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Belfry Theatre production celebrates the art of sad songs

Melancholy has long been a central creative conceit in music — and our relationship with sad songs is the backbone of These Are The Songs That I Sing When I’m Sad, which opens March 21 at The Belfry Theatre.
Jane Miller stars in Sad Songs, which opens today at The Belfry. MAX TELZEROW

These Are the Songs That I Sing When I’m Sad

Where: The Belfry Theatre, 1291 Gladstone Ave.

When: March 21 to March 26

Tickets: Pay What You Want from 250-385-6815 or

Melancholy has long been a central creative conceit in music, with several Beethoven sonatas written in the early 19th century dubbed the saddest music in the world.

Contemporary hitmakers have expounded upon the topic. Elton John wrote about the key role sad songs play in our lives, suggesting that “there are times when we all need to share a ­little pain,” while Celine Dion’s All By Myself and Adele’s Someone Like You have become meme-generating tearjerkers without peer.

Our relationship with music of that idiom is the backbone of These Are The Songs That I Sing When I’m Sad, which opens March 21 at The Belfry Theatre.

“I was curious one day, while I was driving along listening to the radio, about why so many of us love songs that either have sad content, or that we seek out when we’re sad,” said playwright Brian Quirt. “I thought it would be an interesting thing to explore.”

Quirt co-created the piece with Jane Miller for Toronto’s Nightswimming theatre company, where it premiered in 2016. Described as part performance and part lecture, the show about emotions with music as their touchstone was born from a series of conversations on the topic between Quirt, Miller, and several friends and family members.

The discussions led to “a really fun show about something that has sadness at its core,” Quirt said. “Sometimes people just want to feel more sad, but sometimes they want to be drawn out of it. The song choices are really interesting, but so are the stories behind them.”

Miller, who sits at a piano and serves as a hybrid performer-emcee during performances, shares stories of her own. But she also makes the audience part of the conversation, inviting patrons to share their own experiences in the safe setting. That turns what could have been one long weep fest into a night often full with tears of joy, according to Quirt.

“Sad songs have become common reference points for so many people, in that great way that pop music often is. But there is lots of humour in the show. We call it a joyous exploration of sad songs.”

Previous productions of These Are The Songs That I Sing When I’m Sad have featured everything from full operatic singing by audience members to traditional Korean folk songs. Intimacy is key, which is why Quirt has been hesitant to adapt the show to massive rooms. Shows for 15-25 audience members seated in a circle have been mounted in private homes and alternative spaces, but The Belfry is getting the version for audiences of up to 100 in a traditional theatre set up, according to Quirt.

There is a follow-up component to the show that he chose not to reveal in advance, but it will extend the magic that took place spontaneously the night prior, he said. “It gives people who were in the audience and weren’t familiar with some of the songs, or audiences who are coming to a show later in the run, a sense of what other audience members have mentioned.”

Quirt didn’t mind sharing his go-to sad song, though he admits it changes from time to time. “One of the ones I’ve been thinking of recently is the Tom Waits song Martha, which is such a beautiful song. But it’s super sad; there’s no way around that. It is one that generates very powerful and very specific emotional reactions, and the emotions that it continues to evoke are not lessened by familiarity.”

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