With a wicked send-up of our credit-card woes and obsession with money, Debt—The Musical searches for truth in laughter
It’s been a year of layoffs, financial doomsaying, and debt overload, but the worst may just be arriving: your credit card bill, and all the Christmas spending you’ve racked up on it. You can either laugh or cry.
The Firehall Arts Centre team is encouraging you to do the former with a premiere opening on Wednesday (January 13) that could not be better timed. Debt—The Musical, Vancouver playwright Leslie Mildiner’s new send-up of our sorry state of affairs, takes a biting satirical look at our emotional attachment to the green stuff and sets it all to the sounds of rock-tinged tunes. Think songs with titles like “It’s a Rental (Can’t Afford to Buy)”, “Will You Go Postal?” and “Plastic Love”, and you’ll get an idea of the twisted take on our money matters.
Sitting with the Straight at the Firehall between rehearsals, director Donna Spencer laughs about some of the almost painfully funny scenes: a guy kicking the bejesus out of an ATM; an upper-middle-class couple forced to eat KD so they can maintain their private-club membership. But she hopes Debt—The Musical will stir some deeper thoughts and actions too.
“I think it’ll cheer people up, but hopefully it will get them to say, ”˜I really should do something about the $150 a month I’m paying in credit-card interest,’ ” Spencer says. “ ”˜Yes, the economy is down the tubes, but maybe I don’t need that 26th pair of shoes.’”¦Maybe they’ll say, ”˜You know, I gotta get my student loan paid down,’ or ”˜My God, I really do pay 18 percent on my credit card!’ ”
Debt fits nicely into the string of sociopolitically charged musicals that the atmospheric Downtown Eastside theatre has been making a name for. In 1998, the Firehall premiered Menopositive! The Musical the J. J. McColl show that continues to tackle the subject of “the change” on tour, and 2006-07 saw its biggest hit in Urinetown, an outrageous, toilet-themed tour de force that left audiences in stitches, but sent them home pondering the world’s dire shortage of water.
“I’ve always loved musical theatre, but I’ve always had a problem with just doing them just for the sake of doing them,” explains Spencer, the Firehall’s long-time artistic producer. “I’m more interested in pushing the boundaries of how musicals are performed.”
It’s not easy to find homegrown, politicized musicals, either. Debt—The Musical had its genesis in a series of sketches Mildiner and musician-composer Todd Butler did at the Vancouver International Comedy Festival a couple years ago—long before markets crashed and burned. Mildiner (who also wrote the all-female revue All Grown Up, as well as Wang Dang Doodle: The Harlem Musical) developed the script out of his own experiences declaring bankruptcy.
The premiere will see a cast of seven performers, including Simon Webb as Spike, a narrator who works in all of Mildiner’s research about the historical origins of credit (did you know that people used to go to prison for being in debt?) and shifts into the roles of everyone from a real estate agent to a welfare investigator. Other characters include a single mom and a spendaholic. The band—Butler on the guitar, Spirit of the West’s Vince Ditrich on drums, and Lee Oliphant on bass—plays live on-stage, spanning genres from heavy metal, blues, and country to even a Britney Spears parody.
Amid the plot threads, there are some eerily timely nods to the plight of artists. Arts cuts by the provincial government are looming large, and Spencer can’t help but focus on a line in the work about valuing artists. “How does this mom make a living when she’s not working as an artist? Well, waiting tables or making sex phone calls. It’s the idea that if you want to be someone creative, you have to have a backup plan.” She laughs again at the musical’s almost uncanny relevance: “When we were first talking about this, we had no idea that the arts cuts were going to happen.”
As the director of a cultural institution, Spencer has been all too aware of how money flows in and out of the facility, and how to avoid falling into debt. But she says these times, and this musical, are forcing people to wake up and take control of their own finances.
“I think we’re all being made aware of the power that money has over us. We all want nice things, but do we really need them? A lot of people feel like they don’t have a lot of control over their lives, and money has so much to do with that,” Spencer says. “I hope people feel empowered by this, instead of going home and pulling out their hair.”
With this kind of relevance to the here and now, the Firehall just may have another hit on its hands, and Spencer admits that the hope is the show will go on to tour. But the draw of its edgy new spin on the genre isn’t just the ripped-from-the-headlines content: Spencer reckons it’s performed in such an intimate space that it will make these personal debt stories really hit home.
“People love the chance to hear musicals that aren’t miked,” she says. “You’re right there. You’re three feet away from people in the front row.” And that’s an experience money—about 20 bucks, to be exact—really can buy.