You can’t really describe the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production of Bittergirl: The Musical as a romantic comedy, because the romance side of the equation is decidedly curdled.
Call it a comedy of coping. The play presents us with three women, dubbed A (Rebecca Auerbach), B (Sarite Harris) and C (Alana Hibbert), bonding over freshly failed relationships. Actor Michael Torontow plays the multiple roles of D, the it’s-not-you-it’s-me heartbreaker in each of the women’s lives.
For the musical side of the equation, their collective stories of tribulation are accompanied by a playlist of songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s that sees the four actors accompanied by an all-female four-piece band. The playlist includes songs that represent both sides of the love experience, the highs (Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, I Hear a Symphony) and the lows (Walk on By, I Will Survive).
The pairing of songs and story seems like a marriage that was meant to be. In fact, Bittergirl: The Musical is the third iteration of work by Annabel Fitzsimmons, Alison Lawrence and Mary Frances Moore.
The three women were actor-writers in 1999 when they met in Toronto to commiserate over their respective crises: one was divorced, one was freshly dumped by a long-time live-in lover and one was facing the end of another in a series of short-term romances.
So, 17 years before Beyoncé turned sour experience into Lemonade, the three turned their collective heartbreak into a hit play, bittergirl.
"It’s been a long convoluted journey," says Alison Lawrence, one of the original three, in Winnipeg to check out the RMTC production.
"When we wrote the play, we basically wrote it for ourselves," Lawrence recalls. But the material struck a chord, evidently, as the show moved to three different venues in Toronto (including a five-month run at the upstairs room of the famous Yorkville-area dive The Pilot) before the women took the show to London and New York for still more successful runs.
Interactions with the audience inspired the three to write a self-help book on the subject, published by Penguin in 2005.
"People kept coming up to us after the show and saying: ‘That’s just like what happened to me,’" Lawrence says.
"So we put out a guest book and invited people to tell us their stories. This was before websites," she says. "So we started collecting all these stories and we wrote a book."
The original version of the play effectively inspired the musical, Lawrence says, because "the play was underscored by ‘50s girl-group music.
"When we wrote the play, we kept saying if we were going to make fools of ourselves, we wanted to look good. So we wore black evening gowns all the way through it.
"And because there was three of us and the way it was staged, people kept saying: ‘It looks like you’re about to burst into song.’"
The job of bursting into song falls to three musical theatre vets in the RMTC show, and they all agree the show hits a little closer to home than the average musical.
"These women are all at different points in their lives in their relationships, but it’s still all relatable," says Harris. "We’ve all been there."
Auerbach says the heightened emotions of a stage musical are the coin of the realm when it comes to being dumped.
"Love makes people insane like nothing else does," she says. "You can get obsessive when you get your heart broken. You ask yourself: Why? Why? Why? And the answer is usually: He’s just not that into you."
But Hibbert says the brighter outcome of the situation is in "the commiseration and cameraderie that evolves between the women.
"That’s something that I can relate to — having my friends to fall back on, and having support from other women in my life who are able to commiserate on what I’ve been through."
Sorrow’s infinite playlist
If you’re an actor specializing in musical theatre, it follows that music figures a little more prominently in your life than the average person.
"I’ve always got music on," says Alana Hibbert, one a trio of Toronto-based actors who share their romantic pain in Bittergirl: The Musical.
"I wake up in the morning, turn my music on and walk to work," she says, acknowledging that music is a constant, "whether it’s ‘I’ve got to dance it out,’ or I need to put on this sad song and cry on the couch, or be driving with the windows down, listening to something great."
"Singing is therapeutic," says Sarite Harris. "I can remember my teenage angst years when I would just close the door and belt at the top of my lungs.
As it is in life, so it is in theatre, Harris says.
"They say in musicals, you speak until the emotions are so heightened, you can’t speak anymore and that’s why you sing."
So, just as you might ask a sommelier to pair a fine wine with a particular dish, we asked the cast to name the tunes that reflect their own episodes of romantic heartache.
For good measure, we also polled a parallel trio of Free Press music authorities. And for the most part, their choices demonstrate women tend to be consoled by the voices of other women, even if the song may have been written by a man, as was the case with Hibbert’s choice, Nothing Compares 2 U, written by Prince and performed by Sinead O’Connor.
