Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Mambo Italiano comes to BC

After 10 years of coming out Italian-style

Some critics have questioned the ongoing relevance of Mambo Italiano's coming-out story. What they don't realize, says playwright Steve Galluccio, is that "in many conservative ethnic communities, being gay is still quite a taboo." Credit: Firehall Arts Centre/Emily Cooper photo

For Steve Galluccio, Mambo Italiano is one of those amazing moments that has lasted more than a decade.

Indeed, when he wrote the first scene of the play — which debuted in Montreal in 2000 and has seen productions every year since — he had no idea the kind of life it would take on.

It certainly had inauspicious beginnings. “I was watching an episode of Oprah; it must have been in 1998,” the Montreal-based Galluccio recalls. “It was shortly after Ellen had come out. It was a show about parents dealing with their gay children coming out. One guy talked calmly about how he had come out to his parents. He was a WASP, and I remember thinking, ‘This is not the way it would happen in an Italian family!’”

Eager to explore this further, Galluccio sat down at his computer and began writing a scene about a young Italian man dealing with his uptight, conservative Italian Catholic family’s reaction to his telling them he’s gay.

Galluccio showed it to filmmaker Émile Gaudreault, who immediately saw the potential for a romantic comedy film. After Galluccio had written the entire play, a copy was given to Quebec literary godfather Michel Tremblay, who liked it so much he offered to translate it into French.

That led to Mambo Italiano’s first production, in French, on a Montreal stage. The production became a hit and was followed in 2001 by Montreal’s Centaur Theatre production in English, which also won over audiences, becoming the longest-running play in the Centaur’s history (more than three months).

Then came the 2003 film version, which starred the dream cast of Luke Kirby, Paul Sorvino, Ginette Reno, Mary Walsh and Tim Post. Directed by Gaudreault, it ultimately ranked as one of the biggest Canadian box-office successes of the decade.

“For me, Mambo really did change everything,” Galluccio, now 50, says. “I was just this dirt-poor writer who had done some gonzo theatre at the Montreal Fringe theatre festival. I was doing some writing for French comedy shows, and I didn’t think I’d go back to writing plays. In fact, I’d always seen Mambo as a movie.”

That moment of Mambo glory has never really gone away, as each year sees more productions of the popular play. Last year it ran for several weeks in Brazil, and there was a show in San Francisco two years ago.

“Some of the critics in San Francisco and Toronto were quite harsh,” recalls Galluccio. “Their argument was, ‘How big a deal is it if someone is coming out in this day and age?’ But what they didn’t realize was, in many conservative ethnic communities, being gay is still quite a taboo. There are obviously still people who live their lives in the closet.”

Galluccio continues to write, having penned the screenplay to the bilingual movie about the golden days of Montreal’s disco nightlife, Funkytown, which was released in January. Set in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Galluccio’s astute capturing of the city’s disco milieu prompted one critic to liken Galluccio to Montreal’s Armistead Maupin. Galluccio recently revealed he is working on a screenplay for the sequel to Mambo Italiano. The film follows protagonist Angelo as he struggles to make a living as a screenwriter in LA.

But Galluccio says he suspects he’ll never have another hit quite as big as Mambo.

“Every now and then an Italian gay guy will tell me that the play really changed their lives, that they were able to talk to their family about who they were after seeing it. That always makes me really happy,” he says.

“Another time, a few straight Italian guys came up to me in the market. I thought, ‘Okay, they’re going to beat me up now.’ Instead, they asked, ‘When is your next play happening? We want to see it.’

“I know I’ll always be the guy who wrote Mambo Italiano, no matter what I do from now on. But you know what? That’s great. It’s really sweet.”