4 min

A full embrace

Girl loves girlie-boy is just the beginning

A Queer Love Of Musicals. Ann-Marie MacDonald (left) says her new musical, made with Allen Cole and Alisa Palmer, "turns into a kind of mad dinner party where you have to face your demons and your parents and your sexuality." Credit: Paula Wilson

Anything That Moves is exactly what you are not expecting.

Try pigeon-holing a 1950s-style musical comedy with a smart and contemporary script, a classic romance in a queer setting, a queer play with a hetero love story at its centre and feminist theatre with a straight male protagonist.

“The expression ‘Anything that moves’ means diversity,” says director Alisa Palmer. “It implies that anything alive is worthy of being loved, that anything that moves you should be taken on in a full embrace.”

Anything That Moves was created to celebrate Nightwood Theatre’s 20th anniversary. It is a sign of just how far gender and sexual liberation has come in 20 years, that Canada’s preeminent feminist theatre company can celebrate with such a broad perspective.

“Feminist theatre is not just about an individual female protagonist anymore,” claims Palmer, who is also Nightwood’s artistic director. “We have built on the accomplishments of our predecessors and are much more ambitious than that. Feminist theatre now is about excellent art that speaks to big things.

“After all, it’s not like we are a little lobby group, women are half the population.”

The seed for this show was planted almost four years ago when Nightwood asked Ann-Marie MacDonald to write a play for the anniversary. MacDonald was hesitant to take on such a big project, but agreed to be part of a collaborative process. MacDonald wrote the lyrics, co-created the story with Palmer, and was joined by musical director and composer Allen Cole, who brought the lyrics to life.

It is clear from the energy between the three artists that the collaboration has been fun as well as fertile. Their discussion is punctuated by giggles and quips as the team interrupt, interject and complete each other’s sentences. MacDonald claims that the only tensions have been creative ones: “Sometimes I keep arguing with Alisa, just to make sure that she’s right.”

All three artists have impressive resumés and an extensive track-record of previous collaboration. MacDonald’s 1988 play, Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet) was directed by Palmer. It’s since had more than 70 productions world-wide and won a Governor General’s and a Chalmers Award. More recently, her best-selling novel, Fall On Your Knees, won the Commonwealth Prize.

Alisa Palmer comes to the project hot on the heels of directing a sell-out run of Sibs at the Tarragon. She has worked many times with MacDonald and her history with Cole has been equally fruitful. Their collaboration, A Play About The Mothers Of The Plaza de Mayo, won a Dora and a Chalmer’s.

After a series of workshops and years in development, Anything That Moves is just about ready to get up on its feet. It will play at the World Stage next week, continuing as a Nightwood production for more performances. Look for a bigger production next year.

At the centre of this juicy co-creation is Joel, a mild-mannered owner of a flower shop in the gay village. Joel is convinced that he’ll never love again until Jinny, “microbiologist by day and party-girl by night,” walks into his shop.

It is love at first sight for the hapless Joel. Unfortunately, Jinny’s past has soured her on hetero men and she has sworn herself to celibacy. She naturally assumes that the delicate florist is queer, and thus a perfect match – they’ll never have a chance to screw it up with screwing.

Joel is afraid to come out to her as straight.

“The deception works both to his advantage and blows up in his face,” says MacDonald. “The tensions climax at a dinner, which is supposed to be an intimate date between Joel and Jinny, except that all their various friends and family members turn up uninvited. It turns into a kind of mad dinner party where you have to face your demons and your parents and your sexuality.”

Joel and Jinny’s story is surrounded by a clan of eccentrics including: Joel’s gay best friend, Tyrone; Tyrone’s patriarchal father; Alberta, the lesbian undertaker; and Jinny’s mother, a recovered alcoholic discovering her previously bottled-up artistic potentials.

“In classical musical comedies,” says MacDonald, “there are a series of couplings rippling out from the central couple. In the movies of the ’50s and ’60s, the supporting cast often paired up.”

The catch back then was that the implicitly queer characters never got their own shot at romance. “They had to kill themselves,” says MacDonald, “or they kept on making wonderful food and wonderful houses, quietly supporting the heterosexual relationship.

“What we have in this play is a mainstream love story, but it’s surrounded by same-sex pairings, friendship pairings, cross-generational and cross cultural pairings – even human and animal pairings and a relationship with flora and fauna.”

The group is quick to reassure that this doesn’t mean bestiality or flower fetishes, just the broad definition of loving relationship that is implied by the title. By play’s end, the centrality of Joel and Jinny’s romance has broken-down and the intrigues of their friends and family members, with their own polymorphous perversities, share the stage.

This open-minded approach to creating a fairy-tale romance shakes loose dominant notions of gender and sexuality. According to MacDonald: “The question is raised throughout, how firmly pegged are any of us on what is really a continuum of sexuality and gender?”

Cole adds that the perspective of the audience members will play a part in how the sexuality of the players is understood. MacDonald claims that she’s happy that the characters are open to interpretation: “A good play works like a good dream-the characters are real but they are also a facet of each individual’s identity.”

Although the form is rooted in a venerable tradition, the script is more sophisticated than you would expect from a traditional musical and the themes are all contemporary. “It’s quite risky to do a musical that’s not an adaptation,” says Cole.

Cole is primarily a musical theatre composer and has been working in the medium since the early ’80s: however, this script was a new experience for him as well. “It’s really been a joyous discovery,” he says, “to work on a traditional musical comedy complete with love songs and choreographed numbers. I understand now why so many people used the form for so long- it really works.”

Respect for the medium is a value shared by all three artists. “It’s really refreshing to work with a playwright who does not approach writing a musical in order to reject the whole history of shitty musicals,” says Cole. “Ann-Marie’s work is coming out of a place of love and respect for the great people who created them – the Gershwins and the Berlins.”

Homos of all stripes have always been at the top of the class when it comes to appreciating this art form. “Really, the main motivation for doing this,” confides Palmer, “is that we’re all queer in one sense or another and we just wanted a really great musical that we could go to.”

Anything That Moves.

$25. 8pm. Mon-Sat. 3pm Sat matinee.

Thu, Apr 27-29; May 1-13.

Canadian Stage Theatre (upstairs).

26 Berkeley St.

(416) 368-3110.