‘How to Fail as a Popstar’ Revels in its Missteps

Vivek Shraya poses against pink, shimmering curtains wearing a pink coat with pink makeup and licking an ice cream cone

Upon entering Kingston’s Grand Theatre, I felt I was terribly mistaken. 

Throngs of people were lined up in every direction. It wasn’t the crowd I was expecting, mostly older folk. Had I not done my pre-show research on the right show? As I scanned my ticket the box office attendant asked, “Are you Colin James?” 

I nervously replied, “No, I’m Freddy Van Camp.”

As it turns out, Colin James is a musician who was playing a concert on the mainstage the same evening that Vivek Shraya was opening How to Fail as a Pop Star in the Baby Grand. Little did I know, this minor confusion would set the scene for what was to come.

Once in the black box theatre of the Baby Grand, the audience I was surrounded by looked more like what I was expecting to see: people that reminded me of myself (a group I would broadly describe as having a queer scholarly vibe). A promising start.

Before the show begins, Shraya strides onstage in a purple bathrobe to address the audience with a quick clarification about what Failing as a Pop Star means. Shraya’s definition: “I didn’t become God. I didn’t become Madonna.”

After an unfortunate false start (tech issues can rear its ugly head at the worst of times, can’t it?), Shraya dove into the first of many songs that would delight the audience. It is this writer’s opinion that this first song didn’t showcase Shraya’s vocal and storytelling abilities like other songs and vignettes do later in the show. For a performer with such a rich lower register, the Mariah Carey-like runs and high notes don’t serve Shraya’s extraordinary singing ability an audience sees later in the show.  

From reading Shraya’s resume and list of accolades, one would think that she reached exceptional levels of success. A published author, an ambassador for the Tegan and Sara Foundation, former Grand Marshal of Toronto Pride (learn more on Shraya’s website here), and with her work as a Canadian, queer, trans icon of colour, one should rightfully be astounded by what Shraya has accomplished by 41. 

But Shraya isn’t.

The short stories and vignettes about Shraya’s attempts to fulfil her dream of becoming a pop star are preceded by a title: “The Maiden,” “The Manager,” “The Pretty Girls,” “The Sisters,” and more. The autobiographical show is one that all but a chosen few can relate to as it details the many highs and lows of trying to achieve one’s dreams. And as Shraya said in the show’s talkback, she hit all the right notes—there was the love of music as a child singing within her religious organization, auditioning for singing competitions, the call from a celebrity, the first album, the record deal, the chance to open for a big band. But, here she is. In Kingston, Ontario’s Baby Grand, which she made clear was not the venue she dreamed of selling out. 

The show itself has a bright future, but it has more to offer than what’s in its current form. I would love to see it again in a few years when Shraya has more theatrical work (be it more iterations of this show or other theatrical productions) under her belt. Some of the choreography felt nervous and unplanned and some of the retelling that Shraya did wasn’t effective. There were some instances in which stories felt like they were cut short but some felt like they were too long. Although it may be a small pacing issue, in a really engaging show like this, they stick out. However, I found that some of the less polished parts of the work added to the theme of living with failure. 

The message that Shraya is weaving between hilarious anecdotes and late 90’s and 00’s music references, is that while one might not ever achieve their dreams—or even outright fail at trying to—the hope to do so never leaves. The ache to see these dreams we hold on to become reality isn’t satiated by success in other fields of success, and no amount of being blessed and grateful will take away that unfed want. 

Something about Shraya’s charm as a performer takes away from the urge to be upset with her for not being complacent and grateful for her life as a working artist. I juggled feeling confused and conflicted throughout the show but when my brain went, “You’re doing what millions of people just like you can only dream to do,” Shraya reminds the audience that finding success without fulfilling one’s dreams doesn’t scratch the same itch.  One is forced to think about their own failures, and how the sting never really subsides—we just grow tougher skin around the wound. 

Vivek Shraya’s ‘How to Fail as a Popstar’ played at Kingston’s Grand Theatre October 12 through October 15, 2022 and you can find more information here.