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High maintenance

Rob Kempson’s musical about a young man’s coming out and the stories he would have liked to tell his grandmother, but couldn’t

Rob Kempson believes in musicals. So much so that if someone were to randomly approach him and say, “I hate musicals!” he would just flat out not believe them.

“You just can’t hate musicals,” says Kempson. “People who say they hate musicals are thinking of fly-in sets, choruses and tap dancing. They just haven’t seen the right musical. I love musicals as much as the next homo, from the really awful campy ones to the beautiful ones, from Hello Dolly to Elegies. But there are so many different types, there will be one someone could love.”

Maybe even his own. Kempson’s musical, The Way Back To Thursday, which opens this month at Theatre Passe Muraille, explores the complexities of coming out to one’s family through the relationship between a young man and his grandmother.

As a queer 30-year-old who came out to his friends and family nearly a decade ago, Kempson had a relatively easy transition. “My mom probably still secretly wishes that I would marry my best friend Rebecca,” he says. Yet she continues to support his queer lifestyle. His brother also seemed to take it in stride. His dad was another story altogether, a reaction that Kempson had not expected.

“My dad was a bit of a wild card,” says Kempson. “I felt like he wouldn’t really be put off by it, but I know it was a big deal for him in a way that I didn’t anticipate.” Although he doesn’t go into the details of how his father dealt with the news, Kempson is enlightened by the experience which in turn moves our conversation into one about maintaining complex relationships after the official coming out. “Maintenance needs to happen,” he says. “Coming out is not the end of a coming out story; it is only the beginning. At a young age, it can feel like coming out is the hardest thing to do, but in fact it is just the beginning of a series of circles to consider.”

Family circles, that is. The same ones that have made a profound impact on the kind of musical theatre that Kempson is committed to. His strong sense of family still has him wondering who he might have left out in his initial coming out process almost 10 years ago. So this past Thanksgiving, before taking his partner home to meet the extended Kempson clan, he found himself emailing a cousin he thought might still not know he is gay, all the time wondering if the cousin even cared or needed to know. But this impulse to keep relatives in his queer loop lies deep in the foundation of his musical.

Kempson, who wrote the book and lyrics, stars in the 75-minute song cycle without dialogue, sharing the stage with the fabulous Astrid Van Wieren, and a piano and cello accompaniment.

For his research he specifically sought out the stories of twentysomething men—queer and straight—and their connections to a loved one from another generation, like a grandparent. The interview subjects spoke of everything from baseball and National Geographic magazines to movies, all united in some way through a shared interest.

Kempson’s own grandmother passed away when he was only 12, before he had time to cultivate a strong bond based in common interests. And though he fondly recounts her as a farmer who collected eggs—“I was mildly scared of the chickens”—Kempson decided his on-stage coming of age story would be less autobiographical.

Instead of his real life connection  told in song and tuneful clucking sounds, he made The Way Back To Thursday an iconic fictionalized tale about the movies, and a grandmother’s desire for a glamorous past, the two bonding over images on a screen, including those of Rock Hudson. These enduring cinematic stories, the fodder for the formative influences on a curious child moving into young manhood, bring them together, yet ultimately separate them by way of gender and sexuality. Neither a happy nor a sad ending, The Way Back To Thursday is a piece of musical theatre that values the need to keep relationships authentic and alive through mutual honesty and reflection

In the summarizing song End, the lyrics ponder difficult tensions around the conflicted idea that sometimes people just “don’t want to talk anymore, don’t take time to listen anymore.” Ultimately, The Way Back To Thursday chronicles a young man’s emergence into queerness and the stories he would have liked to tell his grandmother, but couldn’t.

As the interview progresses, Kempson still won’t give up on anyone who claims to abhor even the thought of musical theatre, claiming that Toronto audiences tend to separate traditional theatre from musical theatre in an unnecessarily divisive way. “There’s still a sense that musicals are somehow separate from theatre,” says Kempson.

“When in fact they simply represent a multi-disciplinary form of theatre. I think we do a disservice to ourselves by suggesting that the two worlds are separate. General theatregoers should go to musicals, and vice versa.”

His distinction between various forms of theatre and musical theatre, between queer and straight identities, are the basis for Kempson’s very personal and professional journey during the past 20 years, balancing his life of an artist and arts educator. Having studied music and drama at Queen’s University, with an Artist-in-Community Education degree, Kempson divides his time between programming events for Theatre Passe Muraille and going out into regional communities. There he teaches a varied cross-section of people who are interested in theatre, from multi-generational congregations in an Etobicoke church to enthusiastic individuals ages nine to 90. He also makes regular visits to schools in Peel and York regions as well as institutions within the Toronto District School Board.

“My work lies somewhere between theatre and community arts,” says Kempson, who for the past three years has been the associate artistic producer at Theatre Passe Muraille. “Community investment is the primary purpose. I often question whether the people I work with are having the most valuable experience or whether they’re making the most brilliant art.”

His position as an arts educator and artist puts him in a prime position to assess and learn from the cultural divides he tries to navigate on a daily basis as part of his professional and personal life. “I feel very lucky to have this work produced by a ‘general’ theatre company. I’m a playwright as well as a composer, and have written a number of straight plays. I didn’t start creating [The Way Back To Thursday] knowing that this was a musical, just like I didn’t start creating it knowing that the character of Cameron would be gay, or like old movies or idolize Rock Hudson.”

In fact, Cameron asks a lot of identity-based questions that unearth stereotypes and ask audiences to consider ways in which we can become more inclusive without losing our sense of self. There may be lyrics like “Do I have to wear sparkly pants/Do I have to talk with a lisp,” not to mention catchy one-liners and melodic quips, but the heart of this musical lies within the cycle of songs that comprise a solid showcase for soul searching, a thirst for familial honesty and the care and maintenance of lasting relationships.