Musicals are not just for comedies anymore. We can explore much more sophisticated, darker material.
—Joseph Aragon, playwright
When Joseph Aragon
heard a theatre company
in Toronto was looking for some new Canadian musical theatre, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.
"They had an overly ambitious mandate to produce new Canadian musical theatre and I just happened to have some," Aragon says.
Which is a bit of an understatement. The Winnipeg playwright is a favourite on the local Fringe Festival
scene, known for his ambitious, large-scale productions. He's done so many he can't even remember how many musicals he's written - though he laughs and guesses it's about eight.
Aragon decided to submit the script for the one he felt was the most complete: Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare
. It ran at the Winnipeg Fringe in 2009, where it won the Harry S. Rintoul
Memorial Award for Best New Manitoban Play that year. And this year, Toronto's Theatre 20 decided to produce it as part of their season - marking Aragon's first professional production.
Jeff Irving as Thomas Wharton Jones in Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare. (Riyad Mustapha)
But when you consider that Aragon never intended to write musical theatre, his dedication to the form is impressive. "It started as a lark. It was my first year at the National Theatre School
and it was a really intense year for me. I'd never experienced the dramaturgical process that intensely before," he says. "I needed to write something light and silly just to blow off some steam. So I thought, "I'm going to write something off the wall and just get the first draft up there. And I wrote Bloodsuckers
His production company put it up for fun at the 2004 Fringe Festival and the show got a great response. "People had never really seen a musical that ambitious at the Fringe before. Now you see that all the time, but we were one of the first," he says.
After that, Aragon was on a roll, churning out large scale productions with big casts that kept the crowds coming. And though musical theatre is often considered to be the cheerful side of the live stage, Aragon seems intent on exploring its darkness.
For example, Bloodless is based on the story of two Irish serial killers from the early 1800s who discover a medical school will pay for corpses for their anatomy classes...no questions asked. And Aragon freely admits he leans a little more toward Sweeney Todd than My Fair Lady. "Musical theatre has matured as an art form over the years. Musicals are not just for comedies anymore. We can explore much more sophisticated, darker material. You can tell any story you like with musical theatre."
Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare runs at the Panasonic Theatre in Toronto October 12-28.