Interview: Justin Sayre

Justin Sayre

The Meeting* hosted by Justin Sayre – the monthly gathering of the International Order of Sodomites, a fictional “centuries-old organization which sets the mythic Gay Agenda” – will come to an end at the conclusion of its upcoming season. After seven years of audacious humor, trailblazing political discourse and button-pushing cultural exploration, the acclaimed comedy/variety show will be presented for the eighth and final season from September 2016 through May 2017 at Joe’s Pub at The Public Theater. The Fall 2016 season shows are Sunday nights at 9:30pm and will feature tributes to gay icons Bette Midler (October 23), and Angela Lansbury (November 20), with the 8th Annual Holiday Spectacular! being held December 18. There will also be a November 5 show at Oasis in San Francisco.

I talked recently with Sayre about The Meeting*, his new comedy CD The Gay Agenda, and his popular podcast “Sparkle & Circulate”.

What was the origin of The Meeting*?

I had gone to a Radical Faerie event and I had never been to one before I was struck by the community, the discussions that people were having. I left and the whole idea for The Meeting* spurted out in one moment. [Laughs.] “Oh! What if you did a comedy / variety show, that was political and topical, that celebrated different gay icons? Invite people from the community to intepret their work, rather than doing impersonations. Do it month to month.” Really, came up with the title and the whole thing. I called some friends in New York and asked, “Do you think that will work? Would you ever come to something like that?” The response was positive, so I though, okay I’ll try it! See what happens, nothing really lost if it fails – it’s only one night [Laughs.] I thought that for the first year, really, it’s only one night a month if it doesn’t work out how bad is it? It really hit the ground running, we did the first two shows at the Duplex, and they said “this is really smart and fun, and we would love to have you back.” And there was always something new I wanted to do, or new people I wanted to have on it.

Do you think of your monologues as stand-up?

No. I still don’t consider myself a stand up in a strange way. I’m more of a storyteller. To me stand-up is more athletic, they’re more like rock-jumpers going from idea to idea to idea. As a theatre actor, it was more about “this is part of this particular section of the show, and here we need to introduce this idea to help frame the next part.” Like my “hanky code” story was framing emotional baggage. Or we need to introduce the political side of x, y and z for what’s coming up next, so we need to spin it this way.

Who influenced you as a performer?

Especially as a gay performer, as somebody coming out of the cabaret world Justin Vivian Bond was an enormous influence on me, I was obsessed with Justin and Kenny Mellman as Kiki & Herb, when they were playing I would buy tickets for every performance. Just the way they would work this really intelligent commentary into this wild world. Also people like Sandra Bernhart, certainly. And strangely, Stritch. I know that sounds so strange, but I’ve taken a huge thing from her performing style. You know just stand there and do it, deliver. Not anything else really, but just that – she’s always represented that to me, and for better or worse the honesty that comes out of that.

Tell me a little about The Gay Agenda.

We’d always recorded the shows, and about two or three years ago we thought, well, we have all this material, it’d be great to put it together and have a “Greatest Hits” of The Meeting*. Dan Fortune, my producer spearhead the idea, we picked out tracks, listened to dubs and all that stuff. It really represents what The Meeting* has been about very, very well.

In listening to The Gay Agenda, do I detect the influence of Buddy Cole [Scott Thompson’s insanely flamboyant character from Kids in the Hall]?

[Laughs.] Scott actually came to one of the shows and I said to him, “Sometimes I feel like I’m just doing Buddy Cole!” [Laughs.] I grew up with Kids in the Hall, and Buddy Cole is one of the first out people I remember seeing, and talking so frankly about it. I remember being so titillated and excited, thinking “look at him, he’s so gay!” [Laughs.] I take that as a huge compliment, really I do, because I think everything Scott and those guys did was so fantastic and ahead of their time. Thank you for even thinking of me in the same light!

How did the “Sparkle & Circulate” podcast come about?

