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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News: Simply Barbra Holiday Show: The Music, The Mem’ries, The Matzo…

simply-barbra

Steven Brinberg is the premier Barbra Streisand impressionist, who has taken his act, “Simply Barbra”, to international acclaim both on stage and television (performing on several occasions with none other than Streisand buddy Marvin Hamlisch) paying homage to all that is Streisand. Steven does not lip-sync but does a stunningly accurate singing impressionism of Streisand.

Steven will be doing Simply Barbra Holiday Show: The Music, The Mem’ries, The Matzo… at Feinstein’s / 54 Below this Sunday, December 18. It’s an evening of holiday tunes, Streisand classics and glimpses of other divas from Cher to Bea Arthur. All performed live, no lip synching. Look for a special guest star to join Barbra to help ring in the holidays – and sing some famous Christmas songs written by Jewish composers.

Steven Brinberg has been acclaimed for his vocal performance of Barbra Streisand for over a decade around the world. In addition to touring all over America he has also played extensively in England, Ireland, Scotland, Australia, Thailand, Spain, Mexico and Canada…more cities then the real Barbra! Steven was hired by Streisand’s management to perform at her friend Donna Karan’s birthday party.

The show contains songs from both The Christmas Album – “probably more from that one,” Steven notes, and Christmas Memories. “It’s funny,” says Steven, “I change the show constantly especially the talking. At one point, I referred to James Brolin as a famous B movie and TV actor, at another point I took the B out. The challenge in keeping the shows fresh after so many years is helped by Barbra still being such a presence. Keeps it current. And I’m always free to sing songs she has never done, as I know exactly how she might do them down to the last breath. I had been singing ‘Make Someone Happy’ in the show years before she recorded it. And the end result when she did it was pretty close. I was surprised though that she changed her phrasing on the lyric from ‘Love is the ansuh’ to ‘Love is the anserrr’ perhaps to plug the title of the album!”

For tickets, click here.

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

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 jonathanwarman.com.

Interview: “The Fifth Beatle” tells story of Beatles gay manager

FIFTHB PG 077crop

Brian Epstein, the man who brought the Beatles to the world, was gay when it was a felony to be so in the U.K., Jewish in an anti-Semitic time, and from Liverpool when it was just a dingy port town. The Fifth Beatle (Vivek J. Tiwary, writer, Andrew C. Robinson and Kyle Baker, artists) is a critically acclaimed, #1 best selling New York Times graphic novel and forthcoming feature film recounting the untold true story of Epstein, the brilliant visionary who discovered the Beatles in a cellar in Liverpool, nurtured, protected, and guided them to international stardom, and died extremely successful and painfully lonely at the age of 32. I chatted with Tiwary recently about the queerer elements of Brian’s life and The Fifth Beatle

I hear The Fifth Beatle is associated with a particular charitable cause.

The Fifth Beatle is associated with Freedom to Marry (www.freedomtomarry.org). I’ve been researching the Brian Epstein story for 21 years, literally more than half my life, but I’ve been working on the Fifth Beatle for about seven years. My wife and I got married nine years ago, and during our engagement, we decide to align ourselves with Freedom to Marry. We were very excited to have found each other and be getting married – surprisingly so, since we’re both fairly nontraditional people. We never thought that marriage would mean that much to us, but we were surprised to find out it meant a great deal to us.

But it was also difficult, because we have a lot of gay and lesbian friends who were being told they couldn’t be married. Many of them were people who had been together longer than my wife and I had. So it was important for us to get involved in that fight. In lieu of wedding presents we made a large donation to Freedom to Marry, we highlighted them in our first toast as a couple. We made sure that the organization was an important part of our married lives together. So my history with Freedom to Marry goes back before I even started working on the Fifth Beatle. It’s an organization I have a deep and emotional connection to, and that feels very right for the Fifth Beatle.

There’s a line in the book, during a television interview where Brian’s being asked about the Beatles’ romantic lives, and Brian said “I think Beatles ought never to be married, but they will be one day and someday I might too.” It was viewed as a throwaway joke at the time, but really it was a pretty heavy thing that he said – people who knew him well realized he was saying something quite dangerous for that time. Because forget about getting married, he was worried about staying out of jail, should his sexuality be discovered – that’s the way things were in 1960s England. If there had been marriage equality in the 1960s, it would clearly have made a huge difference in Brian’s life, it might have even saved his life.

