It was one of those unique shows too good to pass up: a bevy of talented men, sharing one stage and a handful of Broadway numbers. Described as a “world premiere”, it’s hard to imagine you’ll ever see it again – at least in Saturday night’s Luminato incarnation that included a lineup of busy musicians capable of holding the stage in their own right.
Led by Rufus Wainwright, If I Loved You: Gentlemen Prefer Broadway – an Evening of Love Duets saw the likes of David Byrne, Brent Carver, Steven Page, Brennan Hall, Boy George, Josh Groban, and Ezra Koenig all try their hand (and largely succeed) at love songs.
The Sony Centre performance was never quite romantic – coming off as comfortable rather than provocative. The comfortable descriptor isn’t to suggest there weren’t hiccups: in a show with so many collaborators, there was bound to be some miscues and problems. The mistakes were endearing rather than infuriating, however, and the majority of the cast seemed to be having the times of their lives, relishing a moment all too fleeting.
Wainwright was the first to take the stage, setting the tone for the night with the tongue-in-cheek “I Hate Men”, a song from Kiss Me Kate. His solo number made clear that he’s a Broadway fan – enjoying the dramatics and the opportunity to wink at the crowd as he made his way across the stage, a full orchestra accompanying his every note.
He wasn’t alone on the microphone for long though, David Byrne coming out and being introduced by Wainwright as a huge supporter of the project. Together, Wainwright and Byrne – who rose to prominence as the vocalist in Talking Heads, since collaborating with the likes of St. Vincent and releasing a hugely successful book entitled ‘How Music Works’ – had an easy chemistry. Their banter and interaction showed two men who very much respect music and understand it. Byrne himself seemed at ease, performing Oklahoma’s “People Will Say We’re in Love” with Wainwright and taking “Bewitched (Bothered and Bewildered)” on his own.
It was much more casual of a performance than what came next, with Tony Award winner Brent Carver taking the stage. It was easy to forget that Carver was a last minute addition to the show (stepping in for an absent Andrew Rannells) as he brought an actual taste of Broadway to the night, right down to his stage gestures and phrasing.
Most of the other Broadway tropes were passed off. Dramatic monologues were ignored and choreographed dancing was kept to a minimum – probably more to do with lack of time than lack of want. You could tell much of the material was still new for the performers, Teleprompters continuously rolling off to the sides of the stage.
But despite the freshness, professionalism kept everything rolling: indicative of the level of talent on stage. Boy George was obviously a huge draw for the evening. His voice, perhaps gruffer than one might remember it, giving things a soulful feel as he took on “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy and Bess. As Wainwright was with Byrne, his relationship with Boy George is also clearly one of comfort and friendship – an easy friendship coming through in their brief quips at one another. Wainwright strolled on stage following Boy George’s solo take, acting shocked and asking: “Who the hell are you?” Without missing a beat, Boy George responded: “I’m a loose cannon honey.”
On the other end of the voice spectrum – though just as talented – was Brennan Hall, a countertenor who shocked the crowd with his ability to hit notes you wouldn’t think possible. His first duet with Wainwright on Phantom of the Opera’s “All I Ask of You” was the first big moment of the night.
Speaking of big moments: Josh Groban’s name needs to be brought up here. He’s long been hailed as one of the best voices in music and the accolades are definitely true (including Wainwright’s shouting of “dreamboat!” following Groban’s first turn at the microphone.) It seems to come so easy to him, handling Carousel’s “If I Loved You” with finesse.
And to give credit where credit is due – Wainwright himself proved a strong partner in duets. He let others shine where they needed to and added just enough flourish to make you remember his own abilities. There’s a real ear for musicianship with Wainwright and an affinity for the stage that makes it all work so well.
The one artist who seemed perhaps a little hesitant and less willing to cut loose was Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, who admittedly appeared a little uncomfortable on the Sony Centre stage. It made sense, with Koenig being the youngest of the musicians and with such limited rehearsal time. Even still, he seemed palatably nervous in spite of Wainwright’s attempts to loosen him up.
“Menacing!” Wainwright exclaimed following Koenig’s verse on Guys and Dolls’ “Sue Me”. They even shared a kiss following their “We Kiss In A Shadow” duet from The King and I. Musicially, Koenig himself was a nice addition to the night – his voice strong and proof that he carries a lot of Vampire Weekend’s weight. He’s a talented young man who just has to relax and roll with the novelty, rather than think of the pressures. Perhaps easier said than done, but still something to keep in mind should he ever take an actual stab at Broadway.
Former Barenaked Lady Steven Page proved strong and seemed comfortable, dueting with Wainwright on the upbeat “There Once Was A Man.” Also fantastic was Wainwright’s duet with his husband: Luminato Festival artistic director Jörn Weisbrodt. The chemistry between the two was obvious, teaming up for Irving Berlin’s “An Old-Fashioned Wedding” on which Wainwright played the part of the diva and Weisbrodt the part of the more classic, no-frills fiancée. It was an adorable glimpse into the pair’s relationship and a welcome bonus to the show – Wainwright explaining that it nearly didn’t make it in.
Just before World Pride heads to Toronto, the night was also a wonderful reminder of how far we’ve come as a society in supporting equal rights: a point Wainwright brought up near the end of the show.
Outside of that comment, banter was kept light and fluffy. Quick quips from Wainwright played well with the crowd, as did the wheeling out of a birthday cake for a celebrating Boy George who turned 53 that very day.
It all culminated in the fun, familiar encore from Grease – everyone taking their turn at “Summer Nights.” It was equal parts great and silly, a unifying moment that was inevitably picked up by the likes of Pitchfork and Stereogum for its sheer “I can’t believe that happened” virality.
Thank goodness Rufus Wainwright has passion projects, talented friends, and a reason to bring shows like this to Toronto. The night proved a reminder of how great it is to live in a city with a vibrant music scene, strong LGBTQ community, and the resources and support of festivals such as Luminato.
I’m not sure I’ll ever see a show like that ever again – but I’ll forever be wishing for it.