Interview: Mark Nadler Curates New Cabaret Space

The man Stephen Holden of the New York Times has dubbed “Mr. Entertainment,” Mark Nadler is curating a new cabaret space, the Beach Café, on Second Avenue and East 70th Street. When asked to describe Mark’s unique cabaret personality, 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, 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.

Many of the shows in the first few months at the Beach Café focus on the music of Cole Porter. To find out a little more about this new cabaret – and its ongoing tribute to one of the greatest gay composers and lyricists of the last century – I got in touch with Nadler, fresh off playing the Queen Mary II while it meandered through the fjords of Norway.

So what is the Beach Café? What kind of ambiance does it have? What’s on the menu?

The Beach Café is an Upper East Side watering hole with up-scale pub food (burgers, meatloaf, chicken parm, oysters, fish and chips, trout almandine, etc.). It’s been there for 49 years; a real neighborhood staple. It would feel like a pub, except that there are big windows everywhere, so it has a very pleasant, homey ambiance. For the cabaret, white tablecloths will replace their usual checkered gingham and lovely little lamps will be on each table. The best part — and our new innovation — is that at every table there will be a button which silently, wirelessly, calls your waiter when you want another drink or whatever. This way, waiters won’t have to make the rounds during the show to ask “can I get you another?” Because the place is small — it only seats 50 plus 8 at the bar — it’s imperative that the servers not distract from the performances and we think this will help a lot.

How did it come to be a cabaret space?

Dave Goodside who owns and runs the place contacted KT Sullivan at the Mabel Mercer Foundation, because he wanted to have music at his place to separate his place from other restaurants in the neighborhood. His idea was to have a piano bar type program, so KT asked me to met with him. (When she hears the word ‘piano’ she thinks of me…). I made it clear at our first meeting that I don’t do piano bars any more, but if he wanted to consider making it a show room, I would be happy to do a show there and when I’m not available (which is often), get other great performers to play the room.

So, you’re curating the cabaret, right? What’s your approach to that like?

Very simple: I only book acts that I would want to see. It’s all filtered through my taste level. I’ve chosen as many Algonquin artists as possible for the first season (August and September), because I want it to be clear that the level is going to be extremely high. The other thing that’s important to me is that it never be unaffordable. What I’ve come up with is a mathematical formula that allows the artists to be paid a decent amount while keeping the cover charge extremely low: $20.00 (as opposed to $60.00 which is what it cost to hear us at the Algonquin — and that was 7 years ago!). The trick is to not do one-offs or once-a-weeks, but to have them do entire weekends. This, of course, also means that I have to book people who are established enough to be able to fill the house three nights in a row.

What’s with all this Cole Porter on the schedule (not that I’m complaining, mind you)?

I’m a huge Cole Porter fan and, frankly so are most people who live on the Upper East Side. (Really — is there anyone who’s NOT a Porter fan??) Because the shows are so inexpensive, I thought it might be fun for the audience to compare how different performers take on the same subject. His catalog is so vast and excellent, that there are very few songs that are being repeated. I’m calling the series “Cole and Slaw at the Beach” and my original idea was to have every artist do “Cole” for their early show and “Slaw” for their late show (SLAW being a potpourri of whatever they want to sing). Most of the artists didn’t want to do 11:15 shows, so I’m doing all the late shows and I have half of the artists doing COLE and half doing SLAW.

How does your own Cole Porter show After Dark differ from the one you’ve done with KT Sullivan A Swell Party?

It’s entirely different. That show was as much about KT and me as it was about Cole. In this show I explore the difference between his list songs and his love songs and I get much more involved in his personal life, because so much of it jives with my personal experience. (A gay musician born in the Midwest who gets to New York and, eventually Europe to become a bon vivant, while working to be a serious artist at the same time. Sound familiar?) I do a lot of different songs than what KT and I did. As I say, he wrote so many amazing songs, there are dozens of Porter shows possible without repeating…

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 After Dark — anything we should look out for?

The only thing I’ll tell you is that Cole Porter wrote a lot of his songs in the wee hours; that’s when the muse would court him. So, of course, there’s a literal meaning to the title. Also, we (the human race) tend to let our demons come out and play “after dark” and then, of course, there’s Porter’s uncanny ability to rally after unfathomable personal tragedy — so much of his work was written after ‘dark’ periods in his life. I have secret, personal associations with all of this… who doesn’t?

Ideally, would you want to curate multiple shows about other composers? If so, which ones?

I thought about maybe doing that, but it could get a little tired. If I did, however, I certainly would happily take on Gershwin, Rodgers, Dorothy Fields, Jerome Kern — but even as I say this, I’m thinking that sounds awfully “92nd St. Y” and they already have one of those on the Upper East Side. What I WILL do is try to come up with some theme for each season, just because I think that’s fun for the audience and I like to do crossword puzzles, if you know what I mean…

The main thing I want people to get about what I’m doing at the Beach is that I’m trying to create a place where you don’t have to know who’s performing there specifically, but that you can trust that whenever you go there you’ll hear someone who can really, really sing and perform doing exceptional work and you won’t have to break the bank to go. Hopefully, “Let’s go to the Beach” will be one of the things people answer when asked “what do you want to do tonight” — that it will be as easy a decision to make as “Let’s go to a movie.”

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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