by Adrienne Onofri
Watching Mark Nadler perform reminds me of Ethel Merman’s famous assessment of Mary Martin: “all right—if you like talent.” He plays the piano. He sings. He’s a storyteller, a comedian, a tap dancer, an actor. He tap dances while playing the piano. He sings in various languages (a Kurt Weill medley in German, for instance, or “White Christmas” in Irving Berlin’s first language, Yiddish). And few can match the élan with which he pounds out a rag or some other made-for-piano gem like “Rhapsody in Blue”—the latter as he simultaneously sings “’S Wonderful.”
A multiple winner of MAC and Bistro awards, Nadler just opened a brand-new show at the nearly brand-new cabaret in Opia restaurant on East 57th Street. More subdued than his past shows, it also differs from them in another respect—which is explained in the title: Write Now! Songs by People Who Aren’t Dead. Performing the work of songwriters he could actually consult with means Nadler for once did not have to do the massive research he normally does when writing a show. Like the 48 composers he had to learn about for his 2003 show at the Firebird, Tchaikowsky (and Other Russians), inspired by the Ira Gershwin/Kurt Weill patter song from Lady in the Dark. As a result of Nadler’s studiousness, Write Now!—just like Tchaikowsky and his acclaimed tributes to George Gershwin (American Rhapsody, costarring K.T. Sullivan, which ran at the Triad from October 2000 to May 2001), Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and operetta masters—is not just a revue but also a sort of tutorial in the subject, albeit a highly entertaining one. (Nadler is hitting the books again to prepare for his next new project, a 75th-birthday salute to Stephen Sondheim, due to play at the Algonquin when it reopens early next year.)
Nadler, a 42-year-old Iowa native, has performed in clubs all around town—and on bigger stages as well. This spring he was featured in the From Brooklyn to Hollywood concert at Town Hall headlined by Tovah Feldshuh. He has appeared in two Broadway productions, the short-lived Sheik of Avenue B, in 1991, and Dame Edna: The Royal Tour, in 1999-2000. He also tours extensively, this year alone performing from San Diego to Yakima, Wash., Ottawa to Salt Lake City, Utica, N.Y., to Naples, Fla., and numerous points in between.
If you’ve ever seen one of Nadler’s frenetically lively performances, you might not be able to imagine him sitting calmly and discussing his career. But he did—and here’s what he told BroadwayWorld.
How do you go about creating your shows?
With Irving Berlin, I read the entire book of lyrics, which is about 2,500 songs. We focused it on his marriage. [That concept] came to me from reading a biography. Once we had the concept, it was very easy to decide what was in and what was out. We knew we wanted to create a sort of book musical, using his music as the music and the book would be the story of his marriage, from start to finish.
With Sondheim, there’s this dilemma because there’s the “aficionadi” and there’s everybody else. And we’ll probably get both in our audience, so we have to satisfy both. The problem is: How do we funnel it? When you do an evening of Sondheim, for example, you want to do “Send in the Clowns”—you’ve got to do “Send in the Clowns.” And yet no New Yorker wants to hear it! With every show we do, there’s always a problem like this. With Irving Berlin, it was how do we work in “White Christmas” and “God Bless America,” which we have to do and nobody in New York wants to hear. So you find ways around it. We made “God Bless America” part of a World War II medley to put it in context, so it became something else. That’s the same challenge with “Send in the Clowns”: have it be in the show, but have it be something else, give it a broader frame of reference...
Mainly, though, there are songs that speak to me and feel like they’re coming out of my face. As I listen to them or read them, I say, “Oh, that’s my voice.” And those songs automatically you choose to do. And then there are ones you say, “Yeah, that’s a great song, but I don’t hear myself singing it.” So you don’t choose it.
Gershwin, Berlin, Rodgers, Sondheim...do you have a favorite?
Each of them was so monumental in their achievements—and earth-shattering, musically. When I’m in the process of that show, I get convinced that that person is the greatest songwriter that ever lived. ’Cause they all are!
What differences have you noticed among audiences in various parts of the country?
An audience is a microcosm of the community, and you can tell everything about that community by their audiences. For instance, in Palm Beach we had full houses, and the audiences were just not responsive, and it was because they were generally: (a) rather old, (b) bloated up with Botox so they literally couldn’t smile. My entire experience in Palm Beach—I was there for a week—was exactly that: not just the audiences, when I went to shops, when I went to restaurants… It was just this sort of reserved behavior. Palm Beach was very much like the country club audiences...what I call “show-me audiences.” They feel that they’ve seen everything, done everything. They’re sitting there waiting for you to impress them, as opposed to an audience that comes just wanting to have a good time. I find that difficult. I don’t like to be judged. If you want to have a good time, I can take you there.
The symphony orchestras also tend to mirror the communities. I was singing with the Oregon Symphony in Portland, where everybody is very laid-back—so much so that the orchestra was a quarter of a beat behind the conductor at all times.
In San Francisco, the audiences practically got the jokes before I said them. They were so on top of it. It is true that when you play a place like Manhattan or San Francisco or Chicago, you can do more sophisticated material. Tchaikowsky (and Other Russians), I can’t do that everywhere. The main reason is these people don’t want an entire evening of music where they only have heard maybe one or two songs in the whole show before. The hallmark of a very sophisticated audience is their ability to accept new things and listen and hear things freshly.
I also find that in places like Brownville, Nebraska, and Whitefish, Montana—the small towns—it’s not that they’re not sophisticated in their senses of humor. They tend to get all the jokes. One thing I really like about those places is they’re not jaded—that attitude that you get in these booming metropolises. They’re so happy just to be entertained.