Was it well know to people close to Brian that he was gay, and when did it become generally known?

It was really only known to people in his inner circle – the Beatles, other clients, his family, his closest friends (some of whom were gay themselves). Brian didn’t have a lot of friends, Nat Weiss (who became the Beatles U.S. legal representative) was certainly his closest friend and confidant. So it was a very small inner circle. People who worked with him day in and day out at his family’s Liverpool record store NEMS, didn’t know, for example.

It really was that dangerous at the time, I think today it’s hard to imagine what it was like. A junior person at NEMS could have reported him to the police and he would have gone to jail! The matador analogy that runs through the book, represents that dance with danger and even death. By pursuing a career that pushed him so far into the public eye, he was really playing a dangerous game.

He died in 1967, there were major steps toward repealing England’s anti-homosexuality laws in that very same year. But it was only many years later that it became widely know than he was gay, close to decade after his death before it became common knowledge.

How important a source was Nat Weiss for that side of Brian’s life?

Without question he was the number one source, he knew the gay side of Brian’s life best. Nat passed away just a few months ago. He was very aware of the book, and the screenplay for the film, but didn’t live to actually see it on newsstands. He was a huge source to me, as well as a great friend. He was a New Yorker, and so I had the good fortune of meeting Nat some 10-15 years ago, he was at my wedding, we spent a lot of social time together. I really miss him.

Brian’s lover Dizz, is he representative of a real person or is he a composite?

No, he’s definitely a real person, his name was John Gillespie, and his friends called him Dizz as a play on the similar name of jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Yeah he was a real personal, a real hustler, a real blackmailer – everything Dizz does in the novel, he does in real life. I show the blackmail as happening during a television interview, when really it happened at a party. Other than that, though, he’s a very real character, I’m sorry to say.

One of my favorite lines in the book, comes when Brian is having the Beatles try on their collarless Edwardian suits and he says “The Beatles are in trouble if queers have no place in rock and roll”. Is that truly from the mouth of Brian Epstein?

John Lennon remembered Brian saying that, according to my research – though obviously at this point neither of them are around to verify it.

Many of the captions in the graphic novel illustrate scenes with lyric by the Beatles, but many others use lyrics from the American Songbook. And British Songbook for that matter – I was particularly moved by the use of Noël Coward’s “If Love Were All”, which alludes to similar life experiences between Coward (who was also gay) and Brian. For you, what’s behind the use of those Songbook songs?

Well the Coward song serves, among other functions, as a counterpoint to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” providing a very contrasting view on the same subject. Above all, those Songbook songs were songs that Brian loved. Ironically Brian was not a huge fan of contemporary pop music – he liked showtunes and classical music. So those songs were really more in line with his personal taste. The truth is, he viewed the Beatles as great composers, on a par with the music he loved: Cole Porter, Noël Coward, Irving Berlin.

What’s in the future for The Fifth Beatle?

We’re working on a film version, I’ve written the screenplay, we announced at the end of last year that Peyton Reed (Yes Man, Bring It On, Down with Love) and Bruce Cohen is co-producing (Milk, Big Fish, Silver Linings Playbook, Oscar winner for American Beauty). The most exciting thing is that Apple Corp. on behalf of the Beatles have signed off on the project and allowed us to do a deal with Sony TV who control Beatles music. We are literally the first and only film about the band in history to be granted full access to their music catalog, and we are very proud of that.

To purchase, click here.

Interview: J. Stephen Brantley

pirira

Playwright/actor J. Stephen Brantley (pictured above, right) set his gay-themed play Pirira  during the July 20, 2011 riots in the African nation of Malawi. As that country erupts in riots, American aid workers Jack and Ericka take shelter in the storage room of a struggling NGO. Half a world away, Malawian student Gilbert and his gay co-worker Chad begin another day in the back room of a Manhattan florist. By the day’s end, they discover their lives are inextricably linked across continents, language, and time. I asked Brantley to provide some insight into this intriguing work.

What is Pirira about?

