Sometimes I attend certain theatrical events that overwhelm me with feelings of pride in the incredibly talented and generous theatre community that we have here in Toronto. This was most definitely the case on Sunday evening at Ari Weinberg’s Shameless (for a Cause) at Buddies and Bad Times, an evening to celebrate diversity and to raise money in support of Buddies’ LGBT youth initiatives.
Hosted by the ever vivacious and quixotic Ari Weinberg, this evening brought together some of Toronto’s most iconic and illustrious musical theatre stars with the brightest young performers our city has to offer to sing songs and tell stories centering on embracing uniqueness in the midst of adversity. Weinberg decided to launch this evening in response to the horrific string of suicides by gay youths which have recently come to light and have been linked to both relentless bullying, ignorance and intolerance by peers at school, and also policies of hatred and discrimination that seem appallingly intrinsic to various organizations from service industries to school boards and within the government, not just in the United States, but also here in Canada and around the world. Dan Savage, American author and journalist best known for his frank and inclusive sex column, Savage Love, which runs in many regional papers, launched the It Gets Better Campaign in conjunction with The Trevor Project, which has grown into a slew of videos being made and shared via YouTube mostly by gay, bisexual and transgendered individuals, along with many from celebrities and public figures, reaching out to youths who may be struggling with bullying and feelings of alienation and despair due to their sexual orientation and also providing a strong sense of solidarity in sending the message that bullying will not be tolerated in our schools, and that hatred and discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgendered individuals is wrong and is not welcome in our communities or our society as a whole. “The Trevor Project is an international organization that provides life-saving and life-affirming resources including an American 24/7 crisis intervention lifeline, digital community and advocacy/educational programs that create a safe, supportive and positive environment for everyone.” Weinberg wanted Shameless for a Cause to focus on the local LGBT community here in Toronto, which can provided more specific and centralized help to youths in Ontario, including the youth initiatives at Buddies in Bad Times theatre, and Youth Line, which is an Ontarian organization with a similar mission and toll free crisis intervention, and support network hot line (1 800 268 YOUTH (9688) or, if you’re in Toronto, 416 962 YOUTH (9688)).
The evening began with the ever-charming Kyle Golemba, the Belle of the Ball, recently back in Toronto rehearsing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum after spending the Spring and Summer at the Stratford Festival. Golemba is particularly adept at the storytelling aspect of Cabaret, as he not only knows how to tell stories effectively, but also how to structure each one so that it has a specific comedic arc. He sang Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” a fun twist, in an earnest lovely deep voice mixed with dreamy belting. He then sang one of my favourite Canadian musical theatre songs, “A Day With Julia” from Leslie Arden’s The Last Resort, in a brilliantly jazzy rendition, but still with a palpable sinister darkness. David Lopez, who is currently appearing in Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Princess of Wales Theatre, told us about how when he was ten years old the thought of kissing a girl actually made him violently ill. He has a gorgeous deep, rich voice. First he showed off his shrewd storytelling skills singing “Mr. Right Now” and then he kicked the house down with an electric, soaring, goose bump inducing rendition of “Unexpected Song” from Song and Dance, in an arrangement that suited the lower registers of his voice perfectly. Superstar Bruce Dow, also in Toronto from where he usually stars in Stratford, to do A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, sang an extraordinary rendition of “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”, fraught with charm and jazz and smooth notes like butter to melt in your mouth. He then sang an utterly enticing, soft and captivating song called “Lazy Afternoon,” which was languid in a way that drew the audience in and held them aching for every unfurling note. It was pure magic. It has been said that inside every gay man, there is a big, soulful, divalicious black woman vying to get out, and Jordan Bell had the opportunity to share his inner Effie with all of us with a rousing performance of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” the iconic torch song from Dreamgirls. Bell infused the song with an exorbitant amount of energy and was riffing in a way that left me gleeful. Jeigh Madjus sang “Here’s Where I Stand” from Camp and once again, I have to tell you how effortless Madjus makes singing like an angel, or belting huge, warm, rich notes that spread out like hot fudge and are equally as delicious. His performances are flawless and joyful and it seems as though there is nothing easier or more natural for him to do in the world than perform. He is a delight to watch and his star potential is exhilarating for the whole community.
That being said, the most surprising moment of the evening for me was when the spotlight fell on superstar pianist Chris Tsujiuchi singing a heartfelt, lovely arrangement of Britney Spears’ “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” which gave that song class as I never thought possible. He also wrote this piano solo into the middle of the song which was absolutely breathtaking. His intensity allowed us all to consider the lyrics of the song, as most of us probably never had, within the context he had set up in an eloquent and touching speech before he began about how Sharron Matthews had once shared with him the idea that we are all born exactly as we are supposed to be, with a full pot of gold and that we don’t need anything else from anyone. Our job then, through our lives, is to protect our pots of gold and to never stealing any gold from anyone else. Suddenly, “Hit Me Baby One More Time” became about someone who is continually allowing their gold to be stolen by someone they love, which I think is an experience that everyone can relate to.