It’s another way to get more material out there and to keep fans interested. Once our YouTube channel started to take off, we wanted to supply people with a really easy, accessible way to “tune in.” When we started there was just too much on my plate to consider something as complex as creating a whole other show. We have all these great guests at The Meeting*, because of the format of the show I don’t interact with them much. The podcast came out of my desire to actually talk to people I admired, find out where they were at with their work, what queerness or gayness has to do with their work. I found very quickly that I really liked it. And it’s really taken off, it’s a remarkable thing that I never saw coming but really delight in. And that will continue long after The Meeting* is over.

Do you have anything coming up?

Two plays coming up by the end of this year, I’m working on a pilot right now, books coming out. The work has grown exponetially through and because of The Meeting*. I got hired to write for Two Broke Girls because Michael Patrick King saw a clip and thought I was really funny. I got my book deal in a very similar way.

One last thing, as someone who has said that, in the boudoir, calling you “Madame” works just as well as calling you “Daddy,” what’s your take on masculinity?

I don’t deal with it well! [Laughs.] When somebody’s really butch I’m very “What are you doing in my house? Get outta here!” It’s almost what the premise of the show is, in a weird way. Even in the beginning The Meeting* was going to operate from the fact that being gay was never outside the norm but was the norm, even the superior norm. So there are no apologies, no teaching anybody, we’re all in on the joke. It became a celebration of what that means. I think so many people have a struggle with masculinity, because they think its about strength or some kind of bravura, but I so often find that masculinity is about insecurity. It’s about demanding space because you’re worried that somebody else is going to take it. And when you give that up and say “You know, I take up space simply because I’m this person, nobody can take it.” I can invite people into it and make sure that other voices are heard. Everything doesn’t have to be a pissing contest. I think we get a lot more done thinking like that, and are just happier. I take on masculinity because I feel like it’s something that people are forcing down on themselves, or using to force someone out of their space. I’ve seen masculinity being used as a preventative measure, and I don’t like that. I take it on because I want to free people of it, metaphorically take it off the table and poke fun at it. Within expectations of masculinity there’s that thread of misogyny. It’s always shocking to me that little gay kids grow up and want to be like the kid that tortured them in middle school. That seems silly to me. We need to celebrate who we are rather than try to be somebody else.

For tickets and more information about Justin, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see

Review: Oh, Hello

Oh Hello NIck Kroll John Mulaney Directed By: Alex Timbers

It’s as if The Odd Couple were written by the darkest comedic writers of the 1970s Saturday Night Live (Michael O’Donoghue springs to mind). In one of many semi-improvised sequences, somebody brings up the subject of a night off on Broadway – called a “dark night” – and one of the characters offers “Yeah, a ‘dark night’ for us means when we start making jokes about strangling hookers.”

The character in question is septugenarian George St. Geegland (John Mulaney), a gleefully mean-spirited and perhaps murderous writer, who has been roomates for 40-some years with hapless, shlubby and sometimes childish actor Gil Faizon (Nick Kroll). Oh, Hello is essentially these two oversized, very New York characters granting us an audience for around 90 minutes. Oh sure, there’s a play-within-a-play about the evolution of George and Gil’s freindship, but they break out of it so often that it becomes a part of their wild stream-of-consciousness instead of reigning it in.

Kroll and Mulaney are affectionately spoofing a certain style of New Yorker, and also using these personas to poke fun at everything from theatre to television to film, or really anything that comes into view. And it’s all very meta – about 20 minutes in Gil says “anyway, we’re about to get started…” and you realize that, as much fun as you’ve been having, nothing has really happened yet. The curtain hasn’t even risen, they’ve been standing in front of it the whole time.

Kroll and Mulaney are successful comedians, and Oh, Hello – while nothing revolutionary, or even necessarily coherent – is never anything less than funny. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see

Review: L’Italiana in Algeri


A fun time is had by all. Sure, Rossini’s comedy L’Italiana in Algeri is an exercise in orientalism. But it’s a relatively innocuous one. Little is made of the “Turkishness” of the setting (Algeria was under the control of the Ottoman Turks in 1813 when Rossini wrote the opera). Instead, Turkish potentate Mustafa is simply an ancient comic type, the “braggart soldier,” who happens to be wearing a fez.