Pirira tracks two seemingly unrelated stories, separated by 7000 miles, simultaneously. It’s about the unexpected ways in which our lives are connected with, and our identities are tied to, people who may be very different from us. One of these stories is about American NGO workers in Malawi during the 2011 demonstrations. The other features a Malawian student in the states working in a wholesale florist’s with a gay New Yorker. Audiences see both unfold at once, in the same space, in real time.

You also act in Pirira. What’s that been like for you?
Really challenging. I’ve acted in my own work many times, and I’m writing a one-man thing for myself at the moment. But Pirira is different. Maybe because of the complex musical architecture of the piece, maybe because it all feels so personal…Jack is not an easy role to act anyway, but I find it nearly impossible to do so when I’m in my playwright head at all. It’s never been like that for me, but some nights it’s like going to battle with myself.
I know you’ve been thinking about writing plays about Africa for a long time. Is this the final result, or is this a subject you might continue to pursue in other plays?
Pirira is probably not my only Malawi play. I packed a lot into this one, but there is much more I want to say about that place and the people there. My big dream is to write something there, on African soil, and maybe work with some Malawian performers in putting it up.
You have long been concerned about the situation of gays in Africa. How can our readers help or get involved?
It’s tricky. Change comes slowly to Africa, and rarely at the demands of progressive-minded Americans. And yet, I know for sure that LGBT people in Malawi, in Uganda, and in the rest of the continent need and want our support. I’m a huge fan of Frank Mugisha and Sexual Minorities Uganda. Sign up for and share updates from the International Lesbian and Gay Human Rights Commission. And in Malawi, and organization called CEDEP is one of the few NGOs championing LGBT rights. Their office was smashed up a few weeks ago, and they could certainly use our support. Educate yourself. Sign the online petitions. Just cultivating an awareness that LGBT rights is a global issue, and a matter of life and death in much of the world, will get us closer to true equality and human dignity for all.
For tickets, click here.

Interview: Scott Wittman on “Jukebox Jackie”, 54 Below and “Smash”

Scott Wittman is a busy man. In addition to writing lyrics every week for Smash‘s show-within-a-show Bombshell (and serving as an executive producer for the NBC hit), and working as Creative Consultant for the much-anticipated new cabaret space 54 Below, he has conceived and directed Jukebox Jackie, currently playing at LaMaMa ETC. Jukebox Jackie: Snatches of Jackie Curtis is a collage of scenes, poetry, music and dance culled from the works of Jackie Curtis, who performed as both a man and a woman throughout his career in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, stating, “I’m not a boy, not a girl. I’m just me, Jackie.”

The man who said, “I’m just me, Jackie” was, in fact, a fixture during those radical years in New York’s clubs and theatres, including La MaMa, where Curtis was much-loved by La MaMa’s late founder and artistic director Ellen Stewart. Curtis pioneered the glam rock style of the 1970s, performing in drag in lipstick, glitter, bright red hair, trashed dresses and torn stockings. David Bowie was an early fan. Curtis went on to become one of the stars of Andy Warhol’s inner circle. Curtis began writing his own plays with casts starring fellow Warhol “superstars” Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn, also at La MaMa. He wrote and often starred in such plays as Glamour, Glory and Gold (Robert DeNiro’s first stage appearance in 1967), Amerika Cleopatra with a cast featuring Harvey Fierstein and Femme Fatale with Patti Smith, Jayne County and Penny Arcade.

I sat down with Scott in a sunlit La MaMa rehearsal space to catch up on all of his fabulous pursuits.

Did you have a personal connection to Jackie Curtis?

I think that when I first came to New York and I saw Jackie – I didn’t know Jackie – but I saw some plays that Jackie was in, which made me want to be part of that. Jackie really influenced my aesthetic when I first came to New York, and was always in my head. What I’ve hoped to do with this is show Jackie as a writer. Jackie was part and parcel as a cast member in the plays he wrote – but when you take a step away and take a look at the vast amount of paper, of writing that he did, it’s really fascinating.

What’s really fascinating about Jackie is the variety of styles: from absurdist comedies where he would pull character names out of racing forms, to very structured pieces like one called Glamour, Glory and Gold – we do some scenes from that one – with a beginning middle and end and a clearly defined story, to the large number of poems he wrote, which I wasn’t aware of. We do one of those poems intact, called “B-Girls”, a really beautiful, evocative poem all about the denizens of Slugger Ann’s, which was at 12th Street and Second Avenue [Later gay bar Dick’s and currently the 13th Street Ale House]. Jackie’s grandmother was the bartender, and Jackie lived upstairs.

