Featuring Barbara Barsky, Paul McQuillan. Words and direction by Vincent de Tourdonnet. Music by Allen Cole, J. Douglas Dodd, Stephen Eddins and Jim Kass. June 7 to June 23. Tue-Sat 8pm, $18-25; Sun 2:30pm PWYC. Factory Studio Theatre, 125 Bathurst. 416-504-9971.
Vincent de Tourdonnet was 14 years old and "stoned out of my gourd on bad homegrown pot" when he felt his first strong connection with a musical. Watching Jesus Christ Superstar at a drive-in theatre in Vernon, B.C., from the back of a'69 Mustang, "I flipped out as the lepers sang to Jesus," he says. "The ghost of musical drama has haunted me ever since."
Sure enough, at age 42, de Tourdonnet is clearer-eyed but still possessed. He has actually made a living as a writer of musicals for five of the last 10 years, developing sweeping works based on the stories of Joan of Arc and the Acadian expulsion. But even a man possessed can grow weary of sweep.
With the presentation of Snappy Tales, a quartet of his shorter musicals that opens this week at the Factory Studio Theatre, de Tourdonnet reduces the often-derided form to basic elements. "We have almost no set," he says, describing a show that sports a cast of four and a piano player. "It's just really costumes, lighting, the imagination and some wonderful music by four different composers."
The mini-musicals range from four minutes to about an hour, united by de Tourdonnet's words and direction, and a theme of social satire. "The Doll's House," inspired by the Katherine Mansfield short story and composed by Detroit-based Stephen Eddins, is a fable of material obsession involving two little girls. It serves as a brief curtain-raiser.
"The Barnhouse Effect" is an anti-war parable drawn from Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s first published short story, "Report on the Barnhouse Effect," from 1950. It is now set in Canada, making for a timely satire, says de Tourdonnet, as the world follows the energetic military lead of the United States. He and composer Jim Kass wrote the musical nearly eight years ago, when de Tourdonnet was in New York teaching musical theatre at Long Island University and cater-waitering or running sound for shows while learning everything he could among the workshops and productions of Manhattan's creative scene.
"The Good Person," with music by J. Douglas Dodd, is based on an idea by Bertolt Brecht, whose musical tradition is far closer to de Tourdonnet's heart than Broadway. In this version, three gods descend upon Toronto to find one pure soul.
But the showpiece of the evening is "Strange Medicine," a spoof of the medical profession's drug-pushing ways. It was written with Allen Cole, the apparently ubiquitous composer of the last few theatre seasons, who is responsible for such works as The Crimson Veil and Anything That Moves (the latter with Ann-Marie MacDonald).
"Strange Medicine" premiered as a full-length musical in B.C. 12 years ago and has been pared down for Snappy Tales. Cole and de Tourdonnet are also creative partners on Pélagie, a sprawling epic musical about the flight of the Acadians to Louisiana, based on the novel Pélagie-la-Charette by Antonine Maillet. More than five years in development, the expensive show, with 17 actors playing upwards of 30 parts, is slated for a co-production in 2003-04 that may include Toronto's CanStage.
That glacial development process explains why de Tourdonnet is choosy about the composers he teams up with. "I don't write very fast," he says. "Sometimes I take years to complete a work because I'll rewrite a song, a scene 20 times, 30 times, 40 times. If it's a show that has 25, 30 songs in it, I might end up writing 100." Selecting the right composer for the most compatible idea becomes paramount. Next he may try a rock opera, a term he finds hoary, despite the rockin' vision of Christ that launched this career.
"Some days it feels less like a career and more like an obsession with an arcane art form from which it's impossibly difficult to make a reliable living," he says. Grants and advances help, but royalties have mostly amounted to what he calls chump change.
"But if the stars line up, suddenly your show is in a big venue and you are making serious royalties. They say that in musical theatre, you can't make a living but you can make a killing. But anyone who is motivated by making a killing in musical theatre is liable to wind up with a broken heart."