Mark Nadler Connects With Gay History with ’Weimar’ Show
Mark Nadler has been a fixture in New York's cabaret world for over thirty years, and also performs regularly across the nation and abroad. He has amassed an armful of awards, including five MAC Awards, three Bistro Awards, and two Nightlife Awards. He also received a Drama Desk nomination and two Lucille Lortel nominations for his revue, "American Rhapsody," celebrating the music of George Gershwin. Nadler has also frequently collaborated with cabaret star KT Sullivan.
Nadler's latest offering, I'm a Stranger Here Myself: Musik from the Weimar and Beyond was first presented at 54 Below last year and won the Nightlife Award. This month, it gets retooled and moves Off-Broadway for a three-week run. The production is directed by David Sweitzer.
EDGE spoke with the prolific artist about his career and the show.
Growing up in Iowa
EDGE: Tell me a little bit about what it was like growing up in Iowa?
Mark Nadler: It has given me a bottomless pit of fodder for comedy. I was only in Iowa until 1975, until I went to Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan for high school. Honestly, to be fair to Iowa, I don’t know if they were as homophobic and anti-Semitic as I perceived them to be, but my perception was that everything I was wrong and everything I did was unacceptable, except that I was a performer-and they loved that. [Laughs]
I was really queer. I got beat up a lot in school a lot, but that may not have had anything to do with being gay and Jewish. I was entertaining their parents, and maybe they came home and said, ’Why aren’t you like that Mark Nadler? He’s already making a living!’ Maybe they beat me up for that. As I get older, I think there may have been reasons other than the obvious. My parents also didn’t feel as though they belonged. There is a small Jewish community in Waterloo, but they felt ostracized even there. I have a joke in ’Tchaikovsky’: I believe that my parents chose Iowa so they could be in a place where they felt as despised as in the old country! And they gave that to their children!
EDGE: I read that you moved to New York when you were seventeen. Did you ever need to have a day job?
Mark Nadler: Well, sure. My version of waiting tables was playing in piano bars. That’s what I did when I wasn’t getting jobs in concerts or theater. For a very short time, maybe three months, I got a job teaching calisthenics, aerobics, and yoga. Imagine me teaching yoga! At the New York Health and Racquet Club. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, but my classes were pretty popular because I was funny.
EDGE: You didn’t need to be certified for that?
Mark Nadler: Here’s what happened. When I first moved to New York, I enrolled in an acting class at T. Schreiber Studio. This friend of my brother’s used to sell pot. And he worked out a deal with me to sell too. I said, ’Great! This will help me support my acting classes!’ So I go into acting classes. I got up and announced what my monologue would be, and then I said, ’By the way, I have some great pot. If anyone wants to buy some, see me after class.’
The teacher pulled me aside and said I couldn’t do that and that it was illegal. She arranged for me to get an interview at the New York Health & Racquet Club. Because of my dance training, I got in. I didn’t even know what aerobic exercise was! My roommate, who was my dancing teacher, told me all I had to do was jump. I put 45 minutes together of this great music. We started jumping and after about five minutes, I said, ’Only 40 minutes left.’ Nobody stayed for the whole class. So I took other classes to see how it was done. But after a few months, I got my first piano bar job.
EDGE: You are not only a masterful pianist, but also a real entertainer and writer. Have you always pursued all of those passions equally?
Mark Nadler: Yes, sort of. I began performing when I was less than five years old. I was playing and singing and my neighbor hired me for a show at the Kiwanis Club. And I got cast in ’The King and I’ at age six. But that was the time when Carol Burnett and Ed Sullivan were on, and I was inspired and entranced by these people. They were complete entertainers.
You’d see Danny Kaye or Barbra Streisand or anyone who was in a Broadway show at the time, get up and do their bit. When I started getting cast in musicals, it was all the better. It’s the only place where I found my community and was not shunned. It was quite the opposite. I met my piano teacher, who taught at the University of Iowa. I got to take lessons there in theory and composition as a child. Once I got to Interlaken, I didn’t study piano anymore. Most of what I learned on piano was in those piano bars. You have to learn how to read, you have to learn chord charts, you need to be able to accompany. And most of all, you have to know how to grab an audience and keep their attention, because you were mostly paid in tips. That was the best training ground.
EDGE: Do you think most people understand what kind of work it takes to succeed in this business?
Mark Nadler: I think that people have a sense that show business is a very unlikely way to make a living. The thing that I think people don’t know, is that those of us who make a living doing cabaret-and there are very few of us-they don’t know what that entails. They think it means picking a bunch of songs that you like, talking about yourself, and sending out postcards.
For me, a cabaret show means putting together a complete work of art. I go about it the way that I would if I were writing a musical. The only difference is that I’m not writing the songs. But I’m assembling them, and I’m arranging them, and doing my own orchestrations, and I craft the patter so the play part of it has an actual arc. I like to do puzzle-building so that things I say early in the show make sense at the end of the show. I love that Aha! moment.
Richard Rodgers made a point of never doing the same thing twice. I consciously choose to do something I’ve never done before, not only in subject matter, but in format. Every single show, there is something different, something new, a different approach. And that is my challenge. I don’t think people know that cabaret performers put that kind of thought and energy and work into what we do, but we do. I am the star, the writer, the director, the arranger, the orchestrator, the production team, and my own producer! [Laughs]
Every time I do one, I vow I’ll never do another! But that’s how I make my living. My next door neighbor was a casting director and she kept wanting to bring me in, but then she’d look at my concert schedule and realize there was no point.
A history teacher?
EDGE: You’ve performed all over the world. What have been some of your favorite memories? And least favorite?
Mark Nadler: I haven’t cracked Asia yet. I’d love to perform there, but it hasn’t happened yet. One that stands out for sure is the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in Australia. I did it twice, and they have a rule there where they try not to bring back performers. I became very popular there. David Campbell was running the festival and he invited me back. I became so popular that I ended up doing it for five years. It was my only experience of living like a rock star. One night I came on stage and the entire audience of about six hundred people had paper masks of my face on sticks! I came out and the whole audience was my face! It was the most surreal experience of my life. That’s extremely memorable.
Conversely, I did the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. You have to promote yourself like a whore-literally stand on street corners and pass out postcards when you’re not doing a show. I had to perform 28 days out of 30, and then I had to go out and whore myself. I hated it so much. There are 2500 other shows happening at the same time. Even though I was able to get 50-60% full houses at every show, I lost $30,000. It was such a nightmare! They give you the privilege of performing in the Festival, but they pay for nothing.
EDGE: Is it safe to say that if you weren’t a musician or performer you’d be a history teacher?
Mark Nadler: It would have never occurred to me, but I probably could be a good history teacher. You can’t do what I do without being informed by history. What brings the songs to life is the context. I think I could do it and I think I would love it-as long as my students weren’t allowed to carry guns. I volunteer at a homeless shelter, teaching music to little kids. I never thought of myself as wanting to teach, and certainly didn’t think I’d like children. But I do! They are so open and fun and alive.
EDGE: Well, you have that quality yourself. You have that open, child-like quality about performing. There is nothing jaded about you.
Mark Nadler: Well, I’m not jaded. I’m astonished that I get to live the life I live every single day. And I discover new things about the songs every time I do them. That’s because I’m doing great songs. The depth of these songs is so bottomless. It’s like reading a great book. You can read it over and over again.
A historical connection
EDGE: So in this day and age of lowbrow taste, some might see a flyer for your show and say, ’Musik from the Weimar and Beyond? Why would I want to see that? How can I relate?’ What would you tell them?
Mark Nadler: I’d say that’s their loss. There will come a period in your life when you might be open-minded enough to listen to music from another era or to look at movies from another era. My niece won’t watch a black and white movie. It’s her loss. If you give these things a chance, you might find that you love it, and you might find that it speaks to you in ways that are stylish and witty.
EDGE: When I saw the show, I couldn’t believe hearing ’The Lavender Song.’ I turned to my colleague and asked if you had put a new song in the show.
Mark Nadler: Isn’t that amazing? 1920. It was originally sung by a little dyke, an underground star in the Weimar cabarets. She wore men’s clothing. The arrangement I’m doing is not the way it was originally done, which was a march. I’ve replaced that march with that same rhythm that Kander and Ebb stole from the Weimar era. That rhythm brings up a visceral image for the audience without having to refer to it. I thought it was a stronger undercurrent for these lyrics.
EDGE: Of course, this show is more than just a celebration of an era. You take us on a journey through some of the people of that time. What is the message you hope we take from this show?
Mark Nadler: The thing is, every single person-and this speaks to that whole thing about history-that witnesses this show is so much closer to the events of the Holocaust than they realize. Hopefully, seeing this show brings that home a little bit. The ways in which we are connected to history. . . .
I used to think that everything that was before I was born in 1961 was ancient. But the details of World War II were still so fresh to everybody by the time I was born and throughout my childhood. And that affects me and it affects my adulthood. For young gay people, this show is a treasure trove. For them to find out that every single gay man in that country and many who were just suspected of being gay, were taken away and put into camps. Paragraph 175 of the German penal code, which was instituted in 1871, stated that unnatural sex between two men would result in imprisonment and confiscation of property. When Hitler came to power, he added to that "anybody who is suspected."
Hitler’s version of Section 175 was not repealed until 1968 and the entire Section wasn’t repealed until 1994! This will make a young gay person see why this legacy is important and why it’s important that we’ve come as far as we have. I remember feeling so fucking alone. And so embarrassed. [Laughs]
You know, the Gay Pride Parade only makes you feel more embarrassed, especially when you’re trying to tell your parents that you are worthy of their respect. There is a century-long history of movement behind you. It has to make it easier to come out and to be proud.
His quieter moments
EDGE: Are you glad to be living in this era or does a part of you wish you lived in some other time and place?
Mark Nadler: No, are you kidding? I could never live in a time without air conditioning. Please!
EDGE: We see this tornado of talent and unstoppable life force on the stage, but what is Mark Nadler like in his quieter moments? What simple pleasures do you enjoy?
Mark Nadler: The funny thing is, if I were to tell you what I think I’m like, people might not see me that way. [Laughs] I don’t see myself as hyper-energetic, but others see me that way!
Passionate, yes. You might have to ask my partner, Dominic, what I’m like offstage. He’s the one who has to put up with it. I live a relatively simple, peaceful life when I’m not on the road. I read a lot, I look at porn.
EDGE: [Laughs] I thought that was the advantage of being in a relationship: no more looking at porn.
Mark Nadler: [Laughs] I’ve been in this relationship for twelve years, I look at porn more than ever! Anyway, I try to make a point of listening to new songs. I go to a lot of theater. I try to see everything. I generally listen to classical music. Dominic is a classical pianist and practices five or six hours a day, so I listen while I’m up in my office. I’m endlessly fascinated by the Renaissance. There was a zeitgeist that happened and shifted the whole world. The same thing happened in the ’20s. And the ’60s. And I hope it’s happening again.
Mark Nadler’s I’m a Stranger Here Myself: Musik from the Weimar and Beyond appears at The York Theatre Company’s Theatre at St. Peter’s, 619 Lexington Avenue, from April 29-May 18. EDGE readers may get discounted tickets April 29-May 1 by using Nadlermail 47. Visit yorktheatre.org for more information.
Watch Mark Nadler perform: