Rick Miller marries The Simpsons with Macbeth for the (almost) last time in zanyone-man MacHomer
I’m talking on the phone with Rick Miller when we’re suddenly interrupted by Professor Frink. Then Marge Simpson drops in for a bit, followed by Barney Gumble and, later, Mr. Burns. Not to be left out, Krusty the Klown gets in a few words.
Actually, it’s all Rick Miller, the mastermind behind the one-man theatrical mash-up of Macbeth and The Simpsons called MacHomer. He’s been performing the critically acclaimed show all over the world — more than 175 cities — for 17-plus years. On November 15, Rick brings his self-proclaimed “impressively weird skills” to the Winspear Opera House for the show’s second-to-last performance — ever.
He took the time to chat from his home in Toronto about the show’s origins, Shakespeare’s enduring resonance and why Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel translates the world over.
CultureMap: We’ve heard that MacHomer was born out of some backstage shenanigans. How did you come up with the idea?
Rick Miller: I had a very small part in a production of Macbeth — Murderer #2 to be exact — so I had a lot of downtime backstage to just drift off. My brain likes to crash things together, and I thought it would be fun to combine The Simpsons with our show.
“It’s such a kick seeing how something as culturally relevant as The Simpsons can bring people to the theater who might have otherwise been scared off by Shakespeare,” Miller says.
It was only meant to be a 10-minute trick for the cast party, with a lot of in-jokes about our actors thrown in, but it was so well-received that it only seemed natural to develop it further. It grew into a sketch, then a fringe festival show, and then I hired people to help turn it into something that could fill a theater as big as the Winspear.
CM: And you’ve been performing the show for 17 years?
RM: Off and on. It’s very hard on my voice, obviously, and my body, and it’s not like someone can easily fill in for me. Plus I don’t like to be away from my family for too long. But it’s such a kick seeing how something as culturally relevant as The Simpsons can bring people to the theater who might have otherwise been scared off by Shakespeare. Hardcore fans of both genres walk away pleased.
CM: MacHomer is advertised as being roughly 85 percent of Shakespeare’s script performed by more than 50 different Simpsons characters. What are some of the more obscure characters we get to meet?
RM: There are literally hundreds of Simpsons characters, and it’s practically impossible to stuff them all into a 12-character play, but we mess around with who plays whom and who gets at least a line. Hans Moleman shows up, as does Martin Prince and Lionel Hutz — even Llewellyn Sinclair, the Jon Lovitz-voiced director from the episode “A Streetcar Named Marge.”
CM: It’s kind of like a game for the audience to spot all the characters.
RM: Exactly. But all the biggies are there.
CM: Who has the most difficult voice to impersonate?
RM: You don’t realize how many gravelly, high-pitched characters there are until you get going. Marge, she’s not grating on my throat at all. (Laughs) Krusty is brutal; it’s like doing Tom Waits for an extended period of time. A lot of the kids are also hard, because they’re mainly voiced by women, but I just kill them off early. (Laughs again) Because it’s my show and I can do what I want.
CM: Who’s your favorite?
RM:(Lapses into Mr. Burns’ voice) I love doing Mr. Burns because he’s just so evil and smooth and charming with his consonants. It’s relaxing to do his voice. I also hunch myself in and tap my fingers like he does. I try to physicalize characters as I’m doing them.
CM: With how quickly you change characters? While reciting Shakespeare? That sounds impossible.
RM: Actually, that’s what The Simpsons cast said to me when I met them. They happened to be in Edinburgh, Scotland, while I was doing the fringe festival there and extended an invitation. I though “Oh no, how are they going to react to me doing this show?”
“The Simpsons has been on for 23 years, and part of the reason is because it offers such a well-defined world full of noble characters,” Miller says.
But they loved it! I was being led around the room doing voices for Hank Azaria and Dan Castellaneta, and they were impressed that I could so closely impersonate their characters while speaking in iambic pentameter; it’s not easy to get that stuff out of your mouth. That was just surreal.
CM: You’ve performed this show everywhere from your native Canada to Australia to Bogota, Colombia. How does it translate across cultures?
RM: You’d be surprised! The Simpsons has been on for 23 years, and part of the reason is because it offers such a well-defined world full of noble characters. Homer may be an idiot, but he also fiercely loves his family. Barney is a drunken lech but he has the soul of a poet.
That line from the Springfield Film Festival episode, “Don’t cry for me, I’m already dead”? I think that perfectly explains why The Simpsons characters are such a perfect fit for Shakespearean tragedy. Everyone’s got an inner Homer.
Each time I take the show to Scotland, there’s double the recognition factor, because obviously they know their Macbeth, but they are also just as knowledgeable about The Simpsons. English-speaking countries understand small-town suburbia and the kooky people that inhabit it — especially the rednecks.
CM: Everybody gets Cletus?
RM: Everybody gets Cletus.
CM: You originally trained to be an architect, and about 300 of your drawings appear in the show’s design.
RM: Yes, our graphics team turned my drawings into hand-painted slides, which appear onstage along with all sorts of other multimedia. My blood, sweat and tears are literally all over this show.
The video aspects that play behind me are just one long DVD; there aren’t any cues that can be adjusted to my performance. Because I’m facing the audience the entire time, I don’t actually see any of the graphics behind me. But after 17 years, I’ve got every drip and drop memorized.
CM: Part of what makes this show so unique is getting mentally dizzy while watching you switch voices at lightning speed. What kinds of reactions have you enjoyed from your audience?
RM: Some people have told me that they watch the show with their eyes closed. Seeing the way today’s younger generations consume entertainment, that kind of makes sense: Screens are getting smaller and smaller, and we always have our headphones in. Aural versus visual.
But if it gets kids excited about going to the theater, I don’t care how they experience the show!
CM: You end MacHomer with something that has nothing to do with Shakespeare: a 25-voice rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Fifty voices weren’t enough?
RM:(Laughs) It’s 25 famous voices from the music industry, and it’s just gratuitous entertainment for the audience. It’s my show — if I want to imitate Bono and be a rock star onstage for a while, why not?
MacHomer plays November 15 at the Winspear Opera House.