Songs from the edge

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      The Chutzpah! Festival opens up the Facebook generation’s anxious heart with Edges: A Song Cycle

      Josh Epstein is a rising musical-comedy star, but he won’t perform in his latest project, Edges: A Song Cycle. Instead, he’s producing it, and he says it’s the scariest career move he has ever made. “I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights since I started this,” he confesses in conversation with the Straight. Asked how much of his own money he has invested in the project, he replies, “About eight thousand dollars.”

      Epstein will present Edges as part of Chutzpah!, the international festival of Jewish performing arts running from Saturday (February 23) to March 2 at the Norman Rothstein Theatre. (Edges opens next Thursday [February 28], with performances following on March 1 and 2.)

      The 28-year-old graduate of Langara College’s Studio 58 acting program is speaking on the phone from Calgary, where he’s rehearsing the lead role of Seymour in Stage West’s production of Little Shop of Horrors. This spring, he’ll take on the biggest performing assignment of his career, when he plays the nerdy accountant Leopold Bloom opposite Jay Brazeau’s Max Bialystock in the Arts Club’s production of The Producers.

      He likes these newer musicals. And he is particularly excited about Edges, which has won acclaim across the U.S., because it’s younger, hipper, and truer to his own experience than many of the big-budget spectacles that are the bread and butter of any musical-theatre performer’s career. “I think musicals have a reputation of just being Oklahoma! and Cabaret,” he says. “Those shows are fantastic, but there’s a lot that’s been written in the past 10 years that Vancouver, especially, doesn’t get to see.”

      American songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul were just 19 and sophomores in the theatre program at the University of Michigan when they wrote Edges in 2005. Although there’s no overarching story, its thematically related songs, which are sung by four performers, speak to the obsessions of today’s young adults. Its most famous number, “Be My Friend”, is commonly referred to by fans as the “Facebook song”: “Help me feel alive/Be friend five hundred and five.” Elsewhere, Edges
      explores a subject close to the heart of Gen Y: romantic ambivalence. The characters who sing “I Hmm You” can’t bring themselves to use the word love. And Epstein confesses that the lyric that touches him most comes from “Lying There”: “But wishing I could love you/Isn’t
      really loving/I suppose”.

      The characters in Edges struggle with growing up, but Epstein seems well-prepared for his transition into the role of theatrical businessperson. Although he was once a child performer—he appeared in Marvin’s Room at the Arts Club in 1994, and on several television shows, including The X-Files—he took a brief hiatus from show business to get a commerce degree from UBC before attending Studio 58.

      Putting his training in marketing to good use, and taking his cue from “Be My Friend”, Epstein is using Facebook to sell Edges. His first answer to a question about how many Facebook friends he has is coy: “I have a lot. The group has 430.” But he finally comes clean: “I have over a thousand. You’re not going to print that, are you?”

      The Edges Vancouver Facebook group that Epstein has started targets a younger crowd, simply because it’s based on the contacts of the mostly youthful people associated with the Vancouver production. That seems appropriate for this heavily pop-influenced musical; its bubbling melodic lines and conversational lyrics make Edges sound like a more relaxed version of Rent. Inevitably, however, some audience members will be older and some will be conservative. Epstein has sought and received special permission from Pasek and Paul to include their song “Pretty Sweet Day”, which is not normally part of the show and contains the lyric: “You’re a little fucker/And Santa’s not real”. The revenge song “In Short” rhymes: “I pray you get a rectal rash” with “You’re broke and have to do porn for cash”. Asked what he’d like to say to people who might be freaked out by the language, he replies: “I want to say that Avenue Q won the Tony award [for the best musical of 2003]. Puppets have intercourse in that show. Edges is racier than Beauty and the Beast, but it’s definitely not racier than anything that’s on prime-time television. You’re not going to see any blood.”

      As we prepare to say goodbye, the young artist admits, “I never thought I’d produce in theatre, because I did go to business school and I know it’s not the smartest thing to do. But there’s a show in my back pocket that I want to do. I can’t tell you what it is, but it’s never been produced in Canada. And I want to produce my own solo show, which I’ve had a lot of success with, on a bigger scale. It’s called What I Like About Jew.” He penned that piece when he was in training at Studio 58 and brushed it up for performances in Charlottetown last summer. “My goal with that one would be to get it off-Broadway.” Sleep-deprived or not, that’s a producer talking.