New faces in theatre: meet composer/lyricist Simon Abbott

They’re young, adaptable, and creative. And as theatre returns in this late-pandemic grind, and the doors open to live audiences, we’ll be seeing the work of these theatre artists light up, and transform, the scene here, on- and backstage. Meet some of these sought-after up-and-comers in this annual 12thnight New Faces series. Here’s composer/lyricist Simon Abbot, in a continuing 12thnight series that began with designer Beyata Hackborn and actor Rochelle Laplante.

Musical-writing team Simon Abbott and Byron Martin, on the set of Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer. Photo supplied

By Liz Nicholls,

SIMON ABBOTT, composer/lyricist

In a terrible year in Alberta, when everything was going from grim to grimmer and we the people were sliding around on the spectrum between fury and despair, something unexpectedly kooky, cathartic and, well, fun happened onstage in Edmonton.

The sound of laughter was heard in the land.

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A musical satire with the doom-laden name Jason Kenney in the title, containing a power ballad for the least popular premier in the country? Really? Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer sold out, before it even opened. Grindstone Theatre’s production was held over three times. By then end of the  “fourth wave” this past weekend, 11,000 masked people had seen it.

If you cheered and sang along to Fuck Kenney, a catchy rock number, or you left the theatre still humming Ottawa, a sassy assortment of multi-syllable rhymes in a duet for Rachel Notley and her boyfriend Justin Trudeau, you were hooked by the work of Grindstone’s Byron Martin and his musical-writing partner composer/co-lyricist Simon Abbott.

Simon Abbott (centre) with bandmates Erik Mortimer and Jesse Crowley, Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer. Photo supplied

The latter, onstage at the keyboard with a crack band, is a newcomer to the scene who says with startling modesty that “I feel like I’m not really a theatre guy …. completely without theatre training.” There’s a kind of remarkable instinct about a not-theatre guy who creates whole musicals with smart, funny, well-positioned songs, not to mention whole Broadway-style production numbers. Abbott credits the savvy and experience of his writing partner Martin.

The much-travelled Abbott, who grew up in Quebec and spent time in Germany, arrived here from Halifax by chance three years ago — just as Grindstone was opening its comedy theatre/bistro in Strathcona. He hit it off with Martin, and found his way into Grindstone’s popular The 11 O’Clock Number, a fully improvised show with the formidable challenge of creating a full musical on the spot. “So hard. A lot of fun.”

“I’d decided to try music full time,” he says of an unusual career that has included playing in bar bands and a scholarship in organ (he still has a church gig to supplement his income).

The Abbott route into musical theatre is uniquely zigzag, as he tells it. He’d taken piano lessons as a kid, “hated it, and quit, and got back into jazz in high school,” he says. “I’d started musical-directing, I guess because I could play piano and sing a bit,” he says casually. “And I ended up doing that a lot, pushing 35 musicals at this point. At a certain point you just know the genre well enough, I guess.”

As to why he’d started writing songs, Abbott thinks about it. “I’m definitely not a songwriter or composer,” he says. The score of Hot Boy Summer, which embraces a wide and complex variety of music from hard-driving rock to G&S-style patter songs, romantic ballads, character-driven musical theatre-type odes, is a counter-argument. Abbott is the antithesis of lofty pronouncements. “You conduct, you direct, you accompany. And then, ‘we need some songs for this’ and you’ve just got to do it….”

“The real miracle is that it went up in six weeks,” he says of Hot Boy Summer. “Just crazy. Nuts. Basically, we just wrote down an improvised musical, and then edited it.” What started in comedy sketches, for Donovan Workun as Jason Kenney and Abby Vandenberghe as Dr. Hinshaw, grew and grew. What Martin and Abbott originally thought of as a one-act sketch comedy show, “a four-hander maybe, got way out of hand!” Abbott laughs.

“A lot of the writing was still happening before the casting was finished…. It was half workshop half rehearsal, right up until opening night.” And, says Abbott appreciatively, “we got lucky.” The cast is diverse. “There are (serious) theatre actors, amazing musical theatre talents, a bunch of improvisers (many from The 11 O’Clock Number) — a big mash-up of people.”

Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer.

The creators were inspired by the performers. Half of the eight-actor ensemble, the ‘80s frat boys on a crusade to ensure that The Best Summer Ever will happen, are female. “How do you write something that sounds male when half of them aren’t: it’s tricky,” says Abbott, who shared the lyric-writing with Martin.

The first song they wrote, “before we knew the plot,” was a big 11 o’clock number for Workun as Jason Kenney, Unify My Heart. Then they tackled the flamboyant opening song-and-dance production number, Upsilon Kappa Pi. “We were looking for tropes to parody, says Abbott of the goofy ‘80s collegiate setting of the characters, younger versions of names we know. “As Byron says, it’s not funny if it’s malice…. Everyone knows who Kenney is. There’s no point in just doing that.”

Donovan Workun and Abby Vandenberghe in Jason Kenney’s Hot Boy Summer, Grindstone Theatre.

“I didn’t appreciate how hard the character stuff would be,” says Abbott of the most challenging part of lyric-writing. “To get stuff to feel natural and line up right. There were a lot of versions….”

And since the show is by its very nature topical, things changed. Towards the end of the run “we had new stuff about Kaycee Madu,” laughs Abbott. “That cabinet (sigh) … they write this stuff for us.”

Meanwhile the pair is considering new options for another musical they wrote together. If it hadn’t been for the pandemic ThunderCats, a fusion of “Cats the musical and ‘90s cartoons about cats, in space, fighting aliens,” would have toured.

And Abbott has turned the randomness of his arrival here into a positive answer to the question “why Edmonton?” for himself into the future. “Edmonton is a great place,” he says. “There’s tons of work here … most of it in musical theatre. And I’ve pretty much given up playing in bars; it’s just not worth it….”

And here’s “a further testimonial to what a great city this is”: Abbott doesn’t own a phone (too distracting, he says). “If you can make it as a freelancer here, and not have a phone….”

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