Hairspray. Wicked. Mamma Mia. Hell, even Spamalot. Seems like musicals are only getting gayer and gayer as time goes on, despite the lack of any actual gay characters. And no, John Travolta does not count. Yet.
Toronto playwright Sky Gilbert is fed up with what he sees as the “dequeering” of musical theatre and has teamed up with composer Micah Barnes to create Happy: A Very Gay Little Musical opening Thu, Apr 17 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre —Gilbert’s first musical in more than 15 years.
The story opens with husband-and-husband writing duo Bob and Dave (played by David Tomlinson and Jason Cadieux), struggling to create their newest musical comedy. They’ve recently married, courtesy of Canadian same-sex legislation, but there’s already trouble brewing in fairyland.
“It’s one of those couples where one person is monogamous and the other person is trying to be monogamous,” says Gilbert. “They love each other, but Bob is trying desperately to battle his life of promiscuity and addiction to make a stable life with Dave.”
Gilbert brought in longtime friend and colleague Barnes to give musical voice to the characters. The singer/songwriter instantly clicked with Gilbert’s vision of marital disharmony and artistic hypocrisy.
“It’s Sky’s opportunity to skewer the writers of Broadway shows for working in a completely gay medium without stating their gayness in their work,” says Barnes, undoubtedly referring to duos like Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman of Hairspray fame.
“He also skewers gay long-term relationships,” Barnes says with a chuckle. “You can tell he has lived in one for quite a while.”
Barnes and Gilbert go way back to the early days at Buddies, the theatre cofounded by Gilbert in 1978. Barnes, the future Nylons singer, was still in high school when he auditioned for Gilbert’s play Lana Turner Has Collapsed, and credits the playwright with encouraging his development as a queer artist.
“Sky helped shaped my sensibility,” Barnes says. “He helped me define a sort of freedom for myself that I would never again have to turn away from.”
In creating the music for Happy, Barnes drew from a Noel Coward-inspired sound. He’s particularly proud of the songs he’s written for film and stage actress Sharron Matthews (Mean Girls, Beauty and The Beast) who costars as Bob and Dave’s hapless friend Sue.
“It’s interesting that we’ve cast Sharron as the fag hag,” says Barnes. “She’s nobody’s sidekick. She’s the showstopper.”
Matthews’ vocal chops and delightful comedic timing are perfectly suited to Sue’s boozy moodiness, exacerbated by the loss of her barhopping buddy.
“Sue seems to be very conflicted,” says Matthews. “She’s used to sitting at bars with her best friend Bob, but now he’s changing and settling down, and neither are entirely comfortable with it.”
The diva gets a chance to really cut loose in a big musical number called “Being a Fag Hag.” But how does Matthews feel about that notorious label?
“I’m of two minds about the term fag hag,” she says. “That moniker has always been mine. But I find it’s a name sometimes used by men who want to take you down a peg.”
Joining Matthews in the cast are David Tomlinson, playing erstwhile partier Bob, and longtime Gilbert collaborator Jason Cadieux as Dave.
“Dave is definitely the follower in the relationship with Bob,” says Cadieux. “He’s very straight-laced and hardworking, not really into partying. Dave’s the ‘good influence’ on Bob.”
Happy will be the latest in a string of Gilbert productions for Cadieux, which began more than a decade ago in More Divine, the play that inagurated Buddies’ new space at 12 Alexander St.
“I love working with Sky because he thinks I’m a good actor, which is always nice,” Cadieux laughs. “Best of all he really creates an open environment in his rehearsals. He has some pretty strong ideas, but he definitely reacts to what you bring to the table.”
Tomlinson shares this appreciation for Gilbert’s directorial style, having previously popped his Gilbert cherry in a production of Rope Enough.
“Sky’s work is always politically charged,” says Tomlinson. “It’s like, ‘Look fuckers, here’s my point of view.’ And it’s always eloquent. I love that he’s so bold and passionate as a playwright and addresses things directly without finding a way around them.
“I don’t necessarily agree with those politics, but they’re so present that you find your way into them.”
It might seem ironic that Happy reflects Gilbert’s passionate public stance against gay marriage as the emulation of so-called straight coupledom. After all, the playwright lives with his long-term partner in a suburb of Hamilton and teaches at the University of Guelph. But Gilbert insists that this new play about a hypocritical gay couple is not, well, hypocritical.
“We’ve had an open relationship from the start,” Gilbert says. “I found a soulmate and I love to have sex with lots of different people. I live outside of Toronto because I can’t afford to live inside Toronto.
“We’re not like all the neighbours in our working-class neighbourhood. The huge difference is that we’re about honesty, not hypocrisy, and that’s what gay culture has to offer straight culture.”
Gilbert feels that this difference is what keeps prostitutes and strippers in clover with frustrated straight husbands, while bathhouses teem with so-called committed lovers seeking a little something on the sly.
“Our gay world gets a bit whitewashed these days,” he says. “I always say one reason I get into trouble is that I’m willing to talk about secrets… the baths, the drugs. People don’t like it when you talk about that.”
Those of us who have taken the marital plunge may feel a little miffed at a public gay figure criticizing newly gained equality rights. But it’s important to note that Gilbert isn’t just trying to get his fellow homos unhitched.
“I’ve been very out about my difficulties with gay marriage and with marriage, period,” Gilbert says. “I don’t think it’s good for people. Gay men are trying to fit themselves into something that isn’t right for them — but not for straight people either. It’s ultimately a sexist institution.”
In true Gilbert form the playwright isn’t worried that his latest foray into hot-button controversy will be polarizing enough to keep queer audience bums out of seats.
“I’ve made it without the gay community to some degree,” says Gilbert, “and I think some gay people resent that — like how Mordecai Richler looked critically at Jews in Duddy Kravitz and was vilified for it. But this play comes out of love for the community and wanting to make it better for us… to make us happier.”