Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Singin’ Hillbilly lands in TO

Darkly sexed musical spins tale of fashion, country music

Becoming a big-time country music star takes more than sparkly jackets, big ol’ hair and a twanging gee-tar: sometimes you need help of a more supernatural kind.

Hyram Woodside has been plugging away on the music circuit for some time, armed with little more than some catchy songs, a supportive wife and the ratty clothes on his back. It’s a pretty bleak existence until the preternaturally glamorous Nudie arrives on the scene. A courtier by trade, Nudie fills Hyram’s head with dreams of fame while kitting him out in sartorial splendour. If clothes make the man, then these magical new togs are sure to propel Hyram to the top.

So ardent are Nudie’s attentions (and affections) that Hyram’s wife, Audrey, begins to feel shoved to one side — something that suits Hyram’s possessive new mentor perfectly. But as the singer’s star begins to rise under Nudie’s arcane touch, Hyram realizes he’s in danger of losing everything in The Haunted Hillbilly, a play by Graham Cuthbertson.

The play is an adaption of a novel by the same name. Author Derek McCormack based the original book on the life of a certain country music legend, with a liberal sprinkling of supernatural fiction to spice things up a little. Cuthbertson gleefully continued in this comedic vein.

“It’s a total bastardization of the true story of Hank Williams,” Cuthbertson admits. “What’s neat is that it’s almost moment-for-moment based on things that happened in Williams’ life.”

There was even a real-life Nudie. Perhaps best known for his design of Elvis’s iconic gold lamé suit, Nudie Kotyrenko was a fashion designer to many 1950s country music stars — though his relationship with Williams was strictly business and (presumably) free of magical influence.

“In real life, Nudie barely knew Williams,” says Cuthbertson, “but in the play, they have almost a sub/dom relationship. Hyram’s straight, but part of Nudie’s attraction to him is that he’s got what Nudie calls ‘the Mount Rushmore of asses.’ He wants to create this cultural Zeitgeist in Hyram, but he doesn’t care who he destroys in doing it.”

Given the play’s Nashville setting, Cuthbertson felt authentic music was a natural addition to his story. He approached singer/songwriter Matthew Barber to craft songs that would not only fit the play’s 1950s theme, but also help to tell Hyram’s cautionary tale.

“I’d never written songs for theatre before,” says Barber. “I’ve been a fan of old-time country music since my early 20s, so this was my opportunity to indulge that whole side of songwriting. It’s way more honky-tonk than my own albums.”

It was director Andrew Shaver who first brought the book to Cuthbertson’s attention. Shaver had been researching material for a play about Canadian writer Michael Ondaatje when he came across a reference to Derek McCormack’s “Ondaatje-like” prose. His curiosity peaked, Shaver trotted down to a bookstore to order a copy.

“I loved McCormack’s style,” Shaver says. “He created this fantastic, twisted reality about the life and times of Hank Williams and his demise at the hands of his suit-maker. It’s funny as hell.”

And while Shaver delights in Haunted Hillbilly’s copious amounts of sex, humour and general debauchery, it’s the story’s more bittersweet elements that capture his imagination.

“There are moments of true tenderness,” says Shaver. “It’s a love story between a man and a woman and a man and a man. It could be treated as just camp, this eternal creature whose heart is breaking because the country music singer doesn’t love him, but I think the real payoff is in the heartbreak of it all.”

The Haunted Hillbilly stars Patrick Costello, Greg Kramer, Gemma James-Smith, Kyle Gatehouse, Alexis Taylor and Daniel Brochu.