Joseph Aragon has been Winnipeg's most promising musical theatre composer since graduating from Montreal's National Theatre School in 2006.
The Filipino-Canadian has been churning out ambitious tuners on paltry budgets at our annual fringe festival, where the talented 37-year-old has developed a loyal following but little mainstream interest. None had ever got a second production until Toronto's new high-profile stage company Theatre 20 chose his musical Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare as its inaugural show last October at the Panasonic Theatre.
It was a heartening development for The Maples resident, who has been toiling in relative obscurity waiting for his break in the most difficult of professions, writing new Canadian musicals. The indy troupe White Rabbit Productions, until now only presenting at the fringe festival, is making its first foray into professional theatre with the new and improved Bloodless, starting Wednesday, April 24, at Cercle Molière.
"If I was to think about this logically, I would have given up a long time ago," he says during rehearsals at the Provencher Boulevard theatre. "I knew going in it was going to be a tough row to hoe. NTS gave me my grounding in realism. I don't expect any shortcuts or miracles."
Since penning his top-selling Dracula spoof Bloodsuckers in 2004 friends and fans have thronged around Aragon, becoming part of his musical journey that continues with Illuminati (2005), Conclave (2006) and Lucrezia Borgia (2007).
"They push me so I have almost no choice but to go on," Aragon says. "I've been lucky to be surrounded by so many people who will not let me quit."
Bloodless, about the true life story of a pair of Irish ne'er-do-wells selling corpses to a medical college, debuted at the 2009 Winnipeg Fringe Theatre Festival and had no reason to believe that it was not again destined for musical theatre's "sock drawer."
Then in early 2012 the artist-led Theatre 20 emerged with the bold mandate to develop new Canadian musicals and issued a nationwide call for scripts. Out of 100 proposals, Bloodless was chosen to introduce Theatre 20, whose name derives from the number of accomplished artists -- including Colm Wilkinson, Adam Brazier and Winnipeg-born Ma-Anne Dionisio -- who are its founding members.
It was the first time his work had been noticed outside of Winnipeg and he was unprepared for taking part in major-league theatre creation. He was stage-struck when he saw the set at the Panasonic Theatre and thought he wouldn't have to "strike it," or take it away immediately after each show, like what has to be done at fringe festival venues.
"Then there was the mind-boggling budget, which they called shoestring, on which I could use to produce fringe shows for the next 50 years," he says, pulling on his ever-present Kangol hat. "I want to say $500,000 but I know it was six figures. It keeps you going when these fancy Toronto bigwigs are willing to pour that much money into something I wrote. That kind of faith really affected me."
The genesis of Bloodless goes back to a 2004 NTS class assignment on historical characters. He focused on some 17th-century Spanish nun but was immediately intrigued by a classmate who dug up the tale of two Irish immigrants named Burke and Hare who killed 16 people in the 1820s and sold the bodies to doctors in need of cadavers. He immediately thought that would make a killer musical and he appropriated the idea with his colleague's blessing.
"It's dark and thematically rich," says Aragon, who intends to sit out this year's fringe festival for the first time in over a decade. "There is a Sweeney Todd aspect to it, which is kind of unavoidable."
In 2009 Aragon was performing in a touring school show with, among others, Cory Wojcik and Sharon Bajer when he learned he had received a grant from the Manitoba Arts Council to write about Burke and Hare.
"I don't know why I said it but I said, 'You do that and Carson (Nattrass) and I will play the lead roles,'" recalls Wojcik. "It was a joke because we were both unavailable for the fringe production."
But they are available for this latest Bloodless version and have been cast as Burke and Hare, with Bajer directing.
"When Cory said that I thought, let me write it first and we'll see what happens," Aragon says. "I guess it was meant to be."
Anyone who attended the fringe production, which won the Harry S. Rintoul Memorial Award for best new play by a Manitoban, should be prepared to see a much-revised Bloodless. The premiere was raw, remembers Aragon, while in Toronto, the storytelling got denser, more compact and he introduced a few new songs.
For the hometown audience Aragon has injected more warmth and humour as well as fresh musical numbers. After the Winnipeg run the future of Bloodless will await another transfusion of interest.
"Success is dodgy," he says. "Success for me is one more production that someone wants to do of my stuff. I'm not ready to let Bloodless go. As long as I think there is something to do to make it better, I'll do it."