"There are two meaningful songs in my life," says Rebecca Auerbach. "Dreams by Fleetwood Mac and All I Want, by Joni Mitchell.
"Those are the ones I remember crying to ... because of a guy."
Saskatchewan songstress Mitchell also hits Harris where she lives. "River by Joni Mitchell always gets me," she says. "That and I Can’t Make You Love Me by Bonnie Raitt. Every time I listen to it, even when I’m in a good place, I’m like… sobbing."
Our Free Press panel likewise chose mostly female artists to reflect their own Bittergirls:
Erin Lebar, Free Press music writer
Last year, I survived the most traumatic breakup of my life (turns out spousal infidelity is the worst!), so this topic resonates strongly.
After the urge to vomit constantly had subsided, the time came to submerge myself in grief with the help of some pain-fuelled tunes, and nothing hit the spot quite as much as Kathleen Edwards’ Change the Sheets, Pink Champagne and Going to Hell.
All three songs are off her 2012 record Voyageur -- an album born out of her divorce with husband Colin Cripps (Blue Rodeo) — and perfectly capture the gamut of emotions running through a mind during the first few post-breakup days, which can be hazy, at best.
Clarity will come later, but that stage in the process is the time to sit alone in the dark, drinking wine right out of the bottle with a straw and crying real tears because everything is bad and Edwards ‘just gets you.’
"Change the sheets and then change me." Preach, sister.
Jill Wilson, Uptown editor
Honestly, I’ve been pretty lucky in the breakup department — ask for a list of "unrequited love" songs and I’ll cry you a river, however — but there’s no doubt I’ve spent some time wallowing with a sad song set on repeat. Here are three that make feeling sorry for yourself a little sweeter.
Irving Berlin’s What’ll I Do? is a heartbreaker however you slice it, but when you add the voices of Kate and Anna McGarrigle, and Loudon, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, it’s guaranteed to turn a fragile soul into a puddle of tears. "When I’m alone with only dreams of you / that won’t come true, what’ll I do?" What indeed?
The Last Day of Our Acquaintance by Sinead O’Connor and Divorce Song by Liz Phair might be too autobiographically on-the-nose for some sentimental types, but they each combine a kind of "I’m moving on" defiance with a caustic sense of grief.
Last Day starts out gently, just O’Connor’s voice singing, "I know that you don’t love me any more / You used to hold my hand when the plane took off" over a strummed acoustic guitar. Perhaps no one does raw, unfettered emotion better than O’Connor — when the drums kick in and she turns up her banshee wail, it’s almost as cathartic as burning a cheating ex’s belongings.
Divorce Song is a deceptively jaunty number from Phair’s Exile on Guyville album. The Chicago singer’s deadpan delivery almost belies the bittersweet sentiment of shared responsibility and mutual destruction as a relationship winds down: "And the licence said you had to stick around until I was dead / but if you’re tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am." Ouch.
Jen Zoratti, columnist
Some people get sad after a breakup. Others get angry.
The definitive scorched-earth, you-did-me-wrong, burn-it-down breakup song is, with zero doubt, Alanis Morissette’s You Oughta Know, the lead single from her now-classic 1995 album Jagged Little Pill.
Now, I was 10 when this album came out, so obviously my experience with breakups was limited. But I remember the first time I heard You Oughta Know. It knocked me out. It sounded so dangerous — she says the F-word in it. I mean, the danger was blunted a bit when I heard it was written about Uncle Joey from Full House, but it became a song I reached for whenever I felt I’d been wronged.
What I had interpreted as dangerous was actually anger. Her vocals shred; her rage, jealousy and hurt is full-throated. In a sea of saccharine, pre-packaged pop songs selling a very specific idea of love, Morissette’s voice felt special and rare.
But I also love a feel-good empowerment anthem. When you’re done raging, might I suggest Good As Hell, the 2016 single from Minneapolis rapper Lizzo. It’s pure sunshine and swagger, a song about bossing up and changing your life. "If he don’t love you anymore/just walk your fine ass out the door."