It’s no secret that musical theatre is among the queerest of art forms, but Victor/Victoria takes it to a whole new level. With songs like “There’s a Fairy Who Hides In My Garden” and “Paris Makes Me Horny,” it’s easily one of the gayest big-time musicals ever to hit the stage.
And next month, Ottawa’s venerable Orpheus Musical Theatre Society brings Victor/Victoria to the Centrepointe Theatre.
Most potential theatregoers will know Victor/Victoria from the 1982 Oscar-winning film starring Julie Andrews. That film was actually the third remake of the 1933 German film Viktor Und Viktoria. The stage version opened on Broadway in 1995, with Andrews reprising the leading role. Music lovers who liked the film will enjoy the play even more. True to musical theatre form, the music and lyrics drive the action.
“There’s about three times as much music in the stage play as there is in the movie,” says Barbara Seabright-Moore, who plays the title role in Orpheus’ production.
The basic plot of Victor/Victoria is a typical one: it’s the old girl-pretending-to-be-boy-pretending-to-be-girl-who-falls-in-love-with-a-mobster story. Victoria, a down-and-out soprano in 1933 Paris, meets the flamboyantly down but not-quite-out Toddy, who hatches a lucrative plot. He helps transform her into Count Victor Grezinski, a female impersonator who becomes the toast of Paris’ gay cabaret scene. Things get complicated when Victoria, as Victor, falls for visiting Chicago gangster King Marchan, much to the chagrin of Norma, his ditzy moll.
The Orpheus Musical Theatre Society is the longest running organization of its kind in North America. It’s been around since 1906 and continues to thrive. Part of the society’s strength is obviously its inclusiveness. Although I had planned to sit down with only director Richard Elichuk after a recent rehearsal, he quickly brought over the four lead actors: Seabright-Moore, Réjean Mayer (Toddy), Al Baldwin (King Marchan) and Joyce Landry (Norma), as well as choreographer Debbie Millet. It made for a raucous interview, but their animated banter showed they were all absolutely committed to the show. With a total cast of 41, this is community theatre as it’s supposed to be: communal and fun.
Victor/Victoria was selected from 100-odd suggestions from Orpheus’ members. Millet, who was involved in the selection committee, says that this year they wanted to do some known material to build momentum for next year’s 100th anniversary season.
“It was chosen primarily because I think a lot of people are familiar with the movie,” she says. “It hasn’t been done by a group in Ottawa. We’ve only had one touring group come through and do it.”
Elichuk also emphasizes that Orpheus always tries to add variety to their season. “I know that we try to find something for all of our members and something for all of our audience,” he says.
When asked what kind of audience Victor/Victoria is for, my interviewees all chime in at once: “Adult!” they cry without hesitation. The show is full of innuendo and explorations of sexual and gender identity, so it may not be for the whole family, but its message is one everyone should appreciate.
“It’s a little bit about tolerance and understanding and accepting people,” begins Elichuk. “Accepting people for who they are and what they are,” finishes Seabright-Moore. “That everybody is really the same underneath.”
As is typical of musicals, stereotypes abound in Victor/Victoria. There’s the ditzy blond, the macho gangster and the flamboyantly gay cabaret singer. However, many of the stereotypes get turned upside down. For example, King Marchan starts to question his own sexuality as he falls in love with Victor, and when his bodyguard Squash comes out of the closet, no one can believe that a former star football player could actually be gay.
For some of the actors, just being in theatre is a way to confront these stereotypes and break down barriers.
“When I was much, much younger and wanted to get involved with theatre, it was in a small town, and my mom didn’t want me getting involved,” says Baldwin. “And I said, ‘Why? I want to go and act, I want to go and sing, I want to go and dance.’ And she said, ‘Because those people are involved.’ And I said, ‘What people?’ And she would never explain it to me.”
Seabright-Moore says she’s faced similar comments from relatives who don’t understand why her teenage sons would want to take dance classes. On the other hand, for Mayer, who is gay, it’s playing a gay character that makes him examine his own preconceptions.
“It’s hard,” he says. “I don’t want to overdo it and I don’t want to underdo it. And I come with my own experience too, like having lived the Normas and having gone to gay clubs. I know a lot of outrageous people, so how do I represent Toddy? If it’s played too gay, it could be offensive and I don’t want that. It’s a difficult balance.”
Mayer is optimistic that today’s audiences will view the show through a different lens they would have in 1982 or even 1995. He believes that times are changing and hopes that everyone will see something of themselves on stage. And if they don’t, well they’ll probably still have a fun night at the theatre in any case.