My Gay Toronto - 416 Scene

Thom Allison bares his soul in Elegies

Thom Allison says that his role in Elegies involves, “Putting your own desire for immortality on the table, laid bare, with all the longing and fear and joy and excitement that goes with it.” But, as usual, he has a twinkle in his eye. Allison is one of those rare theatre artists who can reach across the gulf between the stage and an audience and connect directly. The audience will never see the hard work that goes into an Allison performance, they just get to be awed by his gorgeous voice and engaging presence.

Allison’s career is long and varied and Toronto audiences get the pleasure of seeing him revisit his role in the hit production of Elegies. Just as he did when in the midst of his star-making, and emotionally and physically taxing, role of Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime, Allison happily answers a few questions about why Elegies means so much to him and gives a little bit of insight into his creative process.

Elegies is billed as celebrating life but and an elegy is a “funeral song” or “lament.” William Finn is a clever composer, who is great with difficult material, and you’ve even managed to make Christmas music palatable in cabaret, but can you explain the apparent dichotomy?  Is it a challenge? 

Though an elegy is a song for a dead person, William Finn’s songs are loving tributes to people who have passed on. The songs celebrate, explore and examine the lives of friends, family, acquaintances - some real, some imagined.  When you see and hear the songs, it makes sense. He's got a wonderful way of making you feel like you know the person and even though you don't, you feel like their life mattered, and isn't that what we all ultimately want: to feel like our lives mattered?  So no, it's not a challenge to see the life-affirming theme of the songs and the piece but yes, it's hard to be so simple and honest within the material that is speaks to the collective truths in someone's life and death that everyone can relate to. It's a beautiful and inspirational show.

Acting Up Stage specializes in obscure or overlooked musicals (including FalsettosOnce Upon This Island, and my personal favourite Ride the Cyclone). Is there a production that you would particularly urge them to tackle and cast you in? 

Oh wow. I don't have one in mind but what is great about Acting Up Stage is that Mitchell Marcus has found the golden formula. He chooses interesting shows that aren't necessarily well-known shows and then gets great directors, actors and creative teams together and does a kick-ass production. His audiences trust that even if they haven't heard of it, it's going to be a great night of theatre.

There isn’t a specific production that you would like to see them revive? Would Outrageous [Brad Fraser’s musical adaptation of the film starring Allison in the Craig Russell role] be a good choice?

I think Outrageous might be too big for them with all the specialty costumes, etc, but I know Mitchell would put together a great version. Hmmm, you know I'd love the chance to get some of the things right that I got wrong in the original production.

Do you prefer the bright lights of Broadway/Shaw and a big audience or the intimacy of cabaret work? Where does Elegies fit in?

For years, I couldn't imagine people paying to just see me do anything. But having done my own shows, I have to say I love the creative control of it and the intimacy of the relationship with the audience. I love a big crowd too but a lot depends on the material and those who are creating the project with you. Broadway and Shaw are thrilling; cabaret is exhilarating.  I guess that's part of what I love about Elegies, it's a theatrical show but it's so intimate that it's like you're doing a cabaret, at least in terms of how intimately you need to work through the material. 

Is there a song in Elegies that speaks particularly to you or you are particularly moved when performing?

Funny, that ends up being two different songs for me. One that speaks to me is a song I don't sing. It's called “The Day the Earth Stopped Turning.” The young man character sings it. It's about his mother's death and it's so heart-breaking and beautiful that when I took the music, after the last time we did Elegies, and tried to learn it to sing myself, I couldn't even get through the whole song once without bursting into tears so I had to stop trying. That's never happened before to me ever. I literally couldn't get through the song once and I tried three times. And my mother is still alive.

The song I'm most moved by when performing is called “Venice” and it's an amazing song that is about - well, it's rather open to interpretation - heaven, hope, peace. I remember it was one of the songs that people were really moved by last time.  

Is there a song that one of your castmates performs that you’d love a crack at?

Actually there is a song Barbara Barsky sang/sings in the show that I already had in my key by the end of the run and started singing for events two weeks later. “Infinite Joy” is one of the best songs ever. It's okay, she knows I sing it, and, by the way, she sings the living daylights out of it in the show.

The previous production of Elegies was a huge hit for Acting Up Stage and you received a Dora nomination. Does this put you under pressure? How is this production different and worth revisiting? How are you approaching the material differently?

I'm trying not to think of the Dora nomination. I'm afraid of screwing with my own head.  But we're all seven years older - except for Joel A Gomez who is new to the show and was covered in placenta the last time we did the show - and we're all bringing new energy. We've been through different relationships, deaths, losses, joys. There is a deepening of emotions, understanding. We are using some of the ideas that worked in the last production and throwing some out based on what we've all discovered as we've grown up. I've had death walk much closer to my door since the last time I did this show.  I'm simplifying things that I think I made fussier because I didn't trust what I had to give. The show has things to say that have not grown old or lost their freshness. It's going to be more streamlined.

From a dancing cupcake in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – The Musical to a powerhouse performance as Coalhouse Walker in Ragtime, do you prefer to make people laugh or cry?

It depends on the role.  Two of my favourite things that I ever did are Coalhouse in Ragtime and Aldolpho in The Drowsy Chaperone. Two completely different roles, but both equally thrilling to do each night. I love a role to have a big effect on people whether it’s laughing or crying.

You were an important component of CBC’s reality show competition Over the Rainbow which is a career booster, but would you consider a Kardashian-style, scandalous reality show as a way to claw/slither your way to the top? 

Ha! I don't want to do a show where people are watching me take a dump and be bitchy to my family and drinking milk out of the carton. But I'd love to do more reality. But I want to fun and lift people. I don't need to be a car crash on TV.

You’re fearless about nudity (Take Me OutOutrageous) and emotional exposure (cabaret, Ragtime) – what is most challenging about Elegies?

The most challenging thing about Elegies is telling the stories as simply as possible while putting your own desire for immortality on the table, laid bare, with all the longing and fear and joy and excitement that goes with it.

Elegies runs Fri, March 21 to Sun, April 13 at Daniel’s Spectrum, 585 Dundas St E.