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Volume 18 Issue 2 - October 2012

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Musical theatre thrives

Musical theatre thrives on showstoppers — performances ofsongs or dances so striking that they interrupt a show to potentiallyeclipse the entire production. Of these, few impressme more than the solo rendition of “I Am What I Am” at the end ofAct One in La Cage aux Folles, the celebrated musical that premieredon Broadway in 1983 and opensOctober 10 for a six-week runat Toronto’s Royal AlexandraTheatre. Its arrival marks the endof a tour noteworthy for sold-outperformances and rave reviews,many focussed on ChristopherSieber, the actor playing Albin, amatronly male who morphs intoZaza, a flamboyant drag queen,early in the show and then makesit his own. Sieber’s version of “IAm What I Am” is one of thebest I have heard, imbuing JerryHerman’s passionate lyrics andindelible melody with a sense ofpersonal conviction worth theprice of admission alone.Herman knew the power ofhis song when he wrote it, whichhe reveals in his autobiography,Showtune. As a result, he readilyagreed to a suggestion by HarveyFierstein, who wrote the bookBeat by Beat | Music TheatreShowstoppersROBERT WALLACEChristopherSieberin La Cage.for La Cage, to use the number to close Act One. He also realizedthat by introducing the song at the top of the show, whichhe intended to do, he risked undercutting Albin’s big moment.So he changed the lyric, but only slightly, having the Cagelles, atroupe of men in drag that performs the song at the Riviera, aSt. Tropez club (one of the show’s main locations), sing in theplural: “We are what we are, and what we are is an illusion. Welove how it feels putting on heels, causing confusion.” When,at the end of the act, Albin substitutes the singular “I” for theCagelles’ “we,” he highlights the isolation he feels after beingbetrayed by Georges, his lover of 20 years (played by GeorgeHamilton in this production), and Georges’ 24-year-old son, Jean-Michel, whom he has raised as his own child. Simultaneously, heemphasizes the show’s focus on identity and asserts the defiant standthat informs its politic: “I am what I am/ I am my own special creation.So come take a look, Give me the hook or the ovation.”The musical version of La Cage aux Folles is the brainchild ofthree gay men — Jerry Herman, Harvey Fierstein and director, ArthurLaurents — whose achievement cannot be overestimated. Originallya play by Jean Poiret (1973) that was made into a film (1978), themusical was conceived and presented during the early days of theAIDS crisis — a time when sexuality, especially in New York City, sufferedacute disapprobation, and homophobia ran rampant. To winbackers and attract an audience, the creative team agreed to create “acharming, colourful, great-looking musical comedy — an old-fashionedpiece of entertainment,” as Herman writes. The result wasa lavish spectacle, as glamourous as any MGM musical, that brokeattendance records, won each of its creators a Tony Award, andgrabbed three more for good measure, including one for Best Musicaland another for George Hearn, the actor who played Albin.At the time, I was not impressed. I couldn’t reconcile the moneyspent to feather and sequin the elaborate costumes designed bythe legendary Theoni V. Aldredge with the poverty of resourcesthat bedevilled the work of HIV researchers and people dying ofAIDS. Fierstein, a gay activist whose play, Torch Song Trilogy, madea Broadway breakthrough in the 1970s, had sold out to the mainstream,in my opinion, and Herman and Laurents were simply playingtheir politics too safe for my sensibilities. It was with some reluctance,therefore, that I attended a revival of the musical in Londonin 2009, a production that also won a slew of awards and attractedlarge audiences.The London revival of La Cage that was produced at the MenierChocolate Factory in 2008 created the template both for the productionI saw in London’s West End and the show that is touringto Toronto. Conceived and directed by Terry Johnson, it is smallerthan the original and much more gritty. The Riviera is down anddirty — more back-street boite than upscale nightclub. TheCagelles are definitely men in drag — as opposed to the ambiguous“showgirls” that Laurents felt obliged to present — muscularmecs whose bustiers slip to reveal tattoos (and more) as theyexecute the lasciviously acrobatic choreography. The Cagelles’aggessively physical opening appearance sets the tone for a productionboth more provocative and more personal than theoriginal. Albin’s betrayal is clearer, and more clearly horrible:Jean-Michel announces his plans to marry the daughter of avirulently anti-gay politician,and demands that Albin absenthimself from a family meet-and-greet — in effect, shut himselfback in the closet. When Albin subsequently fails to perform aconvincingly masculine “uncle” during the visit, questions of“family values” erupt to add freight to the ensuing farce.For Christopher Sieber, playing Albin is a gift. A gay man whomarried his same-sex partner last November, Sieber understandsthe discrimination that Albin protests. In a telephone interview,he makes an (unnecessary) apology for pleading the case for gayrights before he proceeds to discuss his performance. The key tohis role, he tells me, is to recognize that it combines two charactersin one: “Albinis a needy, emotional,insecure person, buthe’s also Zaza, an overthe-topchanteuse.”Sieber uses the dualityto turn “I Am WhatI Am” into his personalshowstopper. “Initially,I played the moment asif Albin feels he has noone but the audienceBloodless.left –he’s singing tothem. Now I play it differently— as if he is allalone, has no one but himself to rely on, and he’s singing for himself.Ultimately, the song is triumphant, and that’s why it has become suchan anthem. I don’t get mad when I sing it, the way some performershave. I use the discrimination as fuel.” He pauses to admit a sly edgeto his tone. “Sometimes I become a little more fierce than others ...”Bloodless: It remains to be seen how Christopher Sieber will play“I Am What I Am” in Toronto. I have no doubt, however, that he’llstop the show — and that his performance will widen a fan base thatalready is expanding. I also have no doubt that the Toronto premiereof Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare that opens for a limited runat the Panasonic Theatre on October 11, will introduce another talent,new to Toronto, destined for wide recognition. As I mentioned inmy column last March, Joseph Aragon wrote the book and lyrics forthis wickedly clever show, as well as composed the music. Until now,he has remained relatively unknown outside of Winnipeg, his hometown, a situation that Adam Brazier is hoping to change.Brazier is the artistic director of Theatre 20 (T20) which, with thisproduction, makes its debut as Toronto’s newest not-for-profit companydevoted to the creation and production of musical theatre. Lastwinter, in a national search for new scripts, he met with Aragonin Winnipeg. “I had never heard of Joseph Aragon before then,” heexplains. “Now it is my personal goal for theatre lovers and producers32 October 1 – November 7, 2012

throughout Canada to make sure they know his name.”Brazier’s choice of Bloodless is appropriate given that a companygoal is “to present story-driven musicals by developing new Canadianworks ... ” Although the musical premiered at the Winnipeg FringeFestival in 2008 under the auspices of White Rabbit Productions, sincethen it has been developed by T20 through workshops with studentsin Sheridan College’s Music Theatre Performance program. For Aragon,“the [present] show is more economical and streamlined than it was inits Fringe incarnation,” a change that rehearsals have further refined.“The artists at Theatre 20 are, for the most part, significantly moreexperienced” than the ones Aragon worked with in Winnipeg, and, ashe points out, “now the stakes are higher.”Producing a new musical by a relative unknown is always a gamble.In the case of Bloodless, the stakes are higher than usual becauseof the subject matter. Based on true events, the book tells the story ofWilliam Burke and William Hare, two Irish immigrants to Edinburghin the early 19th century who, after numerous failed attempts to makea living, resort to selling dead bodies for scientific research. Insteadof unearthing the newly deceased, they opt to produce their owncorpses. Soon, they are murdering and selling bodies on a daily basis,until their criminal misdeeds are discovered, which leads to “the trialof the century” that Aragon uses to frame his story.Relying heavily on flashbacks, the book for Bloodless is fast pacedand exciting; nevertheless, its story is gruesome, which Brazier tookinto account while directing the production. “The greatest challengein creating a piece like Bloodless is making your antagonists humanbeings we care to watch. Although their conduct and behaviour aredeplorable, we work tirelessly to make them relatable and entertaining.”The cast of 14, including well-known Stratford performers EvanBuliung ( William Burke) and Eddie Glen ( William Hare), works verymuch as an ensemble. “One of the things I most like about the pieceis that it offers quality roles for everyone involved,” Brazier comments.“As an artist-led company we are all highly driven by the text and storieswe want to tell.”Aragon banks on the score to keep the audience on side. Notingthat it “is based heavily on Irish and Scottish folk music, with someDanny Elfman-like touches to throw things off kilter,” he uses it tocalibrate the show’s tension. With a live band (piano, viola, bassoon,clarinet, flute and cello) under the direction of Jason Jestadt, themusic invariably prompts comparisons to the score of Sweeney Todd,Stephen Sondheim’s gothic masterpiece. Aragon readily admits theinfluence. “I’d be lying if I said Bloodless wasn’t inspired in someway by Sweeney Todd, and I knew when I started, just by virtue ofthe subject and setting, that intersecting Sweeney’s world would beinescapable. That said, we’re doing everything we can to make it asdistinct as possible, and in the end, it really is a very different story.”The mention of Sweeney Todd leads the composer and lyricist toacknowledge that Sondheim’s work has influenced more than thisshow; it has impacted his creative process. “Sondheim talks abouthaving a ‘puzzle mind’ when composing and writing lyrics, and I happento see the process the same way — a lot of logical problem solving,trial and error, working backwards, setting up and paying off, choosingwords that rhyme and scan correctly, all the while ensuring you’retelling the story and being emotionally honest. He’s also big into contentdictating form, and violating structure if the story demands it.”Including “showstoppers,” Aragon might have added: Sondheimhas written more than a few. It will be fascinating to see if and howthe neophyte artist follows his lead.And speaking of showstoppers, there’s more! Political Motherarrives in Toronto for a six-show run at Canadian Stage on October 24.This production has stopped the entire contemporary dance worldcold in its tracks, presenting a coup de théâtre that runs for 90 minuteswithout letting up. Visit for an extendeddiscussion of this heartstopping show.Based in Toronto, Robert Wallace writes abouttheatre and performance. He can be contacted 1 – November 7, 2012 33

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