Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Hillbilly Hootenanny... with Vampires

SummerWorks 2010: A Musical Adaptation of Derek McCormack’s The Haunted Hillbilly
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By Stacey Madden

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was in for a delightfully sordid affair.

There I stood, sweating like a cowboy on a humid Sunday night, waiting in line at the Theatre Passe Muraille Mainspace to see a stage adaptation of Derek McCormack’s phantasmagoric novel The Haunted Hillbilly, put out by ECW Press back in 2003. As us late-night theatre goers dripped in the dark, a young man sporting a "Volunteer" tag approached the line and addressed the crowd. “You’re all in for a treat,” he said. “The show is fantastic.”

I didn’t doubt him — but I had no idea I’d soon be walking into a carnivalesque spectacle of honky-tonk tunes and grotesquely delicious delights. The line snaked into the theatre and I took a seat in the second row. There was a trio of scarecrow-like musicians on stage making a spooky clatter with a stand-up bass, sliding tabletop guitar, and the scratching of a pick along steel strings. The patchwork backdrop of red, orange and brown gave the set a Halloween-type feel, and as I looked up at the smoky emptiness of the balcony, I couldn’t help but wonder if the seats were filled with ghostly country bumpkins who would magically appear when the lights went out. Once the show started, however, the eeriness exploded into a knee-slapping, foot-stomping, Stetson hat-waving good time.

The story, in a nutshell, is this: Hyram Woodside, played by Matthew Raudsepp, is a wannabe country star, dubbed "The Lonely Boy," who hasn’t written a hit since he married his wife Audrey, a profanity-spewing hot-head played by Gemma James-Smith. Along comes Nudie, a crippled vampire and couturier, played with perfectly salacious pizzazz by Greg Kramer. Nudie becomes Hyram’s outfitter, then his manager, and helps him achieve the stardom he’s always wanted — but at a price that could cost Hyram his soul.

Rounding out the cast are Daniel Brochu as Hyram’s booze-soaked rival Erskine Mole, Alexis Taylor as Bobbi, Hyram’s starstruck ulterior love interest, playwright Graham Cuthbertson as the tonic-hawking Pastor Ray, who also acts as the play’s narrator, and Kyle Gatehouse as the frightening Dr. Wertham, Nudie’s mute assistant, who is like a more sinister version of Lurch from the Addams Family.

McCormack’s book was adapted by a Montreal-based theatre ensemble called SideMart Theatrical Grocery, composed of Andrew Shaver (artistic director), Graham Cuthbertson (writer and actor) and Sarah Yaffe (production designer). The music in the play — which is fantastic — comes courtesy of Toronto-born songwriter Matthew Barber, alongside musicians Joe Grass and Julian Brown. The songs range from up-tempo honky-tonk numbers to slow-wailin’ bluesy ballads, and every character has his or her moment in the spotlight. Despite the emphasis on music, however, writer Graham Cuthbertson said he doesn’t consider his adaptation of The Haunted Hillbilly a "musical" per se.

“We like to refer to it as a ‘song play,’” he said. “There was a review in Montreal in which it was referred to as a ‘book heavy musical,’ but we never intended it to be Guys and Dolls or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We work in a different style. We’re theatre-based to begin with. We’re not singers and dancers, but we wanted this to be a play that had music all the way through it.”

Perhaps the inclusion of music was a way to distance the play from McCormack’s novel, which is about a musician but obviously doesn’t contain music. The singer in the book is a fictionalization of country legend Hank Williams Sr., but the character’s name was changed to Hyram Woodside for the play. “We didn’t want people to come thinking they were going to see a play about Hank Williams,” Cuthbertson said. When I asked him why he kept the name Nudie for the bloodsucking couturier, a character that is loosely based on Hank Williams’ real-life tailor Nudie Cohn, he said, “The name was too good. People don’t know him the same way they know Hank Williams. That’s his real name, and it’s an incredible one.” No argument there!

I went back to see the show for a second time a few days later at an earlier timeslot. This time the actors played to a packed house. The audience seemed to feed off the enthusiasm of the cast, clapping along to the music and laughing riotously at the mixture of hillbilly hijinks and macabre madness on stage. I asked Graham Cuthbertson about audience participation. “While the show is a traditional theatre show play, it has a bit of an interactive energy,” he said. “Not that we want people to jump up on stage, but it’s very self-aware. Over time it could create a really interesting audience dynamic. It would be neat to see people learn the songs and want to sing along.” Naturally I asked about the possibility of a soundtrack. “Yes, we have considered recording a soundtrack,” he said. “I think it would be really fun to have a double disc kind of thing, with Matt Barber singing the songs on one side, and on the B-side to have a performance quality cast recording.”

Present in the audience on my second viewing was Derek McCormack himself, having a grand old time along with everybody else. “Derek has been our strongest supporter in this process,” Cuthbertson said. “His work has been invaluable and inspiring, frankly. We’re really lucky to have met him.”

As for Derek, he said he was “tickled pink” when the SideMart Theatrical Grocery crew approached him about adapting his novel for the stage. He has seen the play a ton of times, both the workshop production in Montreal and now here in Toronto. “How could I not?” he said. “I love the play. I love the script, I love the songs. The book is a nasty piece of work, and the play has retained some of the nastiness. It’s sort of like sitting in a room while a hundred and fifty people read the novel together and react right in front of me. The immediacy is shocking and scary and I’m sort of soaking it up while I can.”

If you didn’t see The Haunted Hillbilly at this year’s SummerWorks festival, you’ve missed your chance to soak it up for yourself. Still, all hope is not lost. “We would love to come back to Toronto and have a few weeks of a steady eight o’clock run,” Cuthbertson said. “I also think it would make a great low-budget movie in the style of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, but we’re probably a little ways off from that.”

As I left the theatre and walked out into the mundane twilight and white noise of Queen West, I felt like I’d been slapped in the face by a prudish reality after a drunken night at the Grand Ole Opry, or set loose after a hypnotizing spell in a museum of animated wax figures. Back to my boring life.

But then there were those songs in my head....

* * *

Stacey Madden lives and writes in Toronto. He works at Book City, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and is currently at work on a novel.

Photos of The Haunted Hillbilly by Sarah Yaffe of SideMart Theatrical Grocery

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