Sharron Matthews stopped attending church at the age of eight. The Hamilton-born performer grew up Catholic, but by the third grade, the messages of eternal damnation had started to grate on her nerves.
“It was all hellfire and brimstone,” she says. “I pretended I needed to throw up every time we went to church. After five or six times, my mom stopped bringing me. I think she started to wonder if I was The Omen.”
Matthews’ status as lapsed Catholic seems an appropriate starting point for discussing her new cabaret show, Sharron Matthews Superstar: Jesus Thinks I’m Funny. Using her trademark style of pop songs blended with storytelling, the show takes its title from a conversation she had with her Auntie Pat while playing the Edinburgh Fringe.
“We were talking after a show, and she said, ‘You’re so funny and such a good singer. Why do you have to say all those dirty words in your show?’” Matthews quips in a remarkably good Scottish brogue. “‘You know what, Auntie Pat?’ I said. ‘Jesus thinks I’m funny.’ As soon as I said it, I knew it would be the title of my next show.”
The Sheridan College grad had a long career in musical theatre before deciding to pursue cabaret full-time. Her impressive resumé includes roles in big Toronto productions like Les Misérables and Showboat, as well as a stint on Broadway. Despite her early success (her first Mirvish Productions role came at age 20), Matthews quickly wearied of the biz.
“I was playing on the big stages in New York by the time I was 24,” she says. “But I felt like I was in chains. All the shows started to feel the same. I realized I wasn’t being true to myself as an artist. I needed to make a change.”
That same year she found herself at JJ’s, a Church St bar, where her friend Mark Cassius was performing a cabaret set. He invited Matthews to get onstage and her world changed.
“I felt exactly the way I did when I stood on my high school stage for the first time,” she says. “I knew right away it was exactly what I was supposed to be doing.”
But finding a space to perform wasn’t as easy. At the time, there were few opportunities for cabaret performers in the city, so Matthews stuck with her career. But everything changed in 2005. While in New York for an audition, she stayed with Elaine Stritch, the brassy Broadway dame she’d met while performing in Showboat, and started talking about her quandary.
“She said I should just fucking do it,” Matthews recounts. “She told me I didn’t want to be her age and just starting to do what I wanted to do. I made my decision that day.”
Rather than seeking out existing spaces, Matthews opted to create her own and began her regular and highly successful Sharron’s Party series at the Gladstone Hotel. Running from 2005 to 2009, the event was both a showcase for her talents and a drop-in gig for bigwigs like Brent Carver and Louise Pitre. It also captured the attention of Sky Gilbert, who rewrote the role in his 2008 musical Happy for her.
Matthews stole the show and became fast friends with Gilbert.
“The day that Sky called me queer was one of the happiest of my life,” Matthews says. “One of the reasons I’ve become so good at accepting myself is because of the lessons I’ve learned from the gay community.
“Choosing to truly celebrate who you are, no matter how you look or what size you are, is something all of us should strive for.”