As a matter of fact, the tension of the “exotic” setting gives L’Italiana a bite that most frothy bel canto comedy doesn’t have. The plot is, typically, thin: feisty Italian girl Isabella (Marianna Pizzolato, in a charmingly funny Met debut.) turns the tables on the blustery but bumbling Mustafa (the delirously hammy Ildar Abdrazakov), who has captured her after hearing of the delightful nature of Italian women.

The late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production dates from the 1970s, but is is not looking any the worse for wear, mostly thanks to the airy beauty of the sets, which he designed himself. I was thrilled to see Met legend James Levine at the podium, and, as he always does, he found and burnished every bit of orchestral beauty in the score.

The real find in this revival, though, is tenor René Barbera in a spectacular Met debut. I hope I’m not overstating his potential when I say he reminds me of a young Pavarotti. This may be partially because of a slight physical resemblance, but I think it’s more due a similarity in the size and expressiveness of his voice. His role, Isabella’s true love Lindoro, is a relatively small one, but Barbera made a stong impression in his handful of arias, garnering lusty bravos from the audience. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see

Review: KT Sullivan and Mark Nadler


Many years ago, Soprano KT Sullivan and pianist/entertainer extraordinaire Mark Nadler starred in a very smart revue of Gershwin songs called American Rhapsody. The two of them packed a cabaret stage with more talent than many a Broadway musical, and the show ran for nine months. Now, all these years later, they’re doing an entirely new show – their first new one together since 2010 – devoted to the lyrics of Alan Jay Lerner, titled Almost Like Being in Love. It’s every bit as engaging as American Rhapsody.

Nadler is the showier of the two talents: At one point during American Rhapsody he leapt from floor to piano bench, tap-dancing madly, singing and keeping steady eye contact with the audience – all this while playing a complex passage on the piano without even glancing at the keys. He does play, sing and tap dance in the new show, but only two at a time. The result is still pretty stunning.

Stunning, too, is Sullivan’s singing; classically trained, she has also become a master of pop phrasing, bringing the best of both worlds to Lerner’s songs. And of course the songs – written with composers ranging from his regular songwriting partner Frederick Loewe to other geniuses like Kurt Weill and Burton Lane – are stunning as well.

Nadler also does most of the musical arrangements and theatrical conception for the duo’s shows, and he has truly outdone himself here. There’s always some unspoken subtext to the shows that Mark puts together, which gives them a lot of extra oomph.

Here there seems to be something about growing older (especially in the context of show business), which beautifully suits Nadler’s and Sullivan’s status as cabaret legends. This is particularly underlined in a version of “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have”, sung by Mark, which replaces the original pronoun of the beloved – “he” – with “they” looking towards audiences and the entertainment industry.

Almost Like Being in Love is in the same, electrifying league as all of Nadler and Sullivan’s collaborations, which number well in the double digits. This is as giddily entertaining – and breathtakingly smart – as cabaret gets. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see

Review: Sharon Needles


A song about Candy Darling by Lou Reed, and a Rocky Horror song delivered with a dash of Bette Davis and a whole lot of Alice Cooper – these were perhaps the most deliciously telling things about Sharon Needles’s Halloween-themed cabaret act. Needles keeps referring to her shtick as “stupid,” which I chalk up to a knee-jerk – and praise-worthy – punk need to puncture any and all kinds of self-importance. But don’t you believe it: This is one smart poison cookie!

The question I had going into this act was: “how well does this witch sing?” Because, like Bianca Del Rio, I don’t pay much attention to singles and albums released by drag queens. These are people who are meant to be seen live. And the answer? Sharon sings very well indeed, in a glam punk kind of way – the Alice Cooper reference above captures it, with an added dash of Marilyn Manson aggression.

