5 min

A hit… with no mob connections

Mambo Italiano turns a coming out story into a cultural phenomenon

Credit: Jocelyn Michel

The first thing Montreal playwright Steve Galluccio told me when I first interviewed him a couple of years ago was, “There are just two things. I am not a gay playwright, like I’m not an Italian playwright, or an English playwright. And second, I don’t discuss my personal life.”

I asked him anyway. After all, is Galluccio, who wrote the hit Italian coming-out comedy Mambo Italiano, not a gay, Italian playwright?

Mambo Italiano, of course, has become a cultural phenomenon in Quebec. When it premiered at Montreal’s Théâtre Jean Duceppe in February 2000, translated into French by none other than Québécois icon and gay playwright Michel Tremblay, Galluccio was hailed as Montreal’s new favourite son. Mambo then broke box-office records at both Duceppe and the English-language Centaur Theatre in Old Montreal.

Now, on the eve of Mambo’s six-week Toronto run at the Elgin Theatre and a much-anticipated all-star movie adaptation slated for release this summer, Galluccio is poised to become a star in the rest of Canada.

“I feel as nervous now as I did two years ago when the play first opened,” Galluccio candidly admits. “I’m excited but I’m also anxious. Again, we’re in a huge venue in a new city. But whatever happens, happens. I can’t control it. After writing plays for 12 years, I’ve learnt you can’t really control the outcome of anything.”

Which is a pretty startling admission from a man who can sometimes be a bitchy control freak. While the three-time Gemini Award-winning writer might have gotten away with not discussing his personal life just a few years ago, today people stop Galluccio in the streets of his hometown Montreal to ask him how he’s doing.

That’s a long way from the days when Galluccio was king – or, rather, queen – of the Montreal Fringe Festival. Galluccio explored gay themes in several of his plays, notably in Batman And Robin: The Untold Story in 1993, and in 1995’s Peter ‘N’ Paul Get Mary’d, a fictionalized account of the infamous 1994 Montreal police raid on the now-defunct leather bar Katacombes where a cop falls for an arrestee (who happens to be a writer).

After penning eight plays (“I’ve been around the block a lot – in fact I am the block”) the self-taught Galluccio finally broke into “legit” theatre with Mambo, a gut-busting comedy that tells the bittersweet story of two straight-acting gay Italian men and the tumult their lives are thrown into when one partner, Angelo (who happens to be a playwright), comes out to his overprotective family, and the other partner, Nino, decides to remain in the closet.

“Mambo is mostly about facing your fears and not being afraid of who you really are, whether you are gay or Italian,” Galluccio explains. “The play also deals with the dynamics of an Italian family. I didn’t really appreciate its universal appeal until I saw the audience demographics. We’ve had everybody from teens to grandmas. There are gays and straights. Once the [season] subscribers were done with, the [changing] ethnic make-up of the audiences was amazing. We got Asians and blacks and other minorities that weren’t just visible minorities. So obviously the play has hit a universal chord.”

As This Hour Has 22 Minutes star Mary Walsh, who plays Angelo’s mother in the movie adaptation of Mambo, said on the Montreal set of Mambo last summer, “Definitely it’s a gay story. But it’s also a story about families. In [the old CBC TV series] CODCO, we used say, ‘It’s hard to be gay in Bonavista Bay.’ In those traditional societies, if you step outside it, there’s a price to be paid and that’s what this story is about.”

The movie version of Mambo also stars famed Italian-American character actor Paul Sorvino. “Paul was one of the people on our list to play [Angelo’s father] Gino and when he agreed I was like, ‘Wow.’ Our first meeting was in a Montreal restaurant and we discovered that our parents are all from the same region in Italy – Campagna, where the city of Naples is – so we both speak the same Neapolitan dialect. I also made sure to bring Paul sfogliatelle [a Neapolitan pastry] to his trailer when we were filming in Little Italy. Paul agrees Montreal makes the best sfogliatelle outside of Naples.”

The movie Mambo will also star Ginette Reno, who Sorvino described as “one of the greatest singers on the planet… and one [of ] the last great old broads.”

The buzz on the set was so good media pundits began calling Mambo the next My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Regardless of Mambo’s anticipated success at the box office, Galluccio is focussed on the play’s run at the Elgin. The Toronto premiere will star the original Centaur cast: Andreas Apergis as Angelo, Ellen David as Anna, Joseph Gallaccio as Nino, Suzanna Le Nir as Pina, Mary Long as Maria, Penny Mancuso as Lina and Michell Perron as Gino. Centuar’s artistic director Gordon McCall directs.

“I know that producers from New York are coming up to see the play,” says Galluccio. “So the next step would be Broadway. But what’s really going through my mind these days is will I ever write another play? How do I measure up to this? How can I equal or top this?”

Galluccio can afford to wait. He is currently scripting a sitcom called Ciao Bella for both CBC television and Radio Canada and he has sold the exclusive North American stage rights to Mambo to Toronto’s Mirvish Productions. “My agent told me it was an offer I could not refuse. The play is not in my hands anymore. It’s taken on a life of its own.”

Finally Galluccio, 42, has money to spend. Last month he returned home from his first trip to South Beach. “It was more than I expected it to be – it’s huge, cosmopolitan and luxurious. I love good shopping and good food. I loved hanging out in cafés where people speak so many different languages. I love the art deco architecture so much I want to buy a condo there. Although I hated Ocean Drive – it was a mixture of [Montreal’s] Crescent St and the [gay] Village. It was too much. It was too loud and there were too many people. It was trashy. Ocean Drive felt like spring break in Fort Lauderdale.”

Now that Galluccio is on the cusp of becoming rich and famous, were handsome studs throwing themselves at his feet?

“People have always wanted to get into my pants!” Galluccio says, cracking a big smile. “No, I haven’t seen anyone seriously in a long time. But I don’t mind all the attention. And I don’t want a relationship that will interfere with my career.”

That said, Galluccio insists he still does not want to be pegged as a “gay writer.”

“I never came out of the closet because I was never in the closet. It was never a question with me. It was never important to me to say, ‘I’m gay.’ I mean, if anyone sees my work I think it’s pretty obvious that I’m gay. You’d have to be an idiot to not know I’m gay. Like, ‘Is he Italian, too?’

“But as I’ve told you before, I’m a writer who wants to write about all kinds of people. Even in Mambo, most of the characters are straight. Just like in real life.”

* Richard Burnett is editor-at-large of Montreal’s Hour magazine.


$31-$71. 8pm. Tue-Sat.

2pm. Wed, Sat & Sun.

Thu, Jan 16-Feb 23.

The Elgin.

189 Yonge St.

(416) 872-1212.