Interview: Mark Nadler

MarkNadlerHS-Best72From May 2008:

When asked to describe cabaret personality Mark Nadler, I always return to an image of him performing that’s burned in my memory. At one point during “American Rhapsody” a long-running Gershwin tribute he did with KT Sullivan (herself described by The New Yorker “as vocally, comically and theatrically assured as contemporary cabaret performers get”), Nadler, in white tie and tails, 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. The man sweats talent from every pore.

I’m guessing he’ll be doing similar pyrotechnical performing for “A Swell Party: RSVP Cole Porter” which reunites him with Sullivan at Town Hall on June 9.  This special musical evening event, commemorating Cole Porter’s birthday, also features Loren Schoenberg. To find out a little more about this tribute to one of the greatest gay songwriters of the last century, I got in touch with Nadler in Chicago, where he’s performing a run of his new solo act “Russian on the Side.”

So, just how gay is “A Swell Party”?

Cole Porter’s songs are all written in code—that’s what he had to do at that time. I find it very sexy to have to be covert. There is one moment toward the end of the show that’s overtly gay. Also, there are lots of lyrics in the songs that are pretty blatant: the lesbian references are more blatant than the ones about gay men—for example, in “Kate the Great” he says: “She made the maid who made the room.” Fun stuff. In this show we do not tell the story of Cole Porter’s life except through his songs—wherein he tells plenty. We have almost no patter at all in this show—it’s about his songs and is almost completely sung through. 

I know you like to “multi-track” your cabaret shows, structuring several layers of meaning in interlocking ways.  What’s Mark Nadler’s subtext for “A Swell Party”—anything we should look out for?

Well, you’re absolutely right about that. What “Swell Party” is about for me is what Porter’s songs and life are about: ambivalence. For every aspect of his life, including his homosexuality, there was an equally strong opposing force. That’s why his songs are so very complicated and that’s the excitement of them. He’s probably the most complex composer, musically speaking, of all of the writers of the Great American Songbook. I think the song that most exemplifies Porter is “Begin the Beguine,” which is, structurally, more like an art song than a popular song—it’s not AABA, which is the standard song structure.  It’s ABCDE—it keeps evolving and changing and twisting and turning and, importantly, it’s about a person who is of completely two minds—“Don’t let them begin the beguine, make them play!” That’s his whole life—that’s what I mean when I say that his songs are written in code. He really loved his wife Linda and she was an incredibly important part of his life—just because they probably didn’t have sex doesn’t mean that she wasn’t his partner—she was.  Yes, he had to seek sexual satisfaction outside the marriage—and he even fell in love with some of those guys, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t love Linda—he did—very much—and he needed her, too. I know plenty of gay men who have been in long-term relationships who are in the exact same situation. Relationships are complicated things—they evolve and never in ways that fit the fairy tales—that’s what Porter’s songs speak to so, so eloquently.

You and KT have done a lot of shows about the various songwriters in the Great American Songbook, such as “American Rhapsody”. Is there an important composer or team you two haven’t done that you’d like to do?

There are many. We both love Frank Loesser, for example and also Yip Harburgh and I’m a huge fan of Burton Lane’s music. It’s an endless list.

Is there a composer or team you’d absolutely refuse to do an act about—“It ain’t gonna happen”?

The Rolling Stones.

So what’s the story about “Russian on the Side”,  is it a relative of your earlier solo cabaret show “Tchaikowsky (and Other Russians)”?

Thanks!!! It’s based on “Tchaikowsky (and Other Russians).” It’s very different, though, in that Mark Waldrop, my director (of “When Pigs Fly” and Bette Midler’s Millennium tour), has helped me to re-shape the show to be a theater piece, as opposed to a concert. 

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