The majority of the songs are from her campy horror albums. On those, the songs are done in a gothy version of the electropop style that is de rigeur for Drag Race graduates (I took a listen after I’d seen the act). Done live with only a piano, their hard rock roots are definitely showing, which makes me very happy. Makes me wonder what they would sound like played balls-to-the-wall Iggy & the Stooges style.

The above-mentioned cover versions are highlights of the evening. To hear the Velvet Undergound’s 1968 classic “Candy Says” sung with great sincerity and emotion by a man in a beautiful wig and dress is quite moving. And Sharon’s hilariously re-lyricized version of “Sweet Transvestite” gives new life to that midnight movie chestnut.

It’s a good thing this act is consistently high quality, cuz it’s a bit of a butt-buster with its nearly hour and a half length. That said, I didn’t really lose patience that whole time. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see

Review: Stuffed


Fat, feminist, funny. In comedian Lisa Lampanelli’s first play Stuffed, it’s that last word that’s key. I’ve worked in feminist theatres, I’ve written for gay publications for a long time, so I can confirm that, just as the title of Susie Orbach’s 1978 landmark book says, Fat Is A Feminist Issue.

I’ve seen and worked on many shows that address how fat-shaming is used to oppress women, and how women negotiate their relationships with food and weight. Of all of them, Stuffed is far and away the funniest treatment of this important issue that I’ve ever seen, and that’s a very good thing.

Right from the beginning, director Jackson Gay’s staging lets us know that this is going to be a very presentational show, with the four women on stage sometimes talking to each other, and sometimes talking to the audience. At its most naturalistic, the play is a casual conversation between Lisa more or less playing herself in her home with guests bulimic Britney (Jessica Luck), confident overweight gal Stacey (Ann Harada), and chronically thin Katey (Zainab Jah).

It’s not surprising that a play by a stand-up comedian should be unafraid of using direct address, and the free flow between different modes of performance is one of the things that keeps the show moving at a brisk clip. Lampanelli occasionally even picks up a mic and goes into full stand-up mode.

The only major lull in the performance came when Lisa told the not always funny story of her relationship with a man considerably larger than herself. This story could have benefited from shifting from “stand up” to “monologue” perhaps even back into “realistic” dialogue. Having it all in mic’ed spotlight only served to point up how long it is.

But that’s a quibble. Some shows I’ve seen on this subject have been painful to sit through, but that is decidedly not the case with Stuffed. In addition to dealing humorously with the subject, Lampanelli writes with a light touch throughout. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see

Review: The Encounter

Simon McBurney in The Encounter by Complicite @ Barbican Theatre. Directed by Simon McBurney. (Opening-17-02-16) ©Tristram Kenton 02/16 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email:

Theatrical maverick Simon McBurney turns in a performance that has been stunningly filtered and processed, in service of telling a story on the theme of getting past all filters and processing. The story he tells follows Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photographer, as he “goes native” in 1969 among the remote Mayoruna people of Brazil.

The Encounter was inspired by Amazon Beaming, a 1991 account of the trip as told to McIntyre’s friend Petru Popescu. McIntyre didn’t speak the Mayorunan language, but somehow learned to communicate with an elder of the tribe through the mysterious “beaming” in the title of Popescu’s book. Every audience member has a hi-fi headset which allows McBurney to speak more intimately to the audience, manipulate his voice electronically, and paint a picture with other recorded voices and state-of-the-art sound design.

McIntyre’s story is an interesting and sometimes gripping one, and McBurney’s writing plumbs significant philosophical depths. It doesn’t quite rise to the level of Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner’s Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe – another sharply intelligent interrogation of enduring life questions with phenomenal sound design. It doesn’t have that masterwork’s light touch or profound generosity (to be fair I do realize it’s vaguely unfair to compare McBurney’s exquisitely crafted work with one of the best theatre pieces I’ve ever seen).

The Encounter reminds me very much of performance art from the 1980s and 1990s, but with much better production values. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see