In the spirit of solidarity, there were also songs sung by those who are not necessarily “queer” in their orientation, but who, like me, consider the eradication of homophobia to be a vital mission worth crusading for. Alex Saslove and Justin Grant sang a simple and sweet rendition of “You’ve Got a Friend” with Grant providing accompaniment on the guitar, and then Weinberg and Saslove were joined by Sara Farb for a powerful performance of “Hold On” from The Secret Garden in chilling three part harmony. It was incredible to see Weinberg singing so genuine and intensely down in his lower register and Farb proved beyond any doubt that she should be playing Martha in the upcoming production of The Secret Garden that Mirvish has slated for the New Year. Kapow. Kapow. Kapow.
Two time Tony Award nominee Gavin Creel performed as a very special guest. A vibrant member of New York’s Broadway Community, Creel is will be performing a concert of his own music with his partner Robbie Roth, who is Canadian, at the Factory Theatre this Sunday November 28th at 8pm. Creel is also a very active member of the American Crusade for LGBT rights and he spoke passionately about how important he feels that it is for LGBT individuals to come out to their families and their friends, and for straight people to come out in support not only of their friends, but for equality and the eradication of hatred, discrimination and homophobia in all its forms. Creel’s speech reminded me how much I think some of us are able to take for granted in certain communities here in Canada and that there really is still much to be changed, much to fight and lobby for, and that we cannot forget that there is still a great big world beyond our own insular realm of positivity and acceptance, and that we should all be doing our part to help make all of it a place where people can respect love without judging it and encourage children to grow up expressing themselves and following their hearts, regardless of what path that leads them on. Creel sang a beautiful song called “For Nancy” about a child asking his mother not to be ashamed or alarmed, just to love him because he is still the same as he has always been. It’s such a simple song, but so intense in all the emotion that Creel brings to it, it becomes utterly heart wrenching. He then sang a joyful rendition of “I Got Life” from Hair, the most recent show that he performed on Broadway. Creel is a very poignant performer, and along with his dreamy voice, he is also wildly charming and zealous in his desire to share the conversation surrounding gay rights with as many people in an inclusive, positive way, as possible, which I think is so admirable and important.
What I love about Buddies in Bad Times is that every time I walk into that theatre I feel, usually wordlessly, this overwhelming sensation of “you belong here.” It is implicit in Shawn Daudlin and Patricia and everyone else who works there, it’s implied in the work that they choose to produce, and the homey space that they give to Cabaret artists like Ari Weinberg and Sharron Matthews (whose CD release is in Tallulah’s Cabaret this Friday November 26th and Saturday November 27th, you should go). Matthews broke my heart on Sunday evening when she told this story about some mean spirited girls that she befriended as a young, impressionable girl and that she ached and tried everything in her power to stay friends with them despite the fact that they were terrible to her. She then sang her now famous emotionally devastating powerhouse rendition of “Creep” and I doubt there was a dry eye in the whole house. She is so truthful in her performance, so beautiful, I always feel thankful when I watch her perform. I think that most people can relate to wanting to be accepted so ardently, to feeling inferior and having other people take advantage of your vulnerability in their quest to make you feel small. I know that I certainly can relate, as these are all things that I still grapple with. Thom Allison also shared his experiences of feeling inadequate, which made the joy of the bliss that his performance always conjures even more comforting and celebratory than usual.
Yet, despite our stories of feeling isolated or mistreated, here we all were at a theatre where we belong, and I feel like this evening, that inclusion, that force of camaraderie and music and positivity in the face of adversity, hatred and feeling ostracized, is exemplary of our musical theatre community here in Toronto, which is indicative of the greater theatre community that we have not just in this city, but in our entire country. Yes, sometimes competition rears its ugly head, I’m sure jealousy and vindictiveness havebeen known to snap at our heels from time to time, the business is flawed, I’ll be the first to admit it, but in general, overall, the people who live here and work here, who we really are, is what Buddies is, a community where everyone can feel that they belong, and that they are supported and accepted. Hopefully within our community we are being inspired every day to embrace the person that we truly are on the inside and to not be afraid to shine. At the end of Shameless for A Cause Weinberg sang a very touching and hopeful rendition of “Alone in the Universe” from Seussical the Musical. I think part of what makes us so fortunate and so strong and capable is that we are not alone. We all have wings, we can all fly and as long as we keep believing in one another and in ourselves, our theatres will thrive, our city will thrive and we, as human beings of the universe, will all thrive too.