Only months before graduating, uber-talented UTM student Anthony Palermo brings to Hart House Theatre a production they created from the ground up. It’s based on Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray but with an edgy 1970s glam rock twist.
For three nights in April Hart House Theatre will present an in-concert version of a new work The Gray: A Wilde Musical in Concert, a novel twist on the Oscar Wilde classic, A Picture of Dorian Gray. This is a Canadian debut. On the heels of the play’s success in its virtual/audio version, produced last year by Victoria College Drama Society and currently streaming on Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube, this is the first time The Gray has been executed on stage.
This musical is the brainchild of student Anthony Palermo, Executive Producer of the English & Drama Society at University of Toronto Mississauga. Anthony is an actor, director, writer and composer, graduating from University of Toronto/Sheridan College’s Theatre & Drama Studies program this spring. They have created the book, music and lyrics for The Gray production, on top of directing it.
“Hart House Theatre has always been a centre for new work, a space that champions student-created work and students in performance. We are focused on bringing new talents to the stage and overjoyed to produce the second iteration of Anthony’s new work,” says the Director of Theatre and Performance Art, Doug Floyd.
Last Two Years a Flurry of Milestones
It’s a challenge to sum up Anthony’s meteoric ascension in theatre. Over the last two years, many things transpired. Anthony was invited by the Musical Stage Company to compose and direct music for One Song Glory 2022. They were an artist in residence for Soulpepper Theatre Company’s Queer Youth Cabaret. Then, last June, they wrote and performed a one-person musical: She, Men and the Giant F*cking Snake, reprised at the UTM Performance Festival in December.
Opportunities at U of T were, arguably, a driving force behind Anthony’s progress. In addition to The Gray, Anthony directed and wrote another musical, Mythic Women and their Cabaret to Save Humanity, at UTM last year. They also directed Dog Sees God (Winter 2021) and Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Fall 2022) with the Victoria College Drama Society. They are currently directing Angels in America at St. Michael’s College … Not to mention television work, which includes Workin’ Moms and Macy Murdoch, a spinoff of Murdoch Mysteries.
"The Gray" Informed by Real Events in Queer History
Inspired by Wilde’s classic and set in David’s Disco, a nightclub that briefly existed in Toronto’s Gay Village in the late 1970s, The Gray follows Dorian, a young singer-songwriter determined to be a star. After his photograph is taken, he becomes obsessed with the image and the power it holds.
The Gray was sparked by real-life events – a series of unsolved homicides, missing queer people and the mysterious 1977 fire at David’s Disco. “The inspiration came from events in the queer history of Toronto, with which I've always been fascinated, as well as Justin Ling’s book Missing from the Village, featured in a CBC podcast series. I became extremely engrossed with that past as well as the queer themes in Wilde’s novel, and they sort of blended together in my mind.”
Creating historical fiction was of great interest, and having the work performed in Toronto, set in the Gay Village in the 1970s, was very important to Anthony. “It's significant to have it on stage and to have queer bodies performing. This is really special.” With an original, glam-rock-inspired score, The Gray explores self-expression, generational queer trauma and what it means to find home in LGBTQ+ spaces.
Production Evolved from Success of Audio Drama
The Gray was first produced as an audio drama, as mentioned. This picked up more than a few wins at the University of Toronto Drama Coalition Awards 2022: “Best Original Work,” “Best Direction” and “Best Virtual Show.”
To this, Anthony responds modestly, “I'm so grateful that the story resonates with people.”
From there, things took off. “Doug reached out to me to turn it into a stage production. He also connected me with playwright/director Aaron Jan who helped me adapt it. That was a huge support,” they say, adding that they hope the musical play will be picked up and performed in other venues.
Credits Hart House Theatre for Confidence
Hart House is very special to Anthony. They first connected with the House when they were in high school. “In Grade 11, I wrote my first musical for the National Theatre School Festival. We went to Regionals and performed on the Hart House Theatre stage. I remember thinking, wow, this is special that I get to do my musical on the Hart House stage!”
While at U of T, they also worked for two years in the work study program as an event and outreach associate for the Hart House Theatre.
The Theatre had a huge impact on Anthony. “I'm so grateful for Doug, Gillian Lewis (Education and Production Coordinator), Lindsey Middleton (Marketing Assistant) and the entire team. They supported me through all my endeavors, as an artist and a theatre professional. They were such grounding forces for me. They helped me build confidence,” they say adding, “Hart House is very special to me. A wonderful platform, it has been a place of connection. I’ve been able to network with so many theater professionals and artists.”
Urges Students to Engage with Theatre at U of T
Anthony offers some sage advice for students: “Get involved everywhere. Work as a producer for a theatre company at U of T, gain experience as a designer … There are many different facets. Try everything at least once, because we have such a rare opportunity at U of T and at Hart House to be able to participate in so many things.”