The players sit in their locker room, having stunk up the ice during the game with pitiful play. Their gruff, demanding coach is disappointed and frustrated. He decides to emphasize his discontent by ridiculing their masculinity. So he does what any coach does to denigrate his players: He belts out a Broadway-style musical number.
"Hockey is a musical/
Shiny and fantastical/
You time-step all across the ice/
Like Zigfield's girls/
Oh that's so nice/
A soft shoe/
Like Gene Kelly would do/
Pirouette and kick, ball change too/
Shoot that puck high over the glass/
Grab a feather boa and shake your ass."
Not exactly something you'd expect to hear out of Mike Keenan or Jacques Lemaire in the locker room. But it's just another part of the game in "Hockey: The Musical!", which debuts on July 2 at the Toronto Fringe festival.
Director Rick Wilson said his cast laughs every time this number is rehearsed. "It's an almost-typical Broadway number, and we discover that it's the coach's standard way of humiliating them. He compares them to chorus girls rather than hockey players," said Wilson.
There's natural (and obviously not-too-subtle) comedy in the collision between the worlds of musical theater and professional hockey. But Wilson wanted to use the stage to explore more meaningful traits of the sport, which he likened to "a national metaphor" in Canada.
"I think there are so many things in the overall metaphor that register as not being satirical, but being quite serious," said Wilson, pictured (below left) with co-writer Justin DeMarco.
Like the sacred brotherhood of teammates, and how those relationships can be twisted and tested in an instant. Such as when, in the musical's primary plot line, an all-star player is photographed at a gay bar, the photos hit the Internet and the team is sent into absolute turmoil.
"It challenges their relationships with each other and it challenges [the player's] own identity. It's difficult to label yourself 'gay' when you're a hockey player," said Wilson.
As difficult as, say, selling a musical that takes on societal taboos regarding sexuality in professional sports? And one based on ice hockey, of all things?
"Hockey: The Musical" was born three years ago in a public-speaking class at the Wheatley School in Old Westbury, NY. Wilson was teaching the class and Justin DeMarco was one of his students. One day, DeMarco presented several hockey skills as a classroom demonstration, and Wilson suddenly saw "the choreographic potential" in turning the sport into a musical, as he told The New York Times.
Wilson pitched the idea of a hockey musical to DeMarco, who initially found the suggestion about as rational as taking a slap shot to the face. But soon he and Wilson were hashing out characters and plot details, even as DeMarco studied away at Emerson College. From the Times:
Mr. DeMarco went off to Emerson College in Boston, but he and Mr. Wilson brainstormed about characters on one of his visits home and worked on a script via e-mail.
With Mr. DeMarco contributing his knowledge of hockey's language, rules and culture, they established "an unlikely pairing of writers," said Mr. Wilson, 46, who is gay and a musical theater enthusiast. Mr. DeMarco is straight, and is majoring in sports journalism. Mr. Wilson wrote the lyrics and music. Between college assignments, Mr. DeMarco co-wrote the book.
The general plot has the Minnesota Turtles of the United Hockey League led by all-star players Pavel Riccardino and Ravi Patel. Riccardino gets caught up in a gay scandal, one whose impact the musical explores not only through his relationships with teammates but with regard to the media's tabloid coverage of it.
From the "Hockey: The Musical!" press notes:
"In the age of the Internet, information travels faster than a puck at its highest speeds. How can athletes maintain their lives, relationships, and dignity when the media spins 'truths' which shape and alter who they are and who they are perceived to be?"
Imagine the co-authors' surprise when their storyline nearly played out in real life, thanks to one rather embarrassed Toronto Maple Leafs rookie.
WEB OF GOSSIP
Wilson and DeMarco are very aware of the Jiri Tlusty scandal. "I'm so glad we were copyrighted before that thing hit," said Wilson.
Last season, both nude photos and images of Tlusty playfully carousing with a male friend hit the Web. Most of the reaction could be described as "a giggle and a shrug" from fans, but a few Canadian writers played the moral outrage card and his sexuality was questioned.
"For me, it was a really shocking moment to see the world playing out what we had already written," said Wilson. "What we're looking at in our piece is the power of the media to distort and shape an identity."
What stunned Wilson and DeMarco in their research was that the puritanical reaction of the media is often diametrically opposed to the general acceptance of NHL players.
Wilson said they found a Sports Illustrated survey that polled professional athletes on whether or not they'd be OK with an out gay player on their team. The response from hockey players astonished the writers, who assumed the sport's reputation for brutality would naturally lead to homophobia. "The thing that baffled us was that the results came up for hockey that it led almost every other sport that they would be OK with it," said Wilson.
This fits with the tales told by an anonymous, closeted hockey player in the 2005 book "In the Game: Gay Athletes and the Cult of Masculinity," excerpted by Outsports.com:
"You know there was a lot of [homophobia] in the lower ranks, especially in high school and college. But in the NHL we are professionals, and guys really aren't all that homophobic."
Wilson and DeMarco believe that the "international makeup" of NHL locker rooms creates a gay-friendly atmosphere. But more than that, they believe professional hockey players care too much about their ultimate goal -- winning -- to dwell on wedge issues like sexuality, politics or religion
"When they're out on the ice, they look up and an hour and half has passed. When you're in that zone, no one's thinking about who's straight or gay or anything like that," said Wilson.
"Hockey: The Musical!" will premiere at the Helen Gardiner Phelan Playhouse in Toronto on July 2, with repeat performances on July 4, July 6-8, July 11 and July 13. For Ticket reservations or more info on The Fringe or the playhouse, call the Fringe Hotline at 416-966-1062 or visit www.fringetoronto.com
"Hockey: The Musical!" has its political messages, but it's also ... well, a musical about hockey.
The title song marries hockey terminology with musical theater jargon in a satirical way. A female character having an affair with one of the players sings a cautionary torch song about the ice beneath him "starting to crack" and warning him that his "game is failing, play by play."
Wilson said the score is "pop Broadway," and describes some of the songs as "Sondheim-esque."
Of course, Stephen Sondheim once wrote a musical about John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald that somehow mixed clever comedy with stunning social commentary. And Wilson sees his musical as another way to entertain while attempting to change perceptions in American society regarding sexuality.
"Being up here in Canada, their attitudes are just different. Where it does get bogged down is that it's hard to argue with anybody when they say, 'God doesn't want this,'" he said. "I think a young person today lives in an unconscious terror of new 9/11s. I think that's far more important to them than who someone's going to be shaggin."
Could "Hockey: The Musical!" provide inspiration for a gay NHL player to come out?
"I really appreciate you asking that question. Every hockey game I went to this year, as both teams would be lined up on the ice, I'm staring at them going, 'One of these guys has to be living what we're writing,'" he said.
"I hope what we've done doesn't only make it better for that guy, but makes it better for the people that he knows."
The makers of "Hockey: The Musical!" have been filming a series of behind-the-scenes video diaries about the creation of the production. The videos also provide samples of the score. (Beware some NSFW language.)