BWW Review: The Music Industry Gets a Personal Take in HOW TO FAIL AS A POPSTAR
The music industry is a looming part of popular culture, and we so often hear its success stories - on the radio, in biographical novels and films, through documentaries, and more. What we don't normally get to hear is the experience of those who have tried, and tried, and tried to break into the world of pop music only to be met with hardship after hardship - which is what writer and performer Vivek Shraya does with her debut theatrical work, HOW TO FAIL AS A POPSTAR.
Vivek Shraya, a queer, trans woman of colour, tells the story of her self-described failure as a popstar in the only way a story so rooted in music should be - through a series of songs and musical snippets. Shraya weaves original songs with samples from artists and records that have guided, defined, and motivated her at every turn of her career, beginning with the bhajans she sang as a child through to the acoustic album that earned her the recognition of an iconic Canadian group.
Each major part of her musical career is segmented with the use of projected titles, breaking the narratives down into easily digestible stories. While HOW TO FAIL AS A POPSTAR isn't a musical, it couldn't exist fully without the songs and instrumental samples that support Shraya's journey. While the opening number feels overly exponential, it leads into her early life where gorgeous hymnal music and traditional folk ballads represent her relationship with faith and her mother.
As Shraya evolves and grows, so does her choice in music - pieces from Mary J. Blige, Madonna, and Alanis Morrissette do a great job of representing the common high school issues of finding friends and fitting in. When we hear about her controlling first manager, the narrative goes from funny to frightening so smoothly that it's hard to see coming. The tale of triumph from signing her first record deal evolves into a disheartening tale of creative control that likely still applies to mainstream music today.
It's a moving tale that any person who's struggled to achieve their dreams can easily relate to, and Shraya has a certain magnetism to her performance that keeps the one-woman show moving fluidly through its 75-minute run time. The minimalistic set (Joanna Yu) works beautifully with the light ring (C.J. Astronomo) at centre stage, which gleams and glows moodily to support the different stages of her career. Brendan Healy's direction also transforms the set piece into a character, of sorts, as Shraya refers to the space within the circle as 'the music' on more than one occasion. It's a great way to recognize the space that a passion can take up in one's life, without being an overbearing metaphorical weight to contend with.
HOW TO FAIL AS A POPSTAR is equal parts comedic retelling and cautionary tale, and Shraya nails both aspects throughout, closing the show with a monologue that's crushing in the reality of issues faced by many diverse or LGBTQ+ people, as well as its relatability. It's an honest story about fighting for success in an industry - or world - that might not recognize your talents, but despite the hardships, there are moments that allow a person to learn what's most important to them in life.
Canadian Stage's HOW TO FAIL AS A POPSTAR runs through March 1 at Berkeley Street Theatre, 26 Berkeley St., Toronto, ON.
For more information or to purchase tickets, visit https://www.canadianstage.com/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=popstar&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::context_id=
Photo credit: Dahlia Katz