Most of your reviews have been raves. What criticism have you heard?
When I did my show at the Village Gate, one review said something like “The problem is he’s not as cute as he thinks he is.” And then at the end of the review, it said something like “But you must go see him.”
Generally, people really, really love what I do—or they really, really hate it. Not so much critics, but the audience. The things that people really love about me are exactly what the people that hate me hate me for: my relentless energy, the fact that I’m loud and I’m big, and I’m of the old school. I’m not remotely cool. There’s no Frank Sinatra [in me]…I can’t be cool or hip if my life depended on it; it’s not me.
How did you discover and develop your talents?
My sister’s 10 years older than I am, and she plays the piano (classical), and I would watch her. I started playing when I was about four and a half. I taught myself to play by ear, and sing along. I was really entrenched in this world of musical movies: The King and I and Showboat… My mom did me the huge disservice of getting me every recording that I wanted. She thought this was helping me, and eventually it did, but it didn’t help me fit in in Iowa. She was a complete enabler! I was dreaming of these songs at night, and then I would get up and I would figure out where the notes were and play them and sing them.
I started working in this saloon when I was 10, and they had this player piano that if I didn’t know the songs I’d put the piano rolls in. In trying to get my fingers into the keys, I improved my technique enormously because eventually I was able to do that [play all the songs]. It’s like dancing with the footsteps on the floor. I got very good at stride.
My mother got me lessons when I was about 7 or 8, after she knew that I wasn’t going to be a problem with regard to making me have to practice. She also did me a huge favor in that she got me music theory lessons. That music theory has helped me more than anything else. I do all my own arrangements, and I have a really broad knowledge of music with regard to writing and composition and musical techniques. I got that from these lessons. It started an early habit of analyzing songs instead of just letting them wash over me.
One of the great things at Interlochen [Arts Academy, a prestigious boarding school in Michigan that Mark attended] was you had the option if you didn’t want to take P.E., you could take dance. That was heaven! I was always the kid that was chosen last in gym. So I started taking ballet and modern dance. When I came to New York, I started studying tap.
What is the highlight of your career so far?
The first time I performed at Carnegie Hall was amazing. Playing with the New York Pops orchestra was fun. Standing up in front of them and singing, with them accompanying me, and looking out into Carnegie Hall—that was truly thrilling.
The thing about my career is that any given performance can be a highlight. It depends on the communication with the audience, and sometimes you just get on such a roll with them: It’s like a conversation; it just goes, you’re flying. I’ve had many experiences like that. And those are every bit as thrilling… You fly for weeks on one of those.
What were your Broadway experiences like?
It [Dame Edna] became a job very quickly, because it wasn’t the least bit challenging for me. There were four songs that were all very easy boom-chuck, boom-chuck sort of accompaniment, all in C major, except one in D major. There was one part of the show where I had to take pictures of people dressed up in funny costumes, like the royal family [posing with Dame Edna]. When I realized that that was sort of the highlight of what was going on for me, was that I got to get up from the piano and take photographs with a Polaroid camera…
[Facetiously] The Sheik of Avenue B was the worst Broadway show ever, and I’m very proud to have been in it. It was a brilliant idea for a revue: a revue of songs about the Lower East Side that had failed in vaudeville. So let’s bring ’em back and do two hours of it! It was absurd. Virginia Sandifur, who is this blond-haired, blue-eyed surfer girl, was playing the Fanny Brice part.
How would you rate cabaret today—in terms of talent and business—compared to the past?
Cabaret is like a mini Broadway: It’s a fabulous invalid. People are always saying Broadway isn’t going to survive, there are no more great writers, the great work only happened in the ’50s... People say that about cabaret too. Meanwhile, the Algonquin is thriving, the Carlyle is thriving, Opia just opened—it’s gorgeous, and it’s going to be a very successful room. Helen’s, in Chelsea, is getting a lot of attention, and it is a beautiful place. Don’t Tell Mama, the Duplex, Rose’s Turn, Mama Rose’s—all these places are doing really well.... Anybody who’s worried about cabaret, try to get a ticket to the Cabaret Convention [a week of performances held at Town Hall every fall]. It’s not just in New York. They [the Mabel Mercer Foundation, which organizes the festival] do it in Chicago, London, Palm Springs, the Hamptons, and you can’t get a ticket. I think that’s pretty indicative of how we’re doing. We can always use more audience. Cabaret is not going to get the kind of media attention that other art forms do. The biggest cabaret room seats 100, so there’s no financial reason for television to cover it.
How do you feel about being labeled “a young Victor Borge”?
I’m not really. People say that because I’m playing semi-classical music and falling off the piano bench. Victor Borge and I are in fact diametrically opposed. Victor Borge’s whole performance persona was this refined, sophisticated man who was teasing you all the time, and he didn’t really reveal anything about himself, whereas I’m completely open-hearted and open-throated. I think that we’re not very much alike at all except that we both do physical tricks at the piano. I think I’m much more like Bugs Bunny. I had never seen Victor Borge perform, [but] everything that I do, all that physical stuff, was based on Bugs Bunny cartoons. And a little bit on Chico Marx.
Besides Bugs, are there any other (human) performers you identify with?
I think I’m akin to Danny Kaye. People have compared me to Peter Allen because I’m so high-energy, although I don’t do the kind of music that Peter Allen did.
So how do you feel about being labeled “a human Bugs Bunny”?
There is no higher compliment!