If the name Danko Jones doesn’t ring a bell, you’re probably among the majority of Canadians. While the much-hyped late-1990s musical act was primed to be our nation’s next it-band, a solid career in the Great White North somehow eluded its members. By a strange twist, the hard-rock trio with the sexed-up lyrics exploded in Europe, playing sold-out shows and selling millions of records in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands.
Though Toronto playwright Rob Salerno was already writing Big in Germany when he stumbled on Danko’s story, the parallels between the band’s history and his own tale of North York rock-star wannabes felt eerily similar.
Big in Germany spans nearly 16 years, following Alex (Dylan George) and Bruce (Michael Goldlist) from their earliest basement jams through failed attempts to garner local attention and ultimate overseas success. Through it all, they stay committed to their dreams and each other, despite having different hopes for the future of their relationship. While Alex imagines banging nubile groupies after their non-existent stadium shows, Bruce secretly pines for his best friend, despite never formally coming out. When their music career fails to pay the bills, they end up making extra cash in the porn business when Phil (Salerno), a sleazy friend of Alex’s stripper mom, offers them jobs.
Though they’re nearly 30 by the end of the script, the pair changes little from their high-school years, continuing to share a bachelor apartment and an inflatable mattress.
“When they’re teens they have this vision of what their adult lives will be like, and they kind of trap themselves,” Salerno says. “They’re both really stunted, Alex because he can’t get past his rock-star dreams and Bruce because he’s so in love with his best friend.”
Salerno conceived the characters while he was still in high school — originally for a comic book that never came to fruition. “At the beginning they had superpowers, but I got rid of that,” he laughs. “But I was still interested in this idea of two guys chasing a dream and accomplishing almost everything they wanted to, but not having it all. They become big stars in Germany. But for them, the goal was always to be known and respected at home. I thought of it as a kind of love story, trying and failing to capture this audience that just isn’t interested.”
Though the show is by no means autobiographical, Salerno knows well of what he speaks. The Toronto-based theatre artist has his own tale of gaining acclaim elsewhere, while drawing little notice in his hometown.
“The first show I ever wrote (2007’s Balls) toured around the country and was a huge success in Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Vancouver,” he says. “But when I brought it back to Toronto, nobody even noticed. I know what it is to pursue a dream in an industry that’s ridiculously hard to break into and going forward despite difficult odds. Having to leave the country to find success seems like a common narrative for Canadian artists.”