Actor/singer/playwright Rick Miller is heading into a daunting change of scope this month, coming from the intimacy of starring in the two-person hit play Venus in Fur in Toronto, direct to the Irvine Barclay Theatre to perform in Boom, an exploration of the baby boom generation that will feature no fewer than 100 characters.
Not that there’s much chance of Miller getting lost in the crowd: The cast is exactly one-half the size of Fur, since it is Miller who is giving voice to every single one of the show’s characters, including 26 singing ones ranging from Perry Como to Janis Joplin.
Barclay regulars will certainly recollect Miller’s three stands at the theater with his previous tour-de-force, MacHomer, in which he single-handedly delivered Shakespeare’s MacBeth using the voices of Simpsons characters.
The runaway success of MacHomer kept Miller touring with it for 17 years, though it is far from the only feather in his cap. Named one of “the 100 most creative people alive today” by Entertainment Weekly, he has done countless pieces of voice-over work; hosted the ABC Canada TV show Just for Laughs; toured another one-man play, Bigger Than Jesus; is preparing an ambitious stage production of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (he assures us that he won’t be playing all 20,000 leagues himself); and is generally so busy it’s hard to know how he’s going to be squeezing in performances of Boom, which is booked pretty solid for the next two-and-a-half years.
Irvine Barclay Theatre
Dates are being rescheduled
The ambitious project had a humble beginning, the 44-year-old Toronto native said. “I wanted to archive information about my parents, and my father in particular, who had an atypical story we don’t often hear, because it’s not from the North American perspective. He grew up in war-torn Vienna, and had to rebuild a life in North America, so it’s not the Leave It to Beaver story we tend to associate with that era.
“When I was younger and my dad would talk about his life, I’d just roll my eyes and think, ‘Here goes Dad on another of his stories.’ But for this, he sat at the computer and wrote down his life story. Delivered that way, I got over all of the biases and blocks that we put up when our parents or grandparents talk to us. It connected with me. One of the things I’m trying to say with Boom is history is much more of a cycle than we care to think, and we become our parents a lot more than we care to think.”
Along with the scores of prominent figures—from Winston Churchill to David Bowie—that Miller briefly inhabits in Boom, there are three life-sized characters running through his tale. One is based largely on his father, while two are composites and fictional adaptations of people he’s known (One has more than a dollop of his mother in it, he says, while the remaining character is based on draft-aged US kids who moved to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War.)
Boom is bracketed by two historic explosions: One is the atomic bomb blast at Hiroshima that heralded the end of WWII and subsequent post-war baby boom; the other is the rocket that launched Apollo 11 toward the moon in 1969, which presaged its own minor baby boom.
“That was like an explosion of joy after some rough times in the 1960s. I was born in March of 1970. I did the math and saw that I was conceived in the week Apollo 11 launched, when the world was clearly feeling pretty good about itself,” Miller said with a laugh.
It’s in his nature, he said, to connect small events to big ones, and so Boom grew.
“In my mind and work, I always try to zoom out and look at the connections between things. From the initial idea of gathering information about my father, I jumped at this chance to curate a time capsule that very much speaks to the present.
“I’ve seen a lot of plays and documentaries about the baby boomer generation, and they all kind of look and feel the same; all slightly reverent and nostalgic, like Dan Rather on CNN going ‘look how we almost changed the world.’
“Covering something as quickly as I am—averaging four minutes per year--you’re bound to have some cliché in it. Covering the major iconic events, for instance, I have to include Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, as opposed to other great speeches he gave. I try to keep things from being clichéd by contextualizing it and delivering it with a new energy. And I do it in a way where I can sing everything from Perry Como to Janis Joplin, which I love to do. I’m a bit of a ham when it all comes down to it.”
Why does he feel the boomers were such an influential generation?
“Part of it is this pig-in-the-python effect; this idea that there were so just many boomers that they reshaped society as they passed through it. They were born: Baby food was invented. They needed to be sheltered: The suburbs were invented. They needed to be schooled: New schools were built. They were going to have sex; The pill was invented, boom! And so on. With all of these things, it seems that society molded itself around this generation.
“And I think no other generation was able to blur the lines between politics and culture so much, and maybe I’m envious of that: where every cultural gesture actually had political impact. Sure, culture today has an impact, but is it actually society-changing and political? I wouldn’t say so anymore.
“Along with the size and affluence of that generation, the technology then—the transistor radio, the car radio, television-- made it so any dinky pop song could become a national craze, and that 72% of all TVs were tuned to the same I Love Lucy episode. That permitted a kind of mass communication and mass identification with a larger movement that just doesn’t happen like that now. When something happened then, it resonated more.”
Licensing the images and songs to convey that era was a bear, but necessary, he said. “There were difficult, long and sustained negotiations during the past two years, and we’re paying a lot in royalties. But that’s the cost we if we want the iconic moments like Elvis’s first performance on the Milton Berle show, where Elvis shocked the United States. Those moments had to be done.”
With a voice as virtuosic as Miller’s—his version of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” sung in 26 famous voices was a YouTube sensation—he could be forgiven if he picked songs just for their grandstanding potential, but he says he’s not interested in doing a nostalgia casino act.
“My interest, for better or worse has always been to try to paint a deeper story with the songs and impersonations. I’m trying here for something that is truthful and that resonates with baby boomers, but I’m really trying to reach younger people, even baby boomers’ grandchildren. I always come out and talk to people after the show, and I’ve been fascinated by what young people at the previews have been getting out of it.
“This one 18-year-old guy told me his grandmother had just died, and she had lived through that era. He said he wished he had seen the show with her so he could have talked to her more about her times. He was quite choked up when he said that. He said in a strange way, he felt he knew her so much better after having spent 100 minutes watching me onstage. I wasn’t telling her story, but he felt I was in some way. That was quite powerful for me, to hear I was reaching an 18-year-old boy who would normally say ‘screw you’ to theater, who engaged with the characters in the play.”
Responses such as that have Miller encouraged about his Barclay performances taking place over the sometimes theater-resistant Thanksgiving holiday.
“It makes me think that this is the perfect Thanksgiving show. There aren’t many plays you can bring your kids and grandkids to and be able to have the kind of discussion that tends to happen after this one. It’s the kind of experience you can really bring back to the dinner table with you.”
Miller has been exploring doing more TV and film work, so that he wouldn’t be touring constantly, though he’d never want to forgo stage work. He said, “With theater, there is this direct connection with an audience, an experience you and they simply can’t get anywhere else. In film and TV, you can lie and cheat on so many different levels, whereas in theater you can’t. What works great in theater is the transformation of one character into another in front of your eyes, or seeing something sung right in front of you that seems impossible.
“I try to remind myself all the time: Why would someone not just stay home and watch Netflix? Why bother getting a babysitter and driving downtown, parking and going to see a play? What gets them there? It doesn’t have to be a multi-million dollar spectacle, but you need to make an event out of it, some direct experience they cannot have watching a TV or computer screen, that only happens in a room, live, with other people.
“The Barclay is perfect for this. Boom certainly isn’t a show for a 3,000-seat theater. I’m behind a cylindrical scrim for the whole show. (Images and text scroll over it throughout, while Miller is visible inside it, like a human time capsule.) In the right-sized venue, the audience can forget about that and still connect with me in there behind the multimedia. Any larger venue and I think the theatricality of a show like this is lost. If I were in an arena, you might as well just see the show on film. In a space like the Barclay, you still get the intimacy that theater can give, the sense of one person less than 100 feet from you going through 100 characters, and taking you through it without any trickery. It’s all right there.”
Miller relished performing in Venus in Fur, claiming, “It’s flexing a whole other acting muscle to actually speak to another person onstage.” It’s also a different experience being locked into someone else’s script and “finding your freedom within that.” His own plays tend to grow and change, he said.
“I have two degrees in architecture, and tend to think architecturally. Venus in Fur I think of as an intricate labyrinth construction, where I can’t change the architecture, so I just have to trust it and find my way inside it, whereas in my own plays, even if the show goes on for years, I still continually mess with the building. I change the architecture a lot, sometimes a major structural change, sometimes just an aesthetic tweak here and there.”
In doing one-man shows, does he ever get a little tired of himself?
“To do a one-man show, I think, takes a great deal of arrogance, but I think the arrogance is balanced with humility. Yes, you’re arrogant to think that people want to watch you onstage, but you have to be humble enough to know that, even though you’ve done a show hundreds of times, the people in front of you are paying to see it for the first time, and you really do have to get into the audience’s head and give them an experience they can’t get anywhere else, and also learn from them. You have to learn from every performance, so that it’s a living, breathing thing and not canned. That’s what I aspire to with everything I do.”