So what’s the format of Jukebox Jackie?

We’re trying to do for Jackie what Mamma Mia did for Abba. [Laughs.] All the people in the show are “fractions” of Jackie, because Jackie was many people, male, female and in between. There are four characters who speak from Jackie’s mind. All of the written material is by Jackie, every word, every journal entry. There’s a book called Superstar in a Housedress by Craig Highberger and that’s really been a touchstone. I gathered from other sources. I started to stumble on these songs that Jackie did in a cabaret act, which Jackie wrote lyrics for and someone else wrote the music, in one case Peter Allen. In our show there’s a song that Jackie only wrote the lyrics to, that I had Lance Horne write the music to. I also wanted to have songs that were in the soundtrack of my life at the time.

Jackie described New York as being like Brigadoon with steam coming out of a manhole cover, and that to me describes the creative period when I first moved here. It was kind of a magical time in New York. The scene we dive into in Jukebox Jackie has a lot of foul language and blow jobs and drugs, but there’s also a certain innocence to it which is so different from now. [To give you a taste of that era, here’s a YouTube video of 1970 SoHo loft party that Curtis attended]

Our cast, Justin Vivian Bond, Bridget Everett, Cole Escola, and Steel Burkhardt – to me, if Jackie were alive now these are the people he would be using in his shows. Justin is a singular interpreter of material, just like Jackie. It’s not a literal imitation, instead we’re really trying to evoke a time musically and creatively. This whole cast is fabulous storytellers. Bridget reminds me of Bridget Polk, Cole Escola is very much like Taylor Mead, Steel is very much like Joe Dellasandro, they all somehow preserve an element of those times.

What kind of shadow does Warhol cast on Jukbox Jackie?

There’s an element of that – The Factory was like MGM and Warhol was like Louis B. Mayer to Jackie and his other “superstars”, and we do pay some tribute to that, Cole embodies that a little bit. I also try to make it clear that it wasn’t a scary place like it has sometimes been portrayed. I’m sure I’ve gone the other direction and romanticized it a bit, you know the way Joan Crawford would say “I love Louis B. Mayer now.” Some of the music is the Velvet Underground, which also came out of the Factory, which adds another current to it.

Tell me about 54 Below, the new cabaret below Studio 54, how did that come about?

The guys who are doing that were producers on Hairspray, which was such a blessed experience. A few years ago Richard Frankel came to me and said we want to open this club, and we want you to be a sort of curator or “fairy godfather.” So I said I’d love to do that; when I came to New York it was the renaissance of cabaret – you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting one. For me, I would spend most of my nights in Reno Sweeney’s on 13th Street, where you see Edie Beale, Peter Allen, Barbara Cook – a really broad, eclectic booking policy. So with 54 Below’s director of programming Phil Bond, we’re trying to make that same thing happen with 54 Below. Justin Bond will be performing there, Jackie Hoffman – where else in three nights could you see Jackie, Justin and Patti LuPone. That to me feels right, it seems fun. It’s not like Feinstein’s it’s not like the Carlyle or Joe’s Pub. I think there’s a place for it. I remember being able to go to many cabarets, there was Freddy’s and the Grand Finale and Brothers and Sisters.

And this little television side project, Smash. What’s that whole experience been like for you?

Marc Shaiman and I love songwriting so that’s been great, being able to write and have a wide audience appreciate it. Writing new material every week, and then there’s six million people listening to your songs, which would never happen on Broadway. My proudest achievement, though Marc and I didn’t have much to do with the cover songs, was getting Anjelica Houston to sing “The September Song” in episode 14, that was my absolute favorite moment.

You even had a brief cameo in that scene, didn’t you, and Marc was the piano player…

I wanted to be there for her, it was a big moment, for her to sing, she had never sung in her life – and she did so beautifully, there’s nothing she can’t do.

