Pale-skinned and ginger-haired with an unmistakable Australian accent, Phil Roser is an unlikely candidate to play the part of Kanye West in a musical about the rapper’s life.
But it’s his production, and being a fan, naturally Roser cast himself as the rapper. Kanye: The Musical was first conceived two years ago, but Roser admits, “I had no idea what to do with it.” It was just a title, an idea floating in the realm of abstraction until a few months ago when the university student and aspiring teacher proposed to have it included in Verge, the University of Sydney’s annual arts festival. It was accepted (with a title like that, how could it not be?), and from there Roser wrote the script within a month.
The play tells “the story of a struggle against the man to become the man. It’s about a guy who took a shot at the throne and didn’t miss.” The musical comedy takes Marc Jacobs as its other lead character, played by Roser’s friend and fellow student Damien Higginbotham. “Phil showed me a photo of Marc Jacobs sprawled half-naked in a perfume ad; that was about the extent of my research on the character,” says Higginbotham. “I think I nailed it.”
For a two-man production with a $300 budget and a very loose script, Kanye received a lot of media hype. From Perez Hilton to The Huffington Post, the threat of a Kanye musical proved to be catnip.
“To be honest, I was disappointed that Ban Ki-moon [the secretary-general of the United Nations] didn’t see it while he was here in Sydney,” Roser jokes, commenting on the play’s unexpected publicity. “I guess the media are pretty jumpy around buzzwords, and Kanye: The Musical is pretty buzzy,” Higginbotham adds. But he insists the show’s title isn’t a shallow plug for attention. “Phil is just a Kanye fan and wanted to do a fun show as his last hurrah before graduating. I think a lot of media outlets imagined a big Broadway spectacle, but if they’d done any research, they’d have realized that the Cellar Theatre is literally a cellar and that the tickets ranged from $3 to $6.”
So did Kanye live up to the hype?
On its closing night, the Cellar Theatre was packed to its 50-person-or-so capacity. A crowd of mostly students sat on a haphazard accumulation of seats, swilled bottled beer in between belly laughs, with some scenes even invoking howls and applause. The most anticipated scene, of course, portrayed Kanye crashing Taylor Swift’s VMA awards speech. An audio recording of the incident played while Roser stood mute, center stage, holding up cardboard placards emblazoned with captions narrating the debacle. This scene could have been executed better, but a slow clap from Higginbotham as Jacobs acted became a perfect summation of what we were all thinking at the time in 2009.
The rap tracks in the musical—Roser originals, laid down live over consciously cheesy garage-band beats—were hilarious in both content and delivery. Dialogue like “I been through a lot in life, but for now I just want to conquer people and their souls” provides cheeky pokes at Kanye’s public persona—one that Roser describes as “polarizing,” which is why he chose to focus on Kanye and not another rapper. “I think a lot of people want to hate him, but they can’t really because he’s so talented,” he said.
Some of the funniest bits in the play occurred when Kanye acknowledges its own low-class, low-budget nature. About his new album, the character of Kanye said at one point, “I just don’t see it living up to the hype, much like this production.” It may not live up to the hype, but for a play that never set out to create any, its mission may have already been accomplished. To quote the parody of the man himself: Yo, Phil Roser, imma let you finish, but Cats was one of the best theater productions of all time.