Over the course of his theatrical career, Rick Miller, BSc(Arch)’93, BArch’94, has gained a following for his ability to play a lot of different roles – and I mean a lot. Often in the same play. Often in the same scene. All of them with their own distinct voices, as channeled through Miller’s amazing gift for vocal mimicry.
He first made his mark with a one-man production that people still talk about decades later – MacHomer, a retelling of Shakespeare’s MacBeth, but with every role performed in the voice of a different character from The Simpsons.
That remarkable knack for impressions is still evident in Miller’s latest work, Boom X, which was recently performed at the Segal Centre in Montreal. He takes on more than 100 different voices during the show to tell a story that spans 25 years, that zeroes in on some of the formative experiences of Generation X, and that ultimately focuses on his own life.
The show, which debuted in January in Calgary, has been attracting critical praise. The Calgary Herald described it as “an immensely entertaining, high energy magic carpet ride,” while the Globe and Mail called Boom X “a mashup of media, verbatim theatre, jukebox musical and autobiographical confession that’s … impossible to resist.”
Miller first used his vocal abilities to dazzle schoolmates in the Town of Mount Royal with his impressions of Roger Doucet, an iconic figure to generations of Montreal Canadiens fans for his renditions of “O Canada” at Habs games. In Boom X, Miller tackles dozens of songs in the voices of the artists who made them famous, ranging from Neil Young to Kiss to the Bee Gees to Alanis Morissette.
When asked about his unique vocal talents, Miller says he sees it as a tool and not as an end in itself. It helps him tell bigger stories.
“I could have just done “Rick Miller sings the 80s,” you know, and put on a bunch of wigs and tried it in Vegas, [but] that’s never been something that appealed to me very much. I know I have a voice, I can go to these places and imitate [people], but I’m never interested in just imitating for karaoke purposes.”
The songs in Boom X don’t exist in a vacuum. When Miller performs a song, audiences also get a glimpse at some of the major news events that were occurring when the songs became popular. “Culture never exists in a void,” says Miller. “It’s always connected to politics, it’s always connected to global events and to technology.”
As Miller did his initial research for Boom X (he is also the writer and director for the production), he says he was struck by how the time period covered by his show helped lay the groundwork for some of the less savoury aspects of our current era.
“I think my biggest realization was that what we’re living today – the fake news and reality TV and political grandstanding – the seeds were planted about 25 years ago. The tabloid culture and political polarization [that we see now], Trump was part of that back then, and so was Bill Clinton and Gary Hart and Clarence Thomas. And we haven’t fully recovered.”
Boom X is part of a planned trilogy of plays. Boom, which premiered in 2015, covers the music, culture and sociopolitical landscape between 1945 and 1969. Boom X looks at the years between 1969 and 1995. Boom Z, currently in the planning stages, will focus on millennials and their world.
Putting together Boom (which Miller will be performing in France in April) gave him a chance to look at the world that his parents and grandparents inhabited. That play focused on the perspectives of three characters – two of them were his parents.
“One thing I learned, and it’s something we often forget, is that our experiences as human beings are ultimately far more similar than we’d like to think. Our grandparents and parents went through rebellious stages, they tried things that they might regret, they were told that they [were sitting in front of] screens too often, just like I tell my kids that they’re on screens too often. Yes, computers now live in our pockets and not in a giant room, and our phones don’t have cords anymore. But ultimately we’re all the same people.”
Boom X has four principal characters (all played by Miller) who talk about their Gen X experiences and the times they lived in. As the production progresses, we see that each of these characters (based on real people, but at times incorporating elements from other people that Miller knows) are all linked to Miller’s own life story – sometimes in surprising ways. And they occasionally criticize Miller for some of the attitudes he had in his younger days.
“I wanted this to be a story where that self-satisfied kid got a kick in the ass to make him realize that there was a bigger world out there. I grew up in this world where sexism, racism, and homophobia were taken for granted, and that’s why I’m happy that what’s going on right now is at least calling certain things into question.”
Boom X also covers Miller’s years studying architecture at McGill – and how he was drawn to the world of theatre during that period. He performed with the McGill Savoy Society and with Repercussion Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park troupe. He wrote his thesis on the works of innovative Quebec playwright /director Robert Lepage (and would go on to collaborate with Lepage). He decided that he didn’t want to become a professional architect and, as Boom X makes clear, that choice didn’t initially go down well with his mother.
He might not be designing buildings today, but Miller insists that his studies were pivotal for what he is doing now.
“What architecture gives you is the ability to think about the big picture,” says Miller. “When I’m creating a new show and I’m figuring out all the elements and how they connect to one another, to me, that’s architecture.” Miller occasionally teaches a course at the University of Toronto called The Architecture of Creativity that explores the connections between architectural thinking and other forms of artistic expression.
“The School of Architecture was such a transformational place for me. I value everything I learned there. I just didn’t want to be an architect at the end of it.”
Boom X will run at the Royal Manitoba Theatre in Winnipeg from March 20 to April 13 and at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, Ontario, from May 28 to June 15.