So, with doing that for a year, and Catch Me if You Can in all of its incarnations around the world, there’s a lot of people telling me to “do this, do that, cut this, move that, stop here, no that part doesn’t work” and working on Jukebox Jackie has been a real tonic for me. I’ve wanted to come home and Ellen Stewart had asked me a few years ago, and it’s nice to be in an atmosphere with just a few people – some I’ve known a short time, some I’ve known a long time – that’s more relaxed. I also think Jackie needs to be recognized as the wonderful writer he was – I really hope by the end of the evening you’ll have a really good sense of the person and the work, the music and the time. It’s been fun – Jackie collaged life and I’ve re-collaged Jackie.

For tickets, click here.

Archive Interview: Lily Tomlin In Her Own Words

In 2007 I did an interview with Lily Tomlin that I cut down to fit into print, although true to form with one of my favorite people, most of what she said was gold. Here are uncut quotes from that interview.

“Erenstine has a reality webcam chat show now. So she calls President Bush or whoever’s in the news It’s much more informal, much more freewheeling that if I was doing a more theatrical piece like Search for Signs or something. More interaction with the audience. I’ll try to talk about topical things about Washington DC, do what I’ve always done.”

“Here’s a story: I was playing at the Gaslight in the Village [The Gaslight was originally a “basket house”, where performers were paid the proceeds of a passed around basket. Opened in 1958 by John Mitchell the  Gaslight had showcased beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso but became a folk club when Sam Hood took it over. Dylan premiered Masters of War and many other songs here], people would say, ‘Well people don’t understand if you do all these characters, they don’t know who you are’. And I’d say ‘That’s ridiculous, I’m standing right there and talking as myself between the characters’. So I was always trying to develop a persona, like Joanie Rivers, she had a persona which she worked out of the last screw on the freeway, like her mother had a sign up that said ‘Last Single Girl before Exit to Freeway’. And other people, like Totie Fields, you know, would work out of a persona that was close to them but exaggerated. I was at the Gaslight one night; I tried to work out a persona of someone who does all these characters and tries to relate to the audience. So I’d sit down at the table and look deep into their eyes – I’m on the phone, honey – I’d be frank with them, I’d say, ‘I’m trying to be myself on stage, and I’m going to try to relate to the audience as a human being’ (laughs.) And I’d say ‘This is the part that’s kept me in the small money all these years, and when I do the character part you’ll see that’s the good part’. People were cheering by the end and I’d say ‘Now that I’ve used you to this extent, I’ll be moving on to bigger and better things’. There weren’t that many places to do comedy in those days because music, folk and then rock music was so prominent.”

“Something came out about Karl Rove’s playbook being disinformed misinformed you come right around to being uninformed again. The more you peel back the layers, the more the misinformation and manipulation is so strong, why do we give these people credit for being masterful, being masters of misinformation, Why do people give Karl Rove credit for being a strategist, a genius just because he’s put out these destructive, heinous, manipulative, rotten. What is my point of view on the state of things? What could it be? Not much. You try to make it funny, laughable – it’s kind of payback. What so frightening is that so many people, the average person is so busy with their lives that they only catch a fragment of something on the news, that’s why there’s so much confused opinion. No wonder so many people still believe Saddam was behind 9/11, with most of the media co-opted, it amazing how thorough this misinformation is.”

“I first came to New York in ’62 because I’d gotten into a show in college. For the first time I consciously did a character it was pegged to the fact that Grosse Pointe was covertly segregated, which had just been exposed, the little bit I did was very relevant, I thought oh God I maybe I can make a living doing this. I was not a really great student I  first lived on Second Avenue over the old B & H Dairy. These are deep imprints on me, I don’t know exactly how they manifest themselves. I lived in an old railroad flat for a few weeks, I lived with a friend, Jenny, I knew very slightly in college and she was living a guy, Jerry, who thought he was carrying the legacy of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline who died in ’62. They didn’t speak, they hated each other. At eye level they would curse each other — ‘I hate you, you’re mother’s dirt’. So I come in like Holly Golightly — that was the year Breakfast at Tiffany’s came out, and I was profoundly influenced by that. I could show you photographs where I had major Audrey Hepburn damage. I get to New York I borrow nine dollars from five people, I go to the thrift shop where by some lightining of god there was some cream-colored trench coat like she had in the movie, and I got my hair up like hers. And I immediately am going to clean up the apartment and get rid of the roaches, and I painted the whole apartment – ack you don’t want to get me started on this story, this is a movie in itself  – Jerry slept in the living room and painted all night, with a ¾ bed on the airshaft, she wouldn’t let me sleep with her and I couldn’t fraternize by sleeping on his rollaway during the night so I had to sleep on a  there was no mirror in the house so I had to use a mirror up the street, the roaches, just profound, unbelievable.”

“I got a job right away at a talent agency Marvin Josephson Associates – Marvin later became a founder of ICM. I came to be a waitress at the Figaro, and I was going to study mime, that was my first ambition in New York. This was a job in midtown so I had to start wearing pumps and heels, I moved to NY with a burlap skirt and a striped jersey and a great big old pair of sandals (laughs), and I get a job a this talent agency because I knew how to be a bookkeeper, I was very good with numbers. And here I am going to work with two girls from Queens and the Bronx, who had big teased hairdos and long fingernails, and I thought of myself as a bohemian, a beatnik, sort of. Even in the East Village in those days women weren’t artists. Nobody believed even in musicians – you had to be composer, you were nothing if you only an interpretive artist like an actor or musician, you had to be a playwright or composer to be taken seriously. To be an actress was just so narcissistic (laughs).”

“So I went to the American Mime Theater, and lasted about three weeks because it was so movement-driven, and of course I loved words, so I wasn’t going to be happy being a mime. Everybody there was so physically gifted anyway; they’d fall from one end of this huge dance studio to the other wall, and do it differently each time. I didn’t think I wanted to put in that kind of work to just fall from one end of the room to the other, because I could do a fairly decent job of that anyway, and when I got there I’d rather say something, or better yet, say something on the way. In August it would be so hot in New York. This was in the days when construction workers would yell and grab there crotches for anything in high heels that walked by, and really say anything to you. I had to take the bank deposits to the bank, between 6th and 7th. There’s a reason people rail against high heels I can tell you.”

“I was so focused on auditions then, I’m trying to remember when I became aware of that whole downtown scene, like Candy Darling and everybody but that was later, for me that was the early 70s. I came to know some of the Cockettes, but I was pretty focused on my own work by that point, which in the case of ‘Laugh-In’ took me to California. I eventually bought an apartment up on the fifth floor. A couple of gay guys had lived there and it was fantastically finished. I was so lucky to get this apartment, the windowsills in those old tenements are covered with years of different paints, but these were all sanded down beautifully, it was like living at the Pierre or something.”

“I worked the Improv which back then was on the West Side, and I would hit the thrift shop, I used to buy so many gowns and things at the thrift shop. The first time I appeared at the Improv, must have been 66. I had a white fox fur and a bias cut halter dress that I’d gotten at the Salvation Army or something for about 50¢. I told them I have to go on between 9 and 9:30. I don’t know how I got Budd Freidman to do because in those days a woman doing comedy was so rare you had to have someone to vouch for you. In those days the Improv had a plate glass window that faced right on the street, so you could see the people coming in the club. I took the subway uptown to the theater district where I know there would be limos waiting for people. I gave the guy 5 bucks, and he drove me over to the Improv, I got out went right into the club did five or ten minutes, swept out went back in the limo, and he dropped me off. That made a big splash for me at the Improv. Plus my set went really well.”

“So after that I could go to the Improv. If I was working out a monologue and I would go to the Laundromat at Second Avenue, and then I’d go to the bar for a couple of drinks (laughs). So if I’d see somebody at the Laundromat that I knew, or even a person on the street. I would drag them back up to my fifth floor apartment, and I do it for them. It was probably a monologue they’d seen six or seven times, but if I’d change one syllable of course it was just revelatory. I can’t imagine how many times I did that with my pals on the Lower East Side.”

“New York of the Sixties is when Ernestine came about. Having some political inclinations, I hated the phone company because they were involved with governmental eavesdropping. So it was appropriate to satire the phone company on that level, too. And on the everyday level. I later learned when I became famous from ‘Laugh-In’, then I was adopted by all the union workers at the phone company — they told me that during that era, they completely ignore the private subscriber, because the subscriber had no alternative. They were putting all of their money into databasing and research and development. You didn’t have to go very far because the phone company did have all kinds of information on you, Ernestine would suggest they taped conversations and that they had access to all of your financial personal business and she would harass everybody.”