Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Fringe musicals

My feature on Dr. Horrible and Raccoonery, two of the musical offerings at this year's Fringe Festival appears in this week's WE (WestEnder).

Morgan Brayton’s Raccoonery! is one of nine musical offerings at this year’s Fringe Fest.
Morgan Brayton’s Raccoonery! is one of nine musical offerings at this year’s Fringe Fest.
Credit: Supplied

Sing out strong

Past experience with international upheaval has taught us that when times get tough, there are few better escapes than musicals (WWII and Oklahoma, Vietnam and Hair — anyone?). Now, in response to an almost decade-long hell of war and economic strife, musicals have once again found a place on screens both big (Chicago) and small (Glee, the High School Musical franchise).

That momentum is mirrored at the 26th annual Vancouver International Fringe Festival. Nine shows on this year’s schedule are either musicals or make music a major component of the production. Yet although audiences may only be looking for a few blessed minutes of escapism, the reality of mounting a musical production goes well beyond a little song and dance.

Steven Greenfield is the music director, associate director, and producer of Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, a live adaptation of TV auteur Joss Whedon’s (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly) popular web-based musical serial. Never intended to be performed live, Dr. Horrible had to be reworked virtually from scratch by Broadway West, the Calgary-based company that secured the rights for a production earlier this year and is also co-producing the Vancouver production.

“You don’t want to just put the movie up on stage,” Greenfield says of his version. “You want to make it a theatre piece, but there are some big challenges with that.” The first being that the script had to be transcribed by watching the movie repeatedly and typing out the dialogue verbatim. Without a published score, Greenfield and his team were also tasked with transposing the soundtrack.

Relephant Theatre is bringing Joss Whedon cult web musical series Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog to the Fringe Fest.

If the hype surrounding Dr. Horrible on Facebook and Twitter is any indication, Vancouverites will be anxious to see the live version. Greenfield attributes this in part to a confluence of factors: Whedon’s cult-like following, the musical’s continuing mainstream success, and a reaction to the current social and economic climate. “People bursting into song and knowing all the dance steps — there’s a huge surrealism there, and the audience really has to take a jump with you to make it work,” he says.

That same leap of faith required of an audience can also be demanded of a performer. For Morgan Brayton, the experience of developing her one-woman show, Raccoonery!, has been surreal in its own right. The show finds the local comedian-actress incorporating songs that she herself penned (with music by Laura Lee Schulz) into her character-driven comedy bits. It’s a huge departure for Brayton, who swears that until five years ago she couldn’t even sing karaoke in front of people.

“I have no musical talent,” she insists, laughing, “but I tend to make up silly songs or sing what I’m doing. My wife and I have a lot of songs for our cats — because we’re crazy lesbians — so our cats each have their own song. And there’s the ‘Bare Naked’ song, which is when I get out of the shower and run around the house naked singing, ‘Bare naked, bare bare naked!’ then run back into the bathroom.”

Despite Brayton’s singer-songwriter status being no more than accidental (or charmingly pathological), reaction to Raccoonery!’s early previews exposed an unexpected demand for a soundtrack. She still can’t quite believe that CDs of her singing will be up for sale after the show.

“Music is supposed to be joyful, and for me it got wrapped up in being embarrassed and not good at something,” says Brayton. “But that’s the antithesis to what music’s supposed to be... It’s like comedy: it’s a thing that connects us. When you’re in an audience and sitting with a bunch of other people, it’s like we’re all in this together.”

The Vancouver Fringe Festival runs Sept. 9-19 at various venues. For tickets to Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, Raccoonery!, and other musicals (including Happily Ever After?; A Man, A Magic, A Music; 13; Unplugged Cop; Die Roten Punkte; A Day in the Life of Miss Hiccup; Ancient Chinese Secrets of the Tao) or any of the other 80-plus shows at the Fringe, visit

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