Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Abominable Showman, November 6, 2011

Another brick in the wall
Rock’n’Roll proves it is fertile ground for great theatre
by Richard Burnett

Rock’n’Roll and theatre have always gone hand-in-hand. Like beer and pretzels, milk and cookies, and lips and cocks. And there is a whole lot of the latter going on in backstage dressing rooms in both the Rock’n’Roll and theatre worlds.

I myself have never succumbed to the casting couch although I used to be a hustler when I was broke and living in Sydney many years ago. I was 23-years-old and used to work “The Wall” in Darlinghurst. 

But I digress.

Bavaro as Hedwig
I’ve always thought Rock’n’Roll makes for great theatre over the last 50 years, notably such rock musicals as John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Montrealers saw two productions of Hedwig this year, one starring Montreal-based Alberta native Antonio Bavaro (a.k.a. the wonderfully talented and notorious drag queen Connie Lingua) in June, and Canadian entertainer Seth Drabinsky’s pretty good touring cross-Canada production of Hedwig that pitstopped at Montreal’s Le National theatre this past February.

But Hedwig really began back in 1994 at NYC’s famed drag-punk nightclub Squeezebox where Stephen Trask – who would write the music and lyrics for Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell wrote the text) – headed the house band and Mitchell’s boyfriend, Jack Steeb, played bass.

Mitchell worshipped the rock’n’roll singing drag queens at Squeezebox. So he began to rewrite covers of such songs as Fleetwood Mac’s Oh Well, Cher's Half Breed, David Bowie's Boys Keep Swinging and All the Young Dudes by Mott the Hoople, incorporating them into Hedwig’s original concerts.

In fact, Mitchell’s second gig at Squeezebox also featured singer Debbie Harry on the bill, and Hedwig’s trademark wig was famously created that night with toilet paper rolls wrapped in synthetic blonde hair! 

Which brings me to former Pink Floyd frontman and bassplayer Roger Waters’ upcoming 36-city The Wall...

By 1998, Hedwig and The Angry Inch debuted at the gloriously rundown Jane Street Theatre in NYC’s West Village a fully-fledged original punk/glam rock musical about a lonely girly-boy named Hansel from Communist East Germany who, after a botched sex change (which leaves him with the titular angry inch) flees Germany before the Berlin wall comes down. 

Which brings me to former Pink Floyd frontman and bassplayer Roger Waters’ upcoming 36-city The Wall tour of North America in 2012 that will pitstop in Vancouver (May 26), Edmonton (May 28), Winnipeg (May 31), Toronto (June 23), Ottawa (June 25) and Montreal (June 26).

Bugs and Bavaro
The Wall live has already played more than 120 shows around the world to over 1.6 million fans in 2010-2011 (including two sold out concerts at Montreal’s Bell Centre in 2010). 

Prior to 2010, The Wall was simply too large to tour, but new arenas and advances in touring technology have solved that problem Waters has reportedly updated the look and feel of the show so that it matches the astonishing theatrical extravaganza that The Wall’s live incarnation became when Waters was still with Pink Floyd.

The original 1980 production of The Wall had been performed live-in-its-entirety just 29 times during Pink Floyd’s 1980 tour in support of the album and once in Berlin in celebration of the fall of the Berlin wall.  

The newfound success of Broadway rock musicals like American Idiot and the new, rejigged Spiderman were unfathomable before Hedwig...

“Thirty years ago when I wrote The Wall, I was a frightened young man,” Waters says today. “In the intervening years it occurred to me that maybe the story of my fear and loss with its concomitant inevitable residue of ridicule, shame and punishment, provides an allegory for broader concerns: Nationalism, racism, sexism, religion, whatever! All these issues and ‘isms are driven by the same fears that drove my young life.”

The Wall isn’t a classic rock musical like Hedwig, but The Wall predates Hedwig and deeply influenced John Cameron Mitchell. The newfound success of Broadway rock musicals like American Idiot and the new, rejigged Spiderman were unfathomable before Hedwig and reportedly has John Cameron Mitchell back in the gym getting his 48-year-old body back into shape for a future Broadway run of Hedwig with original producer David Binder and original director Peter Askin at the helm.

The diverse, mixed audiences that Hedwig still attracts – due to the late-20th-century synthesis of rock and theatre audiences – always excited John Cameron Mitchell. As Mitchell told me himself some years ago, “It just makes for a more interesting party. You know, I think I needed to be more with gay people when I came out, in a more monolithic way. But then you grow up and realize you want a little variety. A lot of gay people only hang out with people who listen to the same music and have the same body and same gender. That’s boring and quite annoying. [It only makes me] feel like a freak among a majority.”

Which brings me to my final anecdote about Rock’n’Roll and theatre, and how both have always gone hand-in-hand.

The last time I saw legendary British heavy metal band Judas Priest – whose openly-gay frontman Rob Halford actually invented heavy metal’s de rigueur leatherman look (“But it all came from my own imagination because I was never into the gay leather scene,” Halford once told me) – it was at Montreal’s Bell Centre a couple of years ago where one fan slipped and injured himself on the arena floor.

The paramedics immediately arrived and (with the house lights on) wheeled out the fan – who was dressed to the nines in leather, studs, chains and dyed jet-black and pink hair – on a stretcher. As the audience cheered him on, the kid raised his arm in the air and gave 10,000 Priest fans the two-fingered sign of the horns salute, whereupon the kid then got a loud standing ovation.

Now that was great theatre.

Judas Priest winds down the Canadian leg of their Farewell Epitaph Tour with concerts in Toronto (Nov 22),  Quebec City (Nov 23) and at Montreal’s Bell Centre (Nov 24). 

Roger Waters The Wall tour  headlines arenas across Canada in 2012, including Montreal’s Bell Centre on June 26.

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