Given Douglas Rice’s first experience singing on stage, it’s a wonder he stayed in the profession. The Fort McMurray native’s role as Teen Angel in a production of Grease at age 16 saw him perform an unintentional aerial act as his encore.
“I was doing ‘Beauty School Dropout,’ the song Frankie Avalon sings in the film,” the Toronto musician says. “I was supposed to finish the number pretending to walk on air while being pulled into the rafters by a harness. But just after the song finished, my guide wire snapped and I suddenly reappeared on stage swinging back and forth like a pendulum until the stage crew rescued me. After that, we decided to make my appearance a walk-on.”
Nearly 30 years later, Rice is still belting out the tunes, though usually with his feet planted firmly on stage. Since landing in Toronto after a multiyear stint performing with operas across Europe, he founded The Velvet Curtain Ensemble, a 60-member group that performs vocal concerts in Toronto. While past presentations have had a more classical bent, the group’s upcoming Pride event, rather appropriately, is show tunes all the way.
“Musical theatre has always appealed to gays because it represents the antithesis of oppression,” Rice says. “Many of the stories are about people fighting to be who they want to be. Historically, it reinforced heterosexual relationships like every other art form. But recently, we’re seeing more writers willing to engage gay audiences directly and put that content in their shows.”
The program includes songs from contemporary works like Hairspray, Rent, Chicago and Avenue Q, as well as classics like Annie Get Your Gun (made famous originally by grand dame Ethel Merman and more recently by country siren Reba McEntire in the Broadway revival). The program also includes a few rarities, like Carrie (based on the Brian De Palma film) and The Civil War.
“Unlike ballet or opera, the Broadway musical has its roots in North American culture,” Rice says. “That’s part of what makes it accessible, even for people who don’t understand much about the technical elements of performing.”
Though a master’s degree in music isn’t needed to enjoy the group’s events, Rice is as passionate an advocate for music education as he is for promoting their shows. The company holds regular auditions for those interested in joining, with a strong focus on building the skills of those new to the craft.
“Music is different from all other art forms because it’s heard and felt on a physical level, rather than being seen on a visual level,” he says. “In a society accustomed to everything being filtered through a computer monitor, a live concert can totally change the way we perceive our day-to-day experiences.”
The Velvet Curtain Ensemble Presents:
Sat, June 23, 8pm
Metropolitan United Church
56 Queen St E Toronto
Tickets available at velvetcurtain.ca