interests: infectious tunes, acting, mise en scène, storytelling, puppets. "I hate musicals," he says. "But I love musicals!" He’s already planning no less than four future musicals: sequels to The Season and a staging of Yidl Mitn Fidl. The 1936 Yiddish film stars Molly Piccon, whom Dolgin describes as "a Charlie Chaplin of the Yiddish stage."

In the meantime, Dolgin will record the Tales of Odessa soundtrack. He booked a studio for the day after the show closes. Then, his next priority will be making a new Socalled album. Fans will have to practice patience, though. "I never really actively sit down to make an album. Some bands, they go to a studio for a month and make an album. I just sort of fuck around for a couple months and then there’s a record at the end. I’m aiming for October 2014, honestly."

Tales From Odessa: A Socalled Musical
From June 16th to July 7th
Segal Centre