Richard Marsella is standing in a phone booth at the intersection of Gerrard and Parliament, midway between Toronto’s financial district and the Don Valley Brick Works Park. Which seems weirdly appropriate, for while Marsella is a mild-mannered music teacher, his alter ego Friendly Rich has clearly beamed in from a parallel universe, one where dusty, Old World cabaret styles collide with a decidedly North American sense of suburban dislocation.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the classically trained Marsella was headed for a career as a composer before his twisted sense of humour pushed him into the subcultural world of the vaudeville revival—following, it should be noted, a stint writing music for The Red Green Show.
“I think that’s what attracts the fantastic musicians that I work with: the sense of humour in it,” he says. “Not taking it too seriously, but at the same time taking it seriously, like a ‘classical musician’ would. It’s turning it upside down, for sure.”
Marsella’s MA in composition from the University of Toronto came in especially useful during the days when he was leading a 10-piece version of his Lollipop People band that incorporated bassoon, harp, and cello in addition to the usual guitars, drums, and keyboards. (Thanks to the amount of international touring he’s been doing of late, he now works with a relatively compact sextet.) But the YouTube evidence available online also shows that he’s not above miming masturbation during a long keyboard solo; sharing stage space with geriatric exhibitionists; or writing wildly surreal chamber-pop songs about punch-drunk boxers, bodily fluids, and self-mutilation.
Asked why he’s drawn to the cabaret format, Marsella credits his “inability to pay attention”. “I have such a short attention span that I enjoy adding puppets,” he explains. “I enjoy adding a guy lighting his ding-dong on fire, wherever I can, to a show. I mean, I get distracted on-stage quite often, from the inevitable weirdos that come out to the show. So I think it’s incorporating all that into it, and it teeters, certainly, on the theatrical side. I’ve always been interested in vaudeville and that whole era—and I did a lot of work, actually, in my hometown of Brampton in an old vaudeville theatre when I was developing what I do. So, I don’t know, maybe something got in the water!”
The full scope of Marsella’s creative mind will be revealed in September 2012, when his full-length puppet opera, The Divine Providence of Paprika, makes its debut. (“It’s about a girl who pulls all the shit in the world off to the end of the world and drowns it all,” he reveals.) But even the condensed, tour-van-ready version of the Friendly Rich show promises some wild moments.
“The show I do with the Lollipop People is definitely dirty,” he says, laughing. “There’s even a little bit of discomfort, at times. It’s got some grit to it, that’s for sure!”
Friendly Rich and the Lollipop People play the Western Front on Friday (October 28).