Big wigs score

Rating: NNNNNBrad Fraser waits for no one. The bad boy of Canadian theatre, arguably our most successful serious playwright, is.

Rating: NNNNN

Brad Fraser waits for no one. The bad boy of Canadian theatre, arguably our most successful serious playwright, is somewhere in the Canadian Stage theatre complex, fretting, I’m sure, over a detail from his new show, Outrageous.

I’m here for our interview, but Brad’s somewhere else. Composer Joey Miller is here. So’s the public relations honcho. But where’s the infamous writer/director?

Oh. There he is. He steps through a doorway. All 6-foot-plus of bald, bodybuilt bravado.

He looks slightly impatient, sipping a sports drink.

“Low blood sugar,” he explains. No handshake. Time is precious.

Decade-long wait

It’s not as if Fraser hasn’t been waiting enough already. In fact, he’s waited 10 years for Outrageous — his musical version of the 1977 movie starring Craig Russell — to become a reality.

He always believed the film, about the friendship between female impersonator Robin Turner and schizophrenic Liza Connor, would make a good musical — ever since seeing it as a young, unknown theatre student at Edmonton’s Rialto Theatre.

“I was the only person in the audience,” he says, settling into a rehearsal-room chair. “It was a gay movie. It was 1977.”

He bought the stage rights to the film in the early 90s, as a follow-up to his international stage hit Unidentified Human Remains And The True Nature Of Love.

“Originally I saw it as this quick project that I’d turn around in a year.” He sighs. “Here we are, 10 years, three composers and 11 workshops later, and it’s finally happening.”

Fraser’s main problem was finding the right composer. Enter Miller, a Dora-winning composer who met Fraser on a train to Montreal and asked about the long-rumoured project. When Miller returned to Toronto, a script was waiting for him.

“I wanted someone with pop chops and an eclectic style,” explains Fraser. “It’s not hard finding composers who can write ballads. What really counts is the stuff with balls, the stuff that pushes through and carries the story. When I heard Joey’s music, especially his dance stuff, I knew it had potential.”

Miller, who’s as laid-back and media-shy as Fraser is pumped and media-savvy, was intrigued by the challenge.

The piece asks him to create music evoking various voices — those heard by the schizophrenic Liza, and those coming out of Robin’s besequined ladies.

“You have a schizophrenic girl who hears voices, and a budding female impersonator who does as well,” says Miller. “They’re each trying to find their own voice, so their music’s different, but they also eventually come together as friends. That’s a really exciting challenge musically.”

Miller also likes that Fraser knows what he wants out of the music.

“Someone’s got to be the top,” laughs Fraser.

“As opposed to being versatile,” adds Miller.

“In the end, someone’s got to say, ‘This is how it’s got to be,'” says Fraser. “I’m that person. I don’t have a problem with that role. I’m not afraid of conflict and abrasion. If you think you can create theatre without that, you’re wrong.”

The fact that Fraser’s gay and militantly out adds texture to the piece. In one scene, two gay guys paw each other and talk about “sharing bodily fluids,” an eerie reference, of course, to AIDS.

Sexually permissive

The piece allows Fraser an opportunity to explore the sexually permissive earlier era.

“I liked it better when I was exploring it in person, though,” he laughs. “But so many things that we took for granted then are so horrifying now.”

Until a few years ago, in fact, Fraser insisted on an epilogue to the musical, where Liza addresses the audience with a monologue about how the characters in the show die from AIDS-related illnesses.

“At the time, around 95, I felt I couldn’t write anything without addressing HIV and AIDS,” says Fraser. “But around 96, we got protease inhibitors and people stopped dying in droves. I didn’t need to moralize. That was liberating.”

Also liberating was the casting of Thom Allison as Robin (see Fall Guide feature, page 54). Various pro female impersonators like Chris Peterson and Tim Murphy workshopped the role, but they were all performing under the wigged-out shadow of the late Craig Russell.

“As soon as it was an actor of colour playing Robin, I thought, ‘Fuck, it’s a totally new character.'”

It didn’t hurt that Allison had star written all over him. When he was cast in a smaller role for a workshop, he stole every scene.

“If we didn’t cast Thom as Robin, we couldn’t have put him in a secondary role,” says Fraser. “He’d have walked away with the show.”

Allison’s ethnicity provided another challenge. Ignore it? Or integrate it into the show?

“I’m big on colour-blind casting, and I don’t think a character has to be of a particular ethnic background,” admits Fraser.

Diverse times

“But I thought that if we were setting the show in 77, it might be remiss of me not to address the race issue in some way.”

Which brings up another question. Just how relevant are the mores of the have-a-nice-day 70s to today’s more diverse times? For heaven’s sake, aren’t gays getting married now?

“There’s still resistance,” says Miller. “Look at Stockwell Day, or Dr. Laura saying, ‘Just fight the urge.'”

The show pushes other hot buttons, too. Liza’s not just schizophrenic. She’s sexually active, with a thing for cab drivers.

“Think about a schizophrenic woman moving in with a gay man today,” says Miller. “What would her parents say? Or maybe the gay guy’s parents would worry about him. Things haven’t changed.”

In fact, what made Fraser refuse to abandon the project were Robin and Liza, the ultimate outsiders.

“They represent everything society sees as being wrong,” says Fraser. “They take those traits and use them to succeed. They say, ‘Fuck you, we don’t have to be losers. We will succeed.’ And they did, they have, beyond anyone’s imagination.”

glenns@nowtoronto.comOUTRAGEOUS, book and lyrics by Brad Fraser, music and additional lyrics by Joey Miller, directed by Fraser, with Thom Allison, Lorretta Bailey, Tamara Bernier, Susan Henley, Karen Leblanc, Sharron Matthews, Tim Murphy, Ed Sahely, Timothy Sell and Timothy Howar. Presented by Canadian Stage (26 Berkeley). Previews from Tuesday (September 19), opens September 28 and runs to October 21, Monday-Saturday at 8 pm, matinees Wednesday 1:30 pm, Saturday 2 pm. $20-$40, previews $15, limited pwyc Monday (except October 9) and half-price same-day rush. 